Trust gained through vulnerability is not a natural preference for those of us in the Anglo-sphere, but it is probably the door through which we can stand to gain the most in our business and personal relationships.
Based on the work of Prof Hofstede and his work on national cultures, we know that close to three quarters of the world is Collectivist. In other words…it’s about ‘we’ instead of ‘me’. Group harmony is a central theme, and trust is built based on ‘who’ you are as much (if not more than) ‘what’ you do. There is a level of implicit vulnerability in this way of being as it means sharing who you are, spending time ‘being’ with others, listening, and putting your own wants, needs and desires to one side whilst you consider and value the wants, needs and desires of the group. Based on this description, you can probably guess that Asia, the Middle East and pockets of Eastern Europe and South America fall into this dimension of culture. It is also said that how you are introduced to a work group in Asia or the Middle East, is critical, because the work group is seen as an extension of the family group. You aren’t just being introduced to any other team, you are being introduced to ‘my’ team; my ‘family’.
This is not a natural way of being for Individualist cultures such as Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada or the UK. In an Individualist culture ‘it’s about me not we’! It’s about me being acknowledged for my needs, wants and desires. Alongside this is the focus we have on the task and achieving the task, often at the expense (or in spite of) the relationship. It’s little wonder that most money made in team building is probably made in Individualist countries!
However, it’s also important to note that neither the Collectivist or Individualist way is better than the other. They are what they are and work still gets done; but when the cultures come together in a highly multi-cultural society or in global teams, understanding this concept and how to adapt your approach can be a career-saver!
Beyond this though, in the Anglo business world we also know that vulnerability is a concept, and practice, that can help bind a team and lift performance in a mono-culture environment. How do we know this? Look at the focus on helping leaders learn how to engage with their people through development programs and executive/leadership coaching. Consider the metrics we see in engagement surveys that focus on trust and the way leaders create environments conducive to trust and engagement. Are we in effect asking our leaders to consider some Collectivist practices and create the feeling of family? A place where we may not always like each other, but we have a relationship built over time that allows us to relax our individual boundaries, share what we really think, what really motivates us or scares us?
To borrow from the school of Transactional Analysis, the heart of genuine engagement is about being able to move beyond being ‘On Task’ with each other. It’s about being able to relax our boundaries, and to experience connection and true collaboration based on a platform of professional intimacy.
And therein lies both the dilemma and the opportunity...the ideal of the ‘authentic’ relationship that we hear so much about in the Anglo leadership space is relative to the willingness and ability of the individual to be vulnerable.
What does national identity have to do with employee engagement?
Well, everything really when we consider that ‘who we are’ is central to what motivates us. Like organisational culture, we know that national culture is made of outer layers that are mostly easy to see; practices, rituals, symbols etc… But the deepest layer of culture is that of values, which exist deep within each of us, and which determines the way we perceive, and therefore, embrace the outer layers. These are values that underpin our perception of self, and of who we are, such as gender and national identity. And this is the key. By understanding the differences between national culture and organisational culture, we can strengthen the potential of engagement approaches; especially in multi-national settings, or in multi-cultural societies. By understanding the core tenets of national culture, an organisation has the ability to build in added relevance, and dare I say it, sustainability, to their engagement strategies and activities.
Let’s explore this a little more to get an idea of how easy it is to build in this extra layer of relevance and impact to an engagement strategy. Firstly, we need a common global framework and language for understanding national culture; for this I draw on the scientific foundation of Prof Geert Hofstede’s six dimensions of culture, of which I will focus on the first five:
Power Distance: The extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations accept that power is distributed unequally. Higher Power Distance = hierarchy, power and distance between the top of the institution and the bottom. Lower Power Distance = flatter hierarchies (and hierarchy for convenience only) and greater accessibility to superiors.
Individual or Collective: In Individualist societies people are supposed to look after themselves and their direct family only. In Collectivist societies people belong to ‘in-groups’ that take care of them in exchange for loyalty.
Masculine or Feminine: Emphasis on status, achievement and success in life, versus emphasis on the quality of life and serving others.
