How Do Cultural Differences Affect Leadership Styles?

A basic understanding of leadership and what it means is fairly consistent across the world. Generally speaking, a leader should be someone that is fair, guides a group to a common goal or idea, and inspires and motivates others. However, the way in which a leader goes about doing these things can vary tremendously. These differences can present themselves when comparing the leadership styles of people from different cultures.

Extensive research within this field proves that a person’s culture greatly influences their leadership tendencies and styles. As the world becomes more globalized and businesses become multicultural, leadership and cultural differences are becoming a hot topic. Understanding how culture influences leadership styles is proving to be an essential skill in high-level positions in the world today. 

Importance of hierarchies

Depending on the country and the culture, the roles of leaders in a workplace can vary. A leadership role can be exclusively associated with a management or high-up corporate position in some cultures. The role of the leader and its importance can greatly impact the dynamic at work, interactions, and expectations within a team.

Importance placed on rank and the hierarchy of a company is very common in Latin American and Asian cultures. In these cultures, leaders take a more dominant and clearly-defined role. Subordinates address them in a very particular way and don’t typically challenge what they say. This dynamic greatly impacts how a leader and/or boss interacts with their team, ultimately influencing all the other aspects of management. Cultures with hierarchical workplace cultures typically have high rates of employee loyalty and retention. Moreover, clearly defined roles and responsibilities make little room for confusion and/or interpersonal missteps in a company. 

Hierarchies and rank in western cultures are comparatively less important. Relationships between bosses and employees are much less formal and take a relaxed form. While there is still mutual respect and understanding between leader and team, the importance of the role is not as overtly acknowledged. This presents opportunities for everyone in a company to be a leader in their own way and work collaboratively. Leadership here tends to be more collective and inclusive, compared to giving and receiving direction from one party.

Leadership, culture, and managing styles

Although leadership and management positions aren’t inherently linked to one another, one is greatly influenced by the other. Management styles in a workforce are greatly dependent on the person’s leadership tendencies, which can determined by culture. These differences trickle down and influence all elements of a person’s working and leading style, like motivating, directing, and communicating. 

Motivation and decision-making

When it comes to management and leadership in the workplace, motivating others is a huge component of the job. It is the job of a leader to motivate the team and work towards the goal at hand. Depending on culture, the factors which influence motivational behavior can change. Generally, researchers found that there are two types of motivation tendencies. 

Part of leadership is motivating teams to work towards a common goal. However, different cultures are motivated by different things.

The first of the two follows a more strict, follow-through, style. Motivated by potential risks and ‘what could go wrong,’ these leaders are meticulous in everything they do. Every decision is carefully calculated, presenting potential for letting a few possible negatives of a choice outweigh the potential benefits. These leaders are motivated by risk-aversion, and pass that culture on to their decision-making habits and their teams. Experts claim that this risk-aversion management motivates leaders and executives to continually create value within a company. If a company is constantly improving and growing in order to avoid risks, it is ultimately better-off. Businesses in Northeast Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Latin America generally follow this leadership and management style.

Taking a different approach to motivation and decision making, the western world tends to embody a more flexible and opportunistic stance. The UK, US, and former UK colonies and territories in Asia (Singapore, India, etc.) embody a culture that values ambiguity in decision making and motivation. The possible outcomes of a decision excite and inspire employees and leaders in these countries. Leaders here are more likely to take risks and encourage their team to do so as well. 

Communication and culture

An essential aspect of being a good leader is being good at communicating. However, ‘good communication skills’ are subjective and differ all around the world. It is no surprise then that culture greatly influences this component of leadership as well. 

While many researchers and psychologists have studied this field comprehensively, the most widely accepted theory on communication and culture is Edward Hall’s high-context and low-context communication classification, coupled with his ideas on direct versus indirect communication.

High-context communication

A high-context communication tendency is one where the body language, environment, and relationship between the two parties conveys more of the actual message than the words themselves. Typically found in collectivist and community-centered cultures like Latin America and Asia, high-context communication places the responsibility of understanding a message on the receiver, not the sender. The receiver uses pre-existing understanding of the sender, their relationship, and their intentions and behaviors to decode the message. This then infers that, generally, high-context communication cultures tend to be indirect in terms of their language. These cultures don’t assign much weight to the words themselves, nor do they use many words, but rather the emotional quality and climate of the parties and the subject matter at that moment.

Low-context communication

Low-context communication places less emphasis on the ‘intuitive’ aspects of language and more on the words themselves.

Conversely, individualistic societies like the US, UK, and Germany use a low-context communication style. These cultures and this style don’t need a relationship or understanding of the parties to get the message across. Everything that needs to be understood is in the words themselves. This then places the weight of understanding a message on the sender, rather than the receiver. Clarity in speech and word choice is paramount in low-context societies. With low-context communication comes direct language. Evasive and ambiguous messages aren’t common in these cultures, and should be avoided. 

Challenges in multicultural work environments

Having a multicultural work environment is a growing trend in businesses all around the world. This creates opportunities for collaboration, new ideas, and a well-rounded representation of ideologies and beliefs. With so much diversity though, challenges can easily arise. Tension surrounding the importance of hierarchy can be quite common in companies that have cultures with contrasting viewpoints. Additionally, given the vast differences in communication, misunderstandings can be common as well. Awareness of these possibilities is the start to developing an adaptable leadership style.

How to lead efficiently in a multicultural office

Teamwork and a well-rounded point of view is essential when leading and working with multicultural workforce.

The key to being a successful leader in a multicultural office is avoiding ethnocentrism. Clearly, standards and norms for leaders change greatly depending on their culture and societal background, and that which they’re working in. When working in a multicultural environment, it’s crucial to understand the cultural differences in leadership style and how employees interact. By doing this, adapting and being flexible in leadership style and direction becomes easy. Moreover, employees will feel more comfortable if they know their boss or ‘the leader’ of the group understands and appreciates these differences. 

On a larger scale, when opening multiple branches and offices around the world, the best approach to take in terms of management and leadership is ‘glocalization.’ Combining a globalization mentality with the unique, local cultural tendencies and norms, this tactic helps companies adapt to business environments all around the world. 

Be a leader in your industry

Multinational and international businesses are becoming incredibly common in the business world. Naturally, the balancing act of leading these different offices and the respective country’s culture can be difficult. This should not deter any efforts or goals to expand.

As industry leaders ourselves, our team at Biz Latin Hub can help you expand to new markets and industries all around the world. Contact us here today to take your leadership skills and your business to new heights. 

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