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Leading different cultures


For many people working in the MENA region, the idea of a multicultural team of people from different countries and cultures is an easy thing to imagine. This is because many of us work in organisations with a great diversity of locals and expats from across the world, bringing different experiences and cultural expectations to bare on daily working life. There are, of course, many advantages to this diversity – from the range of skills and ideas it draws in, to the richer experience that employees receive, simply by coming into work.


But does this cultural diversity also present challenges for leaders?


In an article last year for The National, ADUKG CEO Dr. Ahmad Badr, discussed this issue with reference to the concept of cultural intelligence. In it, Dr. Badr explained that “Cultural intelligence is a measure of how well a person is able to recognise these cultural quirks and differences, identifying the division between individual idiosyncrasies and the cultural underpinnings of a particular group”.


Cultural intelligence is, then, a crucial component of any successful leader’s tool-set. It helps a person to adjust their approach based on a real insight and understanding of the difference between individual personality traits and the particular culture of a group of people. This is important in a workplace such as the UAE, where the expectations of how a leader should lead can vary between different cultures – both from those doing the leading and those being led.


Different research studies have repeatedly found that different cultures tend to view the demands of leadership differently, while even anecdotally, many people can probably think of an example where a “clash of cultures” has produced a less than perfect work interaction. Think, for example, of a subordinate who is left confused by a leader’s informal leadership style, or another who might react just as badly to an overly-authoritative, highly-structured kind of approach.


The most important, and most basic understanding a leader can therefore gain to overcome this challenge is the awareness that their current approach is unlikely to be universal, and that flexibility is likely to be a better route to successful leadership. This involves looking at their own style frequently, learning all they can from observation of different cultures, and being prepared to alter an approach that doesn’t seem to be working.

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