Uncertainty Avoidance: The extent to which people feel threatened by ambiguous situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these.
Long Term vs Short Term: The extent to which people show a future-oriented perspective rather than a normative or short-term point of view.
With the above dimensions in mind, we can already start to see that what may work in one country as far as an engagement approach is concerned may not work as well, if at all, in a different country. This is a huge consideration for multi-nationals. For those with a single country focus, our experience is showing very clearly how the effective use of these dimensions can help to optimise the way engagement occurs; both at a leadership and organisational level. Let’s look at what this means.
Culture Focused Engagement
We have taken the cultural dimensions of Hofstede, and applied them to employee engagement and found that there are a number of fairly simple combinations that can inform the approach of your engagement strategy for greater impact. We have broken them into two sets of factors, People and Organisational Factors.
These are the factors that influence the way leaders engage with their people, ranging from the relevance of reward and recognition strategies, and how leaders motivate and inspire. Below is a short overview of the impact of each People Factor Dimension.
People Factor 1: Involve Me or Tell Me
Involve Me countries are those with a lower Power Distance score, such as Australia, New Zealand, the US and the UK. As the name suggests, the involvement of employees in decision making through a more consultative style is central to how leaders can engage with their teams. In Tell Me cultures, there is higher Power Distance; with ‘power’ being the central concept. Most countries around the world outside of Germany, Anglo and Scandinavian countries are higher in Power Distance. Therefore, in these countries, the higher the score on the Power Distance scale, the less likely it is that a) the manager will want to involve their employee in a conversation to seek their opinion on a topic, as this would mean giving up the power that comes with their role, and b) the employee will not believe they have the power to engage in such a conversation in the first place and will expect to be told. Outside of day-to-day leadership styles, an easy example of how we see this play out in multi-national companies is through the application of the annual objectives setting process. Employees from Involve Me countries, (lower Power Distance origins), will appreciate this process and be mostly engaged in the negotiation of objectives. The same practice rolled out in Tell Me countries stand next to no chance of being applied successfully, if at all (with the same going for higher Power Distance employees living and working in a lower Power Distance society). The manager will see this as giving up a central tenant of their role (to have the answers and provide direction) and the employee will not believe that they have the power in the first place to have such a conversation.
People Factor 2: Recognise Me or Acknowledge Us
This factor is based on Hofstede’s second dimension of Individualism vs Collectivism, and has a strong influence on recognition, loyalty and, like the first factor, how people like to be led. Anglosphere countries, Germany, France, the Netherlands are examples of Recognise Me countries; all highly individualist societies. The Middle East, West Asia, Asia and South America are all examples of Acknowledge Us regions, and more collectivist. When coaching expat leaders moving from individualist countries to collectivist, this is one of the more subtle, but high impacting aspects of leadership that needs to be grasped. The easy example is how we recognise high performers. In a Recognise Me country, it is as the name suggests; we recognise those who perform. Whether it is in the company newsletter, as employee of the month or a special voucher for a vacation. In Recognise Me cultures, loyalty is to oneself, and their immediate circle of friends or family; and engagement is probably most likely to occur if the organisation can demonstrate an intersection between the needs of both the organisation and the employee. In an Acknowledge Us country, where belonging and loyalty to the group trumps self-actualisation, the approach to recognise great performance is structured not to place an individual above the group. In fact the belief is more likely to be that ‘we’ succeeded with little or no thought of how one individual was better than the other. Naturally you can imagine how leadership styles need to be adjusted to maximise performance. Applying a Recognise Me style of leadership in an Acknowledge Us country will only create disharmony, and create greater distance between the manager and the employee group than would normally exist.
