How do Cultural Imprints Affect Learning and Leadership Styles?

Businessmen recognizing one another

We all have cultural imprints (often unconscious) which influence our values, beliefs and perceptions of what is appropriate and inappropriate. These can vary greatly across cultures, and can also influence our learning and leadership styles. For example, what may be seen as strong and appropriate leadership in some cultures is seen as authoritarian/bullying in others.

I recently delivered a two-day Organisational Communication program to 55 MBA students at an Indian university. These were graduates seeking to become future leaders, and most of them had gone straight from completing their degree to the MBA. When I sought participant input, they were quite reluctant, except for a few more confident students, probably because they had several years’ work experience. Interestingly, the feedback I received from the participants at the end of the program was very positive, with the main suggestion for improvement being to make the program more interactive!

A friend told me that when he went to Korea to do some training a few months ago, he had taken a whole bunch of caramello bears with him, and when he gave a caramello bear to those participants who contributed, there was no problem getting interaction!

So much for learning. What about leadership in various cultural settings? It is becoming more common to have a culturally diverse team – good leaders recognise and embrace the cultural differences in their team, while approaching each team member as an individual. Some leadership styles are more prevalent in certain countries and cultures than others. For instance, some studies demonstrated a positive relationship between paternalistic leadership and positive work attitudes in the Middle East, Latin America, and Pacific Asia, but not in the USA. Paternalistic leadership combines strong discipline and authority with fatherly benevolence and moral integrity couched in a personalised atmosphere.

I was recently asked to intervene with a team involving significant conflict between the leader and particular team members. This leader had previously worked in leadership roles in South-East Asia, and had what I would call a paternalistic leadership style. While this might have been appropriate in previous work settings, it was not seen as acceptable in his current workplace. This leader’s cultural imprint was very different from those of most team members, and this appeared to be the main reason for the conflict.

One trait attributed to effective multicultural leadership is known as multicultural perspective taking. It is the ability to take the perspective of others within their cultural context and to adapt quickly when encountering individuals or groups from unfamiliar cultures. In our global economy, and within Australia with its great cultural diversity, it is becoming increasingly important for all leaders to understand and embrace cultural diversity and recognise the cultural imprints underlying this diversity.

How aware of you of your cultural imprints? How might this affect your leadership and/or learning styles?

Narayan van de Graaff

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