Management strategist Maya Hu-Chan diagnoses 'assumption' as the number one sin in business, pointing to a need for leaders who are not afraid to ask questions in order to make the most of diversity in teams.

If there is ever an opportunity to add in an eighth deadly sin, then I am putting my hand up to nominate “assumption”.

In my experience, assumption is already the number one business sin; the destroyer of deals, the terroriser of team dynamics.

Yet it continues to pervade businesses the world over and therefore ought to be at the very top of the list of behaviours to be coached and trained out of talented professionals.

One area in which assumption can most visibly rear its ugly head is in the coming together of different cultures and generations in a global team.

Why assumption is bad for teams

In a global team you might find a Beijing-based Baby Boomer – the generation which takes its name from the post-World War II population increase in the West - working, either virtually or physically, alongside a Parisian teammate from Generation Y – with both of them reporting in to a newly-promoted Generation X-er from New York State.

Although the varied skills and experiences of global teams can make for a vibrant and highly capable business unit; bringing together different ages, upbringings and sociological influences can also conspire to create a team which finds it hard to understand each other.

This is something I call ‘diversity tension’ in my book Global leadership: The next generation.

I often find myself speaking on the subject of ‘appreciating diversity’ - which is the natural antidote to diversity tension - and the need to take a deeper look at the actions of the people you are working with.

At one recent global conference I was giving a keynote on how to build a global coaching culture.

I was sharing the typical characteristics of different generations of employees and remarking on how different generations are often unable to appreciate the positives of each other, and how important it is to value colleagues of different generations for their contributions – however different to your own.

In my experience, assumption is already the number one business sin; the destroyer of deals, the terroriser of team dynamics.
I was considering the impact that upbringing has on Generation X and Y employees compared to their parents in the Baby Boomer generation.

Weeding out diversity tension

Although, in many respects, the emerging generations are perhaps more naturally suited to global leadership, due to the impact of technology on their awareness of other cultures, music, news and lifestyles; different cultural forces in their upbringing still create differences in working style that the global leader must take the time to understand.

For example, during the speech I talked about the impact that China’s one-child policy has had on a generation of employees.

Known as ‘Little Emperors and Empresses', what impact does the focused attention and resources they have enjoyed from their parents and grandparents mean for them as employees?

Does it make them individualistic? Or does it make them privileged with expectations that can’t be met?

During a break in the conference, a young Chinese delegate came up to talk to me. She argued that yes, she and her generation were privileged but this focus of attention came with an equal pressure of responsibility, with no siblings to share it with.

“We can’t fail, we are expected to live out our parents' expectations of us,” she said.

ALSO READ: You may be heard, but are you being understood?

Compare this to the typical characteristics of a Generation Y worker in Western society who is perhaps more focused on work-life balance - and you can see how a global leader with a diverse team will have to figure out two completely different ways of hiring, motivating and rewarding two members of the same generation!

Each generation and culture has something unique to offer and different ways of tackling challenges. Yet it is all too easy for each one to assume that they are the best and others are less effective.

I was teaching an executive education class at a leading university recently and I asked the delegates to group themselves into their respective generations: Baby Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y.

Known as ‘Little Emperors and Empresses', what impact does the focused attention and resources they have enjoyed from their parents and grandparents mean for them as employees?
I asked each group what was important to them, what they felt they had to offer and, perhaps most importantly, what they wished other generations could appreciate about them and what they needed to be successful.

What was most striking about their responses was that, among the differences in working styles and approaches, there was a common need to be understood and respected.

Each group felt there were too many assumptions made about their generation: ‘Baby Boomers are out of touch’, ‘the younger generation is lazy and too informal’ were comments they often heard.

How leaders can stop assuming

Talented global leaders, with diverse teams, avoid making these broad assumptions and are intrigued by different perspectives, rather than threatened by them. They are also proactive in rooting out unhelpful assumptions held by others.

Here are some success factors to consider for global leaders today:

  1. Take advantage of any opportunity to work within the rich tapestry of global cultures, generations and traditions that create your business landscape.
  2. Listen to all points of view in your team, no matter how apparently different they seem from your own.
  3. Remain open and curious about how other people think and operate.
  4. Actively explore the differences between team members in order to increase understanding and strengthen working relationships, rather than letting them inhibit progress.
  5. Make asking, rather than telling, your leadership style. Ask questions, ask for information, ask for ideas - and ask for feedback.
As the internationally-renowned business thinker Peter Drucker put it: "The leader of the past was a person who knew how to tell. The leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask."

By taking this open, curious approach, any diversity tension you find in your team will quickly dissipate - creating a powerful and truly global dynamic within the business that can deliver a tangible, commercial edge for you and your team.

Each group felt there were too many assumptions made about their generation: ‘Baby Boomers are out of touch’, ‘the younger generation is lazy and too informal’ were comments they often heard.
--

As a management and leadership strategist, Maya-Hu Chan is consistently ranked in the top 20 by Thinkers50 in the USA. She is also one of the headline speakers at Talent Management Asia 2015.

TMA_banner_645x90_HK_zurich-27March2015

To be held in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Hong Kong in mid-April, Talent Management Asia is Asia’s biggest conference on talent management and human capital strategy. 

To get a global and Pan-Asian regional view of talent management and to increase your knowledge and skills across the talent management spectrum, don’t miss the conference.

To review the topics & agenda, check out the stellar speaker list and reserve your seat visit www.talentmanagement.asia before it’s sold out.

For more information please contact Carlo Reston on +65 6423 0329 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..