People Factor 3: Task Trust or Relationship Trust
Trust and engagement are often considered interchangeable terms when thinking about employee engagement. But how we build trust will happen in different ways, depending on where you are from. Through a business lens, and drawing once again on the Hofstede dimension of Individualism vs Collectivism, we know that trust is built in different ways; either through the demonstration of individual competence and focusing immediately on business (Task Trust) or by sharing time in the group and letting people understand who they are really working with (Relationship Trust). From an engagement perspective we can see that this element has the potential to work against us in very subtle ways if we aren’t awake to the difference in approaches. An Asian member of a global team (Relationship Trust), who is used to slowly spending time building the business relationship, will likely find it confronting if they are sent to Task Trust country as an expat or to form part of a virtual team made up mostly of Individualist team members. Confronting in that a quick team-building session will serve as the means by which the ice is broken and the first building blocks of trust are established in an Task Trust society. It’s interesting to note that in my experience, very little energy is given to the notion of team building in Relationship Trust countries; whereas in Task Trust countries, where the focus is on what ‘I can do’ and ‘who I am’, it makes sense that team building and Tuckman’s stages of team development have a genuine role to play in building team engagement.
People Factor 4: Win the Game or Play the Game
In tougher cultures, or as Hofstede describes, Masculine cultures, the aim is to be the best, to win. Japan, China, Australia, the US and Germany are all examples of countries who fall into this category. On the other hand, more tender cultures, where the emphasis is on the quality of life, the aim is to participate, collaborate and achieve in a win-win manner. The Scandinavian region, The Netherlands, Sri Lanka and Thailand are all examples of countries that fall into this category. This factor has a strong impact on the best approaches for rewarding, and in some respects, the language and symbols used to motivate. In tougher cultures, where win/lose is preferable to win/win, the dialogue required is a more direct style that clearly points out benefits. And the role of rewards, to recognise status, are central to motivation. In more tender cultures, where the journey is as important as the outcome, then the focus is more on how to ensure ‘we’ experience the journey and the outcome. This factor plays a role in how you communicate messages to your team to motivate them; tough = sell and debate, whilst tender = support and dialogue.
Organisational Approach Factors:
The design of an engagement strategy is one thing; but knowing how to optimise its approach through the effective understanding and application of national culture factors is something else. Even a basic understanding of the national culture dimensions can assist with more targeted communication and change management techniques. The Organisational Approach Factors are underpinned by two of Prof Hofstede’s dimensions: Uncertainty Avoidance and Long or Short Term Orientation (how we perceive time).
By taking these dimensions into consideration, we are able to create a core engagement approach that will target a majority of employees; remembering that in any country there will always be cultural outliers, such as expats, immigrants, or the children of immigrant parents.
Below is a summary of the various organisational approaches to engagement based on the combinations of Uncertainty Avoidance and Long or Short-Term Outlook.
(Click on the table for a bigger version)
For many years we’ve been considering the impact of organisational culture on employee engagement and the interplay that exists between the two when creating engagement strategies. By taking one extra step, and considering one of the core values that exist in all of us, that of our national identity, it is possible engagement to take on a whole new meaning and relevance.
When is a global organisation really global? Is it when there is a good representation of offices around the world? Or when a good financial year is the result of some good joint efforts between countries and regions? Perhaps when we have a healthy expat program, and lots of global project teams? Or is it when we have consistent training programs being delivered in all regions of the business? The answer lies partly in the above; but is that enough? I think the examples listed above are all components and even outputs of a healthy global organisation; but a truly global organisation, I believe, is one that clearly understands and articulates from the board down, that they are a global organisation.
The Board So what does this look like? Let’s start with the board. Board Diversity has been a topic for years, both in terms of gender and race; however it makes perfect sense that as an organisation grows and enters into global markets that the role and expectations of the board become a little broader. Perhaps not with respect to the role of the board, but more with how the board can continue to engage, partner and challenge the executive in a global context rather than the boundaries of the local market. One of the benefits, and expectations, of the board is to bring a depth of experience that bolsters the effectiveness of the CEO, their team and of course their strategy. So how can a global strategy be endorsed by a board that doesn’t reflect a depth of experience in doing business beyond borders?
