Over the past 50 years, Singapore has blossomed from an unknown British colony into one of the largest financial centers in the world that ranks highly in education, healthcare, life expectancy, quality of life, and safety. As a result, with the burgeoning globalization, many investors and expatriates began to flock to its shores. When I attended law school in Singapore, I reaped the benefits of this foreign influx, and met many students from different parts of the world, many of whom became good friends of mine. One of the perks of having international friends is having a host whenever you go on vacation in their city. This all sounds fine and dandy, but learning how to work with such multi-cultural teams was one of the most challenging yet important experiences of my life. According to Northouse, “Globalization has created a need to understand how cultural differences affect leadership performance” (2016).
One of the most memorable episodes occurred when I was tasked to work in a team of 4 to handle the corporate law aspects of a Merger & Acquisition deal. In my team, there was David, an American; Johann, a German; Nikolai, a Russian; and me, a Singaporean. As the one with the most experience, I was appointed as lead on the case. Not only did I have to deal with a very complicated case with numerous parties and transactions, I had to manage 3 members with vastly different cultural backgrounds. While there were many intricacies I had to contend with, I will analyze my experience with these particular individuals based on Hughes’, Ginnett’s, and Curphy’s (2012) framework on seven dilemmas for understanding cultural differences:
- Source of Identity (Individual/Collective): This is the degree to which individuals should pursue their own interests and goals or contribute to a larger group goal.
- I found that Nikolai and Johann had a more collective source of identity, whereas David was more individual oriented. This was evident when we discussed on the remuneration for the respective board members of the subsidiary company, during which Nikolai and Johann argued for a lower compensation for the longer-term health of the whole company, while David argued for a higher compensation to make up for the relinquished ownership the members have had to bear. I agreed with Nikolai and Johann on this particular case, only because excessively high salaries were part of the reason the company was forced to merge in the first place. On a separate note, when it came to sacrificing sleep to work on our project together, everyone including David was happy to do so for the benefit of the team.
- Goals and Means of Achievement (Tough/Tender): This is the way that success is defined in a culture—either by tangible rewards such as material wealth or by intangible rewards such as spiritual satisfaction.
- I found that Johann leaned towards the tender means of achievement of goals in his preference for persuasive techniques in negotiation to maintain goodwill, whereas David and Nikolai seemed to prefer tougher and more authoritative means, preferring to enforce rights. Having grown up in a rather authoritative education system, I, however, was more convinced by the long-term effectiveness of tender means. Due to the monetary nature of our task, the evaluation of success had to involve tangible rewards. However, it is worth mentioning that David and Johann expressed the need to make sure that every party to the deal with happy with it. As such, we decided to implement a clause in our documents that allowed current members of the subsidiary to dictate the direction of certain aspects of the business despite relinquishing control.
- Orientation to Authority (Equal/Unequal): This deals with the way that people of different status behave toward one another. Should they behave as equals or unequals?
- My personal style of leadership is quite participative, so all members were very involved in the process. Due to the fact that we were all students in the same course, I did not let my seniority affect my leadership. I adopted a very equal approach, and all 3 of my members were happy with it. However, when it came time to make a decision, everyone agreed in advance that the leader had the right to make the final call as long as it is substantiated.
- Response to Ambiguity (Dynamic/Stable): This is the extent to which uncertainty is tolerated. Either structure is imposed on the organization or tolerance for ambiguity is obvious in nonexistent control systems.
- I found that David and Nikolai were rather tolerant of ambiguity, whereas Johann was always asking about the minute details of the deal that we had not even got to yet. He sought to clarify each and every detail, and while it was taxing to cater to his need for clarification, it eventually worked to our team’s favor because we crafted an intricately deliberated deal that won us the top grade in the project.
- Means of Knowledge Acquisition (Active/Reflective): Either action or reflection is more valued as means of acquiring information.
- This is hard to ascertain, but I found that Nikolai seemed to be particularly reflective in his knowledge acquisition. While perhaps the rest of us were more of a mix between the two, Nikolai often came back the next day with retrospective insights. There were even a few incidents of hindsight bias to supplement this judgment, as he would say “I knew this would happen. We should not have done it that way.” When I pointed out that he was succumbing to hindsight bias, he was not receptive at all.
- Perspective on Time (Scarce/Plentiful): Some cultures view the sense of time as relaxed, while others view it as urgent.
- Fortunately, every member of the team saw time the same way, and was always very punctual. This allowed us to get a lot of work done during our scheduled meetings, while many other groups had to schedule additional meetings to make up for lost time. Johann was especially insistent on planning, as he volunteered to draw up a schedule for our meetings. He was also the one who made a chart for the timeline of the Merger & Acquisition deal, something that earned us bonus points.
- Outlook on Life (Doing/Being): Some cultures prefer mastery over nature while others prefer living in harmony with nature.
- Again, it is difficult to ascertain outlook on life based on our professional experiences, but it seemed to me that David and Johann had a preference for mastery over nature, whilst Nikolai seemed to prefer living in harmony with nature. In fact, Nikolai was often found to mutter “This is the way it’s meant to be” whenever we faced some difficulties. David, on the other hand, would often say “There has to be another way”. I also found that David had very strong perseverance, while Nikolai would often struggle with obstacles.
While these characteristics that may seem inconsistent with popular notions of these cultures, these are simply my experience with these particular individuals. As leader of the team, I was initially very cautious because I did not want to unintentionally offend any of my teammates. At the same time, I did not want to be presumptive and base my leadership on preconceived notions of their culture. This was an issue I found with cultural research, as it propagates further generalization of people. While research is necessary, it is also important to remind laypeople that such research should not be applied insensitively to every person coming from a particular culture.
Nevertheless, I sought to learn more about my teammates in order to establish common ground and build a trusting relationship with each member. While we still struggled to settle our differences in times of stress, I found that all of us were very sensitive to our cultural differences and very open to ideas from each other. This, along with the group cohesiveness, allowed us to work well throughout the project and eventually get the grade we all wanted. I also found that it was especially useful as a leader to wait until everyone has spoken, before I make my decision. This lets my team feel like they have been heard individually, and that whatever decision I make, it is with the consideration of their contributions. Particularly, in the case of such a multi-cultural team, it is even more necessary to do so, because of the diversity of perspectives.
Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Hughes, R. L., Ginnett, R. C., & Curphy, G. J. (2012). Leadership: Enhancing the lessons of experience. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies.