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Jean-François Cousin, author of Game Changers at the Circus, analyses how leaders across Asian and Western cultures can adapt their leadership styles, in this conversation with Jerene Ang.
How is leadership different in different cultures (Asian versus Western)?
The major differences lie in three areas:
- What establishes authority varies
Relationships, seniority, knowledge or performance, for instance. That largely shapes the attitudes people adopt towards their leaders, from pleasing them, to proving themselves. In Asia, hierarchy is more deferred to than in Western cultures.
- Leadership focus differs too
Group’s well-being or individual achievements for example, which triggers different behaviours in the workplace: from “do what’s right for our group” to “win over others”. Asians tend to prefer consensus and team harmony; Westerners can be more individualistic.
- Leaders’ beliefs systems vary
As an illustration, they can believe “I must know better and decide” or “I must elicit the best contribution from people who know better and help them play together at their best”. That creates different relationship dynamics between leaders and followers. Traditionally, Asian leaders have nurtured “parent-child” relationships with their team members, whereas Western leaders relate “adult-to-adult”.
What does this difference in leadership styles mean for HR leaders?
The competitive environment and the organisation’s resources, strengths and weaknesses should determine which leadership style is best suited to boost a company’s growth and profitability. Leaders can succeed by drawing from Asian and Western approaches.
HR leaders have a critically important role to play as change agents and leaders’ trusted advisors. Their position entitles them to offer feedback and coach leaders about how they can best adjust their leadership.
They can open leaders’ eyes to their blind spots and to the impact of their own beliefs and behaviours upon their employees’ beliefs and behaviours.
HR leaders can also coach leaders about how they can most effectively spread winning mindsets and attitudes, and enhance agility across the organisation.
HR leaders can open leaders’ eyes to their blind spots and to the impact of their own behaviours upon their employees’ behaviours.
We have observed Asian leaders typically only take up local or regional roles in their organisations and are very seldom seen in a global role. In your opinion, why is that so?
Twenty years ago in multinational companies, Asian leaders in country head or regional management roles were rare. Not anymore.
Most MNCs are busy appointing locals as country heads around the world and enhancing the diversity of their management teams.
Whilst the number of Asian leaders in global roles is still relatively small, I see it growing fast. Asian-Americans’ outstanding success as professionals in the US is obvious, and I have no doubt that Asian leaders will soon take their fair share of global roles.
They can accelerate the momentum by enhancing their assertiveness in communication (letting go of a reluctance to “shine over others” when it is necessary), making their contributions more visible and developing a worldwide network.
Given that Singapore, and the rest of Asia, has such a diverse workforce, how can leaders adapt their leadership style to suit the different regions?
First and foremost, leaders need to show up as who they are, with humility and respect for others, and be transparent about their intentions, so people can trust them.
Great leaders are great learners and thrive on feedback. I invite them to question their employees from different ethnicities, about what matters most in their respective cultures; and what defines good communication and leadership for them.
More generally, a good practice for leaders is to regularly ask employees questions such as “what are 3 things you see me doing as a leader that help, and 3 things that I could do differently?”
A good practice for leaders is to regularly ask employees: “what are 3 things you see me doing as a leader that help, and 3 things that I could do differently?”
In addition, leaders can leverage universal motivation drivers such as relationships – by fostering a sense of belonging; self-esteem – by giving timely, specific praise; and personal development – by providing opportunities for employees to grow.
It is critical that leaders display a strong bias for diversity and ensure that employees recognise the fairness of their decisions.
A lot of the challenges you mentioned for collaboration and agility in Asia are quite macro/societal in nature, rather than individual. How can Asian leaders be more agile in such an environment?
I recommend that Asian (and all) leaders continuously stretch themselves outside of their comfort zone -experiment and embrace mistakes as sources of growth, be comfortable with the idea that they don’t have the answers for every issue they face, and learn from those who disagree with them or think differently. Their intellectual agility will soar and inspire others.
To spread agility across their organisation, leaders can foster adult-to-adult relationships which boosts accountability and engagement, remove the fear of making mistakes (within reason) and reward initiatives, reasonable risk-taking, and the courage to speak up and think differently.
It is also important they trim down decision-making processes, empower at the lowest level reasonable and relentlessly enhance collaboration across departments.
RECAP: 6 key takeaways from the conversation
- Recognise there are thee main differences between leadership in Asian and Western cultures – what establishes authority, leadership focus, and belief systems.
- HR should act as an advisor, opening leaders’ eyes to their blind spots and to the impact of their own beliefs and behaviours upon their employees’ beliefs and behaviours.
- To move into global roles faster, Asian leaders should work on letting go of a reluctance to “shine over others” when it is necessary), and make their contributions more visible.
- Leaders should show up as who they are, with humility and respect for others; be transparent about their intentions; and regularly ask their employees for feedback.
- For more collaboration, leaders should stretch themselves outside of their comfort zone; yet be comfortable with the idea that they don’t have the answers for every issue they face.
- To spread agility, leaders should foster adult-to-adult relationships; remove the fear of making mistakes; reward initiatives, and trim down decision-making processes.
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