The Leadership And then there is the CEO and their leadership team. The impact of a misalignment between the board and the executive in a cultural context isn’t always obvious, especially in the heady days of breaking out and tackling new markets. It’s easy in those early days of a start up to write off failures in this context as inexperience and testing the market. But that’s a poor excuse either with or without a board experienced in conducting cross-cultural business. The leadership team, irrespective of whether it's for a start-up or a more established global organisation, has a responsibility to guide the ship through the waters of international business with a measure of experience and consistency. When this is isn’t present, it can start to be seen in poor M&A decisions or by not seeing the cultural risks when moving into new countries, even in the most basic of ways, such as; poor negotiation strategies, or upstream business development that completely misses the mark due to committing cultural faux-pas without realising it, or just playing in the wrong place at the wrong time with no experience available to tap them on the shoulder and point them in the right direction. Where I’ve seen this play out quite a bit in the last ten years is through poor outcomes for Australian businesses seeking to expand into Asia without fully understanding the cultural norms of doing business with, through and in Asia. For example walking away from a negotiation with a Chinese counterpart believing that the deal has been completed in principle; not realizing that right up until there are signatures on the agreement that it is an accepted Chinese business practice to keep the door open on the negotiation and always looking to squeeze more out of the deal...or find a completely different avenue to achieve their goal.
Thus far we’ve focused on how the board and the executive engage with the external factors; however this focus also needs to shine inwards, and again, without a true depth of experience in what makes a global organisation tick, some big issues can arise. For example, how is the global strategic plan created and communicated? Is the assumption made that if the plan is created through an Anglo lens and pushed out in the way you’d expect in such an environment, that everyone will embrace it? Anyone who has worked, or led in a multi-national has probably experienced the 'flying under the radar syndrome'; when a new plan or direction pushed out by the HQ country is not embraced or adopted in the way that they would like in the country network. One of the most common mistakes, for example, is the assumption that all Anglo countries will pull in the same direction as they are perceived to be culturally similar. There is some truth to this, but the reality is that when analysed from a national culture perspective, Anglo countries are all identical in that competition and autonomy are culturally important tendencies from the perspective of Prof Geert Hofstede’s 6 D cultural analysis and therefore fall into one of Huib Wursten’s 6 country clusters of ‘Competition’. Knowing this critical piece of information would mean that the creation and roll out of any plan would seek to engage and involve each country and be very explicit in how each country would benefit rather than being laid back and making the assumption “well, they’re like us, they’ll get it!”
Organisational Practice Now we are starting to explore the influence of leadership on the way business gets done throughout the organisation. There are many aspects to this, but what we do know through many studies and our own experiences gained from working in global learning functions, consulting to global project teams and coaching expats around the world; there is knowing what you have to do, but being a truly global organisation means that you knowhow to do it! Just as we highlighted that the role of the board in a global context brings value in mentoring the organisational leadership on how to work in a global context, this in turn filters down via the leadership to the teams and individuals charged with actually doing it on a daily basis. This influence can be seen in how global learning practices are deployed, how expat knowledge is transferred before, throughout and after the assignment, and in how energy and information flows across borders and despite borders. The more transactional and clunky the efforts, the more likely the organisation is still learning how to make sense of being global, and it may also be a direct reflection of the relationship between the board and the leadership in this context. As it gets easier, it could be likened to moving through the stages of competence, to the point of being unconsciously competent; though I’m not sure that this stage is ever fully realised in a global organisation; but perhaps if that’s the goal, the clunkiness and transactional nature of being global can be tolerated a little more as the organisation works hard to get there.
The Last Word Being a global organisation is one thing. Knowing how to be global is quite another, and I think an undervalued and often misunderstood element of being a truly global organisation. Of course there are many more strands to this story, and it's not really 'the last word'...but if there is anything that I hope to leave you with, it’s this. Don't start the development of your global strategy at the level of HR, OD or Operations. It needs to start with the Board, the CEO and their leadership group. When it comes to global business success, the relationship between the board and the organisations leadership group can easily be considered a lynch pin relationship. The very nature of that relationship impacts the perspective of the CEO and their team, which in turn influences strategy and the organisational frame of reference with respect to what being global means to them.
First published on LinkedIn on the 14th June 2016
I was speaking with a colleague recently who is developing an organisational framework to support the transition of their business from that of domestic to regional with a longer-term eye on going truly global. They are aiming to develop the idea of a global mindset within their people and systems of work, and the framework they described was robust, catering for all the classical elements of going global. Leadership and capability development integrating with mobility policies and seeking to involve as many of their people as possible in a clearly understood and shared definition of what a global mindset means for their business.
