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Cultural Conflict and Leadership


Cultural Conflict and Leadership

In the case presented on pages 188–89, the Dutch were unable to accept the hapless Belgian's leadership. This led to a conflict situation. It was 'resolved' by the Belgian being sent back to Belgium.

There has been little effort on the part of transnational corporations to develop intercultural managers whose leadership can be accepted in different cultures. Finney and von Glinow surveyed a small but representative sample of transnational corporations in the United States to ascertain what these corporations are doing in this regard. They were unable to find anything substantive. The corporations placed a lot of importance on 'international experience', on the job experience, and knowledge of a foreign language. They did not address whether the managers were oriented to being geocentric rather than ethnocentric. An ethnocentric manager may have 'international experience' and still not know how to lead a workforce from a different culture.

Sadler and Hofstede (1976) undertook a cross-cultural study of IBM managers to ascertain the extent to which the Tannenbaum and Schmidt leadership schema had acceptance. This study is now dated, and there is a need for definitive work by both academicians and practitioners in this area. We briefly present their main findings:

As well as the fact that the study is dated, one can question whether results obtained from IBM managers are universally applicable. However, the pertinent question still is, how can an intercultural manager lead a culturally diverse group of people without ensuing conflict?

Before we examine this question we will look briefly at a more recent study about cultural differences and leadership by Wills (1996). Wills interviewed in a structured fashion 25 managers from 14 European countries. He found differences in what they expected from managers holding leadership positions. These differences were cultural. However, what these managers from varying cultures agreed on regarding effective leadership is what is of interest here.

The Wills model

Wills arranged the key success factors that culturally diverse managers identified as vital for leadership into three clusters:

  • individual-level issues;

  • bridging issues;

  • social issues.

Individual-level issues are qualities a leader of culturally diverse managers should possess, such as empathy. Wills saw empathy as a leader's instinctive ability to understand what a manager from another culture would want done. The other two individual-level issues are empowerment and emotional intelligence. Wills accepted the view that empowerment is 'the act of strengthening an individual's beliefs in his or her sense of effectiveness'. Managers from different cultures may need to be empowered in different ways. Meanwhile, emotionally intelligent leaders allow their managers to express their emotions instead of suppressing them. Culturally sensitive leaders allow their subordinates to emote in ways consonant with their national or ethnic culture.

Bridging issues connect individual-level issues with social issues. An example is communication. Effective intercultural leaders issue instructions, advice and suggestions in a manner that is clearly understood by their subordinates. They may need to give careful consideration to culture when communicating. In other words, a Swiss leader communicating to a Spanish subordinate needs to make allowances for the fact that a Spaniard might interpret messages differently from a Swiss. The other bridging issues are visioning and charisma. Intercultural leaders with a capacity for visioning are able to get acceptance for their visions by subordinates at all levels and from all cultures. Leaders with charisma are able to get their followers and subordinates to accept their beliefs and align themselves with those beliefs. Needless to say, an intercultural leader will acquire the acceptance of subordinates from various cultural backgrounds.

Social issues are those that reflect the characteristics of the society in which the branch of a transnational corporation functions. The extent of globalization prevalent in a society is an example given by Wills of a social issue. Increased globalization calls for greater skill on the part of a leader to successfully interface with managers from different national and ethnic cultures. The cluster of social issues also includes competitiveness and change. Competitiveness demands that leaders get all their subordinates, irrespective of culture, to be high performers. Additionally, leaders should be able to take change in their stride and inspire their subordinates to do so.

Wills developed his model to ascertain whether a European style of leadership existed. His description of a leader suitable for contemporary Europe could be extended for an intercultural manager required to lead an intercultural team and avoid conflict situations. That is our opinion and that of most of the international managers interviewed for this book.

If the Wills model is applied to the Belgian/Dutch team example, the following can be inferred:

Wills' model recognizes that the leader of an intercultural group of managers must possess certain capabilities. The Belgian leader lacked these capabilities, and was not aware that they were required of him. This caused the conflict between him and the Dutch members of his team. Whatever other attributes the Belgian might have had, they could not offset his deficiencies as an intercultural leader. Conflict in an intercultural setting can be created by a lack of intercultural competencies on the part of the leader.


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