In the Midst of Cultural Differences – Leadership in Europe and in Asia

Juuso HämäläinenOver the past 18 months, I have had a great opportunity in being given the responsibility for a mix of teams from Europe and Asia and I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned in the process of effecting change.

One of the first things you often run into are people being dismissive or skeptical about how things can be applied to different cultures. People who lack cultural awareness and don’t see employees as human beings tend to categorize others based on stereotypes, whereas people leaders just see human beings with different social values but with the same basic feelings and needs underneath.

To explain some of the skepticism I’ll explain briefly my usual leadership style:

  • Be human. Openly talk about emotions, and expect others to do so too.
  • Extend a high level of trust and offer autonomy.
  • Focus on the bigger picture and alignment.
  • Caring and demanding – take people and their feelings and needs into account but keep raising the bar. Treat people as if they had already realized their near term potential and keep them out of their comfort zone.
  • Show appreciation frequently and remember to be thankful for successes.

Many people were telling me this approach is bound to fail in Asia, because:

  • people are afraid of failure and will be too petrified to even try
  • the manager needs to have all the answers
  • the employees will not speak up about their concerns to a person in a position of authority

However, following just a few basic principles of leadership and team dynamics it was possible to achieve great results also in Asia with the same approach. Briefly covering the 5 dysfunctions of a team by Patrick Lencioni:

  • Absence of trust leads to invulnerability. Address by going first and being human by showing vulnerability.
  • Avoidance of conflict leads to false harmony where people will not disagree out of fear of losing face. The leader needs to mine for conflict to ensure disagreements are aired.
  • Lack of commitment leads to ambiguity. The leaders should force clarity and closure on matters and areas of responsibility.
  • Avoidance of accountability leads to low standards. The leader needs to confront difficult issues and demand accountability for both behavior and results.
  • Inattention to results leads to being ego driven. It’s important to drive for collective goals where the team’s success helps the individuals succeed.

All these dysfunctions seem to be exactly the same in Asia as they are in Europe. Also the approach to addressing these is similar – as a leader you need to go first, show initiative and ensure that you’re being seen as a human being. The most difficult thing and difference in leading people in Asia was establishing a deep enough trust with the whole team that the people feel comfortable bringing up their concerns and disagreements or uncertainty in a group setting.

Some things worth trying in a situation like that are:

  • Personal stories to get to know each other (leader goes first) outside the work – how people have ended up being shaped into the person they are today
  • Feedback sessions – both good and improvement areas, can be anonymous at first but the deeper you go the more it should be face to face
  • Appreciations and feelings covered at the end of a meeting as a topic in itself to draw attention to things that are not directly related to results

Applying similar leadership principles with Asian cultures as with European cultures proved very effective and the outcome has been a major increase in engagement and significant improvement in results.  As in my experience, the key to good leadership is to remember the people and their feelings underneath the culture façade.

The writer works as the Senior Manager of IT-services at F-Secure and is based both in Finland and Malaysia. He helps executives to develop their leadership skills and competencies by coaching, listening and challenging. You can connect with Juuso on LinkedIn.