It all sounded so positive, and yet I had this strong nagging feeling as I left the conversation that there was something missing, something important. And it hit me; it was this whole idea of ‘frame of reference’ and how to expand the perspective of their employees who may never have even travelled outside of their own state or country. This is always one of the greatest challenges when developing a global outlook for an organisation and something that needs to be conveyed in the most practical way possible. My experience over the past 15 years has been very consistent with the research that suggests that the development of our beliefs and values is mostly driven through experiences and exposure to life. Even the most experienced of expatriates can sometimes find themselves unprepared for their next assignment despite having a number of assignments under their belt, and of course there is reverse culture shock which also reminds us that no matter how well travelled we are, our return is often bumpier than the departure.
So what does this all mean? As robust a model you are aiming to create, the reality is that the way we see ourselves in the context of the world is never a complete known and an imperfect process. So a robust model is great, but try not to seek perfection. If you were to ask me, a perfect model is one that is continually evolving to suit and support the changing needs of an organisation. It may be grounded in strong theoretical frameworks and policy, but it has an interface which is practical, intuitive and responsive. Practical in a way that provides experiential learning and preparation, and that challenges underlying assumptions around culture and ways of working. Not just for the expat and their family, but for their new manager and colleagues as well. Expatriation is a multi-dimensional process, yet we so often only focus on what is immediately in front of us. Intuitive from the perspective that no matter how well prepared we think may be; we are human. Intuitive systems that provide nurture and support resilience throughout the lifecycle of the assignment are critical. Intuitive also from the perspective that the framework is designed in the knowledge that there are peaks and troughs of energy and motivation as the expatriate and their family deal with transition throughout the length of the assignment. And finally, responsive, by ensuring that a key part of the HR business partner tool kit is knowing how to anticipate the peaks and troughs and work with this for the good of the expatriate, their family and their team.
But what about those people left behind, who may not actually live and work abroad, but are expected to work with colleagues from around the world?
The same principles apply; create an experiential, intuitive and responsive process. Experiential learning that allows them to learn more about working virtually whilst they also reflect on and expand their own belief system when it comes to working with different cultures. Given they aren’t working abroad, the ability to reinforce this on a daily basis isn’t so strong and this is where the intuitive element of support needs to be stronger. Anticipate for these people, unless they have worked and lived abroad, that for them it isn’t quite real. That their colleagues are voices at the end of a phone line, keystrokes at the other end of an email or a two dimensional figure on a video conference. Create opportunities to connect frequently through technology, and to share more of who they are rather than what they do. Virtual teaming is a necessity for these people, and yet it is so often overlooked. Equip the team manager with skills to anticipate and spot when the virtual team is flagging in energy, but also give them the tools and techniques (along with their HR partners) to revive flagging energy in the remote team. This is about understanding and reducing the psychological distance despite the physical distance – and it is possible.
What it all boils down to is this.
Our frameworks need to be grounded in good research and theory; there is no doubt about this. But theory and frameworks don’t help anyone if they can’t be translated into a meaningful process of practice that actually helps someone do their job. In the world of mobility this takes on an extra layer of importance, because the way we see ourselves reflects on the way we see the world. So the ability to create experiences and practices that impact on beliefs and behaviours are critical both to virtual team collaboration and the general performance of expatriate and mobility programs.
The ability to lead and manage across borders is fast becoming an indispensible leadership quality. The way business and business growth is trending it’s highly likely that a majority of tomorrows leaders will experience leading teams, functions or businesses largely comprised of virtual and globally dispersed teams. This isn’t restricted to the more well developed industrial nations either; many large manufacturers, IT and services organisations are busy investing in emerging economies, which represents a whole new way of organisational thinking and in turn leadership behaviours to ensure success. In fact the organisational approach and the leadership behaviours that underpin success in a global context are very much the same and evolve around three key criteria:
Organisational. As an organisation, the ability to create a culture and practice of genuine collaboration is critical. Many M&A’s and expansions into new countries stumble or fail because more effort is invested into protecting and defending territorial patches and ‘old’ ways of thinking, rather than relaxing the mostly psychological boundaries and allowing energy to flow between teams, functions and countries. But collaboration doesn’t just happen. If time is invested up front to create a level of strategic alignment between the impacted leadership groups, followed by a short process of creating a shared vision of what successful collaboration looks like, along with a framework or supporting leadership charter, then you have done more than most companies in enabling organisational collaboration.
