Culture Wars: Leading International Teams

The modern world is as interconnected as ever; even before the pandemic dispersed the workforce, technology was already fundamentally changing the world of work as we knew it. Several years later, more companies are relying on a geographically diverse workforce (us included) and are learning to manage the new challenges and uncertainties that come with it.

In a global team, there are different backgrounds, beliefs, religions, attitudes – which can’t be moulded into a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Cultural differences are enormous and when it comes to leading or growing a business internationally, being tuned into local standards and understanding their way of doing things is critical to effective leadership.

Cultural differences

There have been numerous studies looking into the cultural dimensions of leadership across the globe. For example, a German study by the Leuphana University of Lüneburg identified the most significant cultural workplace value is performance orientation – a culture of rewarding success, effort, and excellence. It also found low levels of compassion and interpersonal relations to be ‘straightforward and stern’ – a significant communication difference often seen in the way Germans (and many other parts of the world) can find Brits ‘waffly’ and ‘difficult to understand’.

The study finds effective German leaders are characterised by high performance orientation, low compassion, low self-protection, low team orientation, high autonomy, and high participation. According to the study, this may explain Germany’s economic accomplishments in the 20th century.

Similarly, in Korea, the upright leadership pyramid means bosses would find it difficult to have an older person reporting to them, in the same way that if a junior team member disagreed with a senior’s idea, it would be seen at best as disrespectful and ‘losing face’. Leadership is highly regarded, respected, and earnt.  

The Italian view of leadership too remains hierarchal – ultimate authority is accepted from above, and ‘power, strength, and masculinity’ are the key pillars of leadership. An attitude stemming from the roots of Catholicism and no doubt, magnified by portrayals in the media such as The Godfather and Goodfellas. 

On the other hand, in the Netherlands, strong and directive leadership is typically mistrusted and averted, rooted in the country’s laws and history which aim to avoid concentrations of power. An effective Dutch leader would display values of ‘procedural fairness, transparency, and responsiveness’ and be more ‘facilitative’ than decisive. 

Chinese communication styles are less direct and straightforward (not dissimilar to the British) with more of a focus on relationship building, and a common principle is that if someone does not trust you, they are unlikely to do business with you. 

With so many variations in principles and importantly, communication styles, what does this mean when managing international teams? 

Wolfgang Kick, our DACH Managing Director who started his career at professional services giant PwC, says the top-down leadership style, particularly for international teams “no longer works”. 

“People are more curious and eager to know the ‘whys’,” he says. “They want credibility, honesty, transparency, and authenticity. Leaders who believe what they’re saying, who don’t pay lip service, and who put their money where their mouth is.” 

Effective leadership fit for the global 21st century needs to be clued into the other principles, values, attitudes, and most importantly, communication styles of other cultures. Fostering an inclusive and understanding environment, of which everyone has equal airtime and participation, forms more effective teams. And diversity – and diversity of thought – makes for better outcomes and organisational performance. Countries which stick to ‘traditional’ modes of leadership will have to change eventually. 

Psychometric assessments

At Hyperion, we assess the makeup of the leadership team and the candidates we place to accurately calculate the potential working dynamic. Every person is different, in terms of their makeup and working style. Hyperion uses a tailored-to-the-client approach when finding the talent needed for successful teams. 

If you’d like to know more about how we support cleantech start-ups and scale-ups across the globe hire right and build winning, diverse, and high-performing leadership teams, please get in touch for a confidential and informal conversation.