Blend East and West for Effective Leadership Development

Consider cultural, national, local and familial dynamics when crafting a leadership development strategy that blends Eastern and Western cultures.

Learning in the East comes with cultural frameworks that are fundamentally distinct from Western learning paradigms. To develop effective leaders, learning leaders must not only understand those differences, they must respect them.

Whether conducting in-house learning initiatives or designing MBA curriculums, CLOs should become familiar with Eastern complexities around family, nationalism and degrees of personal empowerment — all of which must be negotiated for successful learning engagements. The West offers many cutting-edge leadership strategies, but to remain relevant, they need to be presented using localized lenses.

Globalism is accelerating cultural exchange through popular entertainment, youth trends and political movements. Millennial workers in Asia are commonly more Westernized than their older co-workers. This often renders certain inherited cultural customs and markers of formality less important to younger generations, including the concept of lifetime employment. As a result, millennials in Asia are more actively job hunting to advance their careers and to increase compensation at a more accelerated rate than in past.

In recent years, China has experienced a boom of wealth, and as a result, more people under the age of 45 are constantly on the lookout for the next opportunity to maximize their earning potential rather than stay loyal to one company their entire career. Development is a part of that career mobility.

There are six key dynamics to confront to build effective learning in Asia:

  1. Leadership philosophy.
  2. Learning culture.
  3. Cultural and family values.
  4. Need for empowerment.
  5. Risk tolerance.
  6. Social deference.

Define a Leadership Philosophy

Nationalism in some Asian markets plays a greater role, and at times it outranks corporate interest. This is particularly true in the People’s Republic of China where nationalism is first, and corporate allegiance is second.

As educators groom and develop leaders, it is important to depoliticize learning conversations. In the Academy of Management Perspectives article, “In the Eye of the Beholder: Cross Cultural Lessons in Leadership from Project GLOBE,” Mansour Javidan, Peter W. Dorfman, Mary Sully de Luque and Robert J. House advocated cultivating leadership behaviors that produce results and show effective leadership in different cultures and settings. Essentially, learning leaders should build a more inclusive leadership philosophy with a keen business performance focus.

Establish a Learning Culture

“The Western teacher must be a learner, too,” said Randall P. White, a psychologist and professor of leadership in global executive MBA programs at Duke Corporate Education. White is also an HEC Affiliate Professor for Paris, Doha in Qatar, and Beijing, and he teaches leadership for the TRIUM Global EMBA program. He said general expertise is often bound by a lack of specific expertise in the local culture. “In that sense, we have to create a space where everyone in the room is learning and sharing those cultural differences. In making it fun — like learning new expressions from the students — the classroom becomes a safe environment to experiment and practice where everyone is learning.”

The spectrum of behavior people can engage in while motivating learners in the development process can be wide or narrow based on culture. For example, the freedom to incentivize and encourage people is ingrained in U.S. organizations, but this trait is not typically as broad in the East. Therefore, classroom examples need to be tailored to account for this distinction.

A Westerner must continually consider how to develop leaders in ways that are locally acceptable and culturally appropriate. Discussions involving personnel reprimands, initiating change, coordinating group incentives and dealing with the rights and privacy of workers and management are typically more restricted in Asian organizations.

Respect Cultural, Familial Boundaries

The way leadership education is structured also should prioritize the different ways people interact with and prioritize their families in the East. Family support is often more available in Asia and the Middle East than in the West. Employees often have significant support to meet fluctuating job demands and to attend learning engagements. Working professionals have access to child care, and it’s more common to structure careers to stay near relatives and parents.

Americans often struggle to afford the kind of support Asians receive for child care. On the other hand, as structured meal times have historically been more common in Asia, adult children are expected to eat with parents and grandparents. While a lot of women work, they are more likely to go home at normal hours and spend time with extended family and children.

Meanwhile, men are expected to frequently partake in “ying chou” during the week, or networking dinners. However, in recent years, women have begun participating in ying chou more as well. That’s why having extended family nearby is so important; while both parents work or network, grandparents look after the kids, take them to tutoring, and make sure they complete their homework.

For example, if training is conducted off-site in Asia, such as a five-day engagement retreat, employees will consider bringing others based on how the family ecosystem supports the professional contributor. Further, the end of the training day may be understood differently in the East. Offsite training programs need to set clear expectations well in advance on what is required and what is optional with regard to networking after class.

Facilitate Learner Empowerment

So much of Western-based learning involves being assertive in the classroom environment. Asian learners may need more time to become comfortable speaking up, and Western learners may need to listen more.

Part of this discrepancy is due to the way in which conversations occur, either face to face or electronically. “Sometimes the translation from English into another language happens via the use of a smartphone in real time,” said Pasquale Mazzuca, managing director for TalentWorks Group, a global management consulting firm. “If the educator is not aware of this they may interpret it as not paying attention to what is being said.”

Conversely, when speaking face to face, Westerners tend to speak in clear, overt tones that can be considered rude in many Asian cultures where subtlety is valued more than directness. As such, educators need to become adept at understanding culturally specific communication styles, such as pauses in speech and differences in speech patterns. Educators also should exercise great care when expressing opinions, and practice etiquette with strong prohibitions against interrupting and preferences for polite pauses. These considerations encourage bright people to contribute.

Consider Risk and Innovation

Risk and innovation — elements commonly addressed in executive education — are tolerated differently according to culture. In Asia, stability is greatly valued. This is counter to the concepts that emerge when teaching risk, innovation and change management. One must teach these subjects in a way that helps people tolerate the anxiety they feel when things are not always predictable.

Being vulnerable is not always advisable. There is a saying that “the tack that stands up gets hammered down.” People tend not to do things that put themselves at risk emotionally or competitively, which can make thinking outside of the box difficult. In the classroom, learners should be given explicit permission to be different.

If the tone can be recalibrated when confronting change so that it fosters support and helps each person to learn, the environment will become less competitive, and people will be more likely to engage and answer questions. When learners understand that different opinions will help the team, they become more likely to propose innovative ideas.

In any culture, people won’t do things unless they trust the other party. In the East, there is greater emphasis on forming relationships to earn that trust. It is the learning leader’s job to create a classroom environment where participants feel safe participating collaboratively.

Don’t Forget Egalitarianism: Age, Gender, Class and Deference 

In the West, older people are often labeled unfairly as being resistant to change. But in many Asian cultures age is considered an advantage. Those who are younger are unlikely to challenge an elder since age is generally associated with wisdom. For instance, being assertive in a way that contradicts a superiors’ opinions could cause them to lose face or be embarrassed. Thus, being subtle is important so that superiors can “save face” while the younger person gets their message across.

Millennial employees often are challenged when leading people who are older. Learning to lead older colleagues or subordinates can start with simply maintaining the social customs already in place. Formal titles and avoiding first names when addressing senior employees maintains decorum and respect, but they do not have to compromise directives from young executives.

“Enabling the more senior members to become mentors to the younger generations helps in the building of a positive relationship,” Mazzuca said.

In Africa, Asia and the Middle East, a person may be of low rank within the organization but be a significant community leader. It’s a reminder that an organization’s culture only trumps national culture during the workday. After 5 p.m., one’s personal ethnic culture may become primary.

Western approaches to executive education have much to offer, but they must be localized and adaptable to the home culture. Learning engagements are best when the process is reciprocal — a cultural exchange that improves communication with Western offices and strengthens the global organization.

Lily Kelly-Radford is a psychologist and partner at Executive Development Group LLC. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.


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