Leadership. Fostering collaboration is difficult if it doesn’t feel supported or safe to do so. If there isn’t an organisational approach to enabling collaboration, then it falls to the leader to make it happen; and this is more about mindset than skill. Collaboration can be:
The actual ‘doing’ of collaboration isn’t so difficult; it’s the thought process that precedes the behaviour that makes or breaks collaboration at a leadership level. If a leader is able to relax the boundaries that separate them from their team, and their team or function from the rest of the organisation, they open up the gates for energy to flow and exploration of the different perceptions held around how the work can get done. As we know, this comes back to the level of self-confidence and awareness of the leader to see the benefits of letting go and their level of resilience to weather the storm, deal with the issues and bounce back when it doesn’t quite go to plan.
Organisational. We tend to think of communication on an individual level, and there is no doubting the role that leadership communication plays in reinforcing the trust required for cross-border success. But like collaboration at an organisational level, there is an organisational responsibility to create an environment where conversations are encouraged, feedback is highly regarded and the tyranny of distance is no barrier. The last one should be the easiest from a technological perspective, but it is the supporting organisational capability plan that will ensure people know how to use and optimise communication technologies. The intersection of the organisational capability strategy with the internal communications and broader strategic plan will also help highlight the types, intensity and frequency of communication required to ensure the broader goal of successful global working is achieved.
Leadership. In a multi-national environment, a leaders ability to use communication as a key leadership tool is critical, especially if they are leading people in another city or country. Unlike the leader who sees their team everyday, the ability to ‘walk the talk’ takes on a whole new meaning. Whilst ever a leader is thinking in mono then there isn’t the likelihood of inspired thinking or discretionary behaviour from their people. When we are thinking in mono, our behaviour is quite lineal and we miss the opportunity to connect with people beyond the transactional. Once leaders think in stereo or even in surround sound, their words and actions have the ability to be everywhere and live on in the minds of their people. And this is what the global leader needs to perfect – to be able to paint pictures with their words in such a way that if their team can’t see what they mean in person, they can clearly imagine it and be motivated by the possibilities of what the picture represents.
Organisational. Global leadership at it’s best is supported by an organisation that clearly understands and internally articulates the fact that it is global. This articulation can be seen in the following ways:
In other words, if the organisation were a person, it would know who it is (a global creature) and be very comfortable with who they are. It’s not always easy to reach this stage, especially for those companies in the early to mid stages of international growth; the teenagers of the global business community. However it is attainable, and necessary, for the organisation to be able to support their leaders in driving the culturally aware organisation.
Leadership. Culturally aware organisations create and communicate strong messages of inclusiveness and speaking with one voice starting with the board and the executive leadership teams. The national make up of these groups is only one factor that can create an immediate impression of organisational cultural awareness. What is more important is the quality of their actions and the way in which they lead. Do they actively promote and encourage collaboration and cultural diversity? For example, speaking a shared language when more than one or two countries are represented in a meeting or respecting time zones when setting international meetings. If little things like this aren’t done at the most senior levels of leadership, then it’s not likely it’s being done down throughout the organisation. The potency of leadership at this level is critical to ensuring the right messages are cascaded down through all leadership levels regarding cross-border leadership.
Dropping down into the organisation, the same principles apply, just in a different way. For a business leader, this doesn’t mean being able to speak all of the languages of the people in their team. This is about understanding the ways of working of the people in your team, and what behaviours or rituals are important to observe and incorporate into the team’s way of working. Like collaboration, it’s not something that comes naturally to all leaders, especially those who are leading for the first time in a global capacity. This is where the strength of message from senior leaders and the supporting organisational frameworks are critical in helping leaders in more complex situations. It also means that teaming and the way teaming occurs is a little bit different, and works more with understanding and creating shared values and ways of working rather than the more traditional behavioural teaming approaches.
Whilst globalisation isn’t new, the idea of developing leaders to lead in a global context is relatively new. But leadership development is only one part of the equation. To really set our organisations up for global success it is about seeking full integration between:
1. What we want our leaders to do, and
2. The organisational measures we have in place to enable our leaders to do it well.
In an everyday leadership environment this is important. In a global leadership context - it is critical.
Are you a mountain or a valley when it comes to your leadership style? Depending in which country or countries you are leading, you may require more mountain, more valley or a little of both.
Let’s explore this idea a little further.
Mountains are big, solid, easy to see and imposing. They are also vulnerable. They are exposed to all of the elements; many are barren and being a mountain is more often than not lonely. In time, due to this exposure, many mountains crumble or have large pieces break away. As a leader if your style is more mountain then you have probably identified with many of these characteristics; you feel as though you have to be strong, solid and dependable and stand out from the rest of the group and perhaps take on more than you should to get things done. In some countries this may be acceptable, and in others a non-negotiable way of leading. In countries where hierarchy and power are central to daily and organisational life you need to be more mountain, and be seen to hold your place in the hierarchy. Most of Asia, France, many eastern European and South American countries fall into this category.
Irrespective of which country you apply mountain leadership behaviours, there are consequences of this behaviour; just as the mountain has landslides and in time breaks down, the same can be said for our physical and emotional well-being. We start to worry more than usual about what others think – which is natural when you are working hard to stand out from the rest. The biggest consequence is that we can push people away rather than bring them with us, which in turn creates not only the power of the role, but the solitude that comes with a mountain.
Through western eyes this is often considered an unacceptable way of leading; but in the context of the country from which the culture originates, it’s not for other nationalities to judge; rather it is about understanding and seeing it as an evolved way of leading for that culture.
That then explains why if you are using more mountainous leadership behaviours in countries where the key word is ‘empowerment’, then you probably won’t be getting the results you want. In these countries, where hierarchy isn’t considered as important, we tend to see behaviours that are more representative of a valley. Effective leaders in this context look to their people for solutions and are approachable – and they are usually more effective connectors. Whether it is the ability to lead a cross-functional or multi-national team, be an effective business partner or guide a collaborative organisation – all of these require the ability to connect with people and to connect people. This is exactly what a valley does. A valley is the ultimate connector. Two or three grand mountain systems can all be connected by the one valley that weaves its way around and through the tall and imposing features.
Is a valley any weaker than a mountain? No. In some ways it could be considered stronger given that it doesn’t have the same exposure to the elements and receives the rich nutrients than flow down from the mountains into its creeks and rivers. It is able to derive the best of every mountain that it comes in contact with, and for this reason, it is in the valley where the soil is the most fertile. There is cross-pollination, and an abundance of life. Most Anglo, Germanic and Scandinavian cultures tend toward the valley way of leading. However just as the mountain can crumble, the valley can flood. Leaders who lean more towards the valley style can find themselves overwhelmed and drowning simply because it is just as acceptable for a manager to get in help out with the troops, or take on more of a workload to ease the pain of the team. In other words, become a rescuer.
So just as the mountain way of leading isn’t so palatable for the westerner, neither is the valley seen as being very applicable by those who lean towards mountain behaviours. Again, it is purely contextual and must be recognised that it is a style of leadership that has evolved for that environment.
Having said all this, it’s important to realise that from a national culture context, neither the mountain nor the valley leadership styles are better than the other; they each perform well in their given context. Where it gets interesting is when you are leading people from different countries and cultures. When this is the situation, it’s not about giving up who you are; it’s about being comfortable in your own skin whilst you adapt your style to suit the culture or country that you are working with.
At the end of the day, it's worth considering that some days you may need to be the mountain, some days the valley, and others you are a plateau at 2000 metres. Either way it’s about choosing the path of least resistance to achieving engagement despite borders.