The 2005 global merger between Chinese and U.S. tech giants Lenovo and IBM was no simple matter. The companies knew differences in Western and Eastern leadership styles posed an obstacle to unity. Rather than simply allowing the dominant company to set the tone, they embarked on a revolutionary process to take the best of the East and the West.
In the end, Lenovo and IBM came away with a consistent model of leadership and a revolutionary management program to train future leaders.
How Western and Eastern Leadership Styles Differ
Great leaders come from every corner of the globe, but their leadership styles tend to vary, impacting employees in the global workforce on a daily basis.
Western leadership, for instance, focuses on individualism. It celebrates personal achievement and rewards performance with career advancement. This results-driven environment creates competition among teams and pits employees against each other for promotions.
Eastern leadership, by comparison, places emphasis on collective successes by prioritizing teamwork, collaboration, and collective decision-making. Under this style of leadership, individual employees put the needs of the group ahead of their own. Boasting is infrequent, as results speak for themselves. For advancement, employees rely more on influence than their own achievements.
The Western style of communication is direct. Leaders speak their minds and encourage employees to express their opinions.
Comparatively, communication in Eastern styles of leadership is indirect, relying on nonverbal and contextual cues to convey meaning. When people disagree, they tend to show it in their silence. Employees often “save face” by avoiding confrontation or criticism in meetings. For example, they may profess to understand something in a group setting but ask for help in private. Feedback is also less direct. Rather than stating an issue openly, leaders may offer tips that address the problem indirectly.
Western work culture is also more relaxed, allowing employees and leaders to draw more heavily from creativity. They’re willing to try new things and will put their neck on the line for something they believe in. But in Eastern workplaces, deep respect for seniority leads to a more formal culture wherein employees exhibit less appetite for risk and prefer group decisions.
How Leaders Adapt to Include Diverse Ideas from Everyone in the Global Workplace
In the modern workplace, not everyone has the same background or experiences, but this is a core strength of the contemporary work environment. By embracing diversity, leaders are able to look at and solve problems from fresh, new perspectives.
When leaders foster diverse teams, they also foster stronger, more innovative ideas. No leader can think of everything or look at a problem from every angle, so the more ideas a team collectively contributes, the better its final execution. Picture a mountain—the wider the base, the higher the peak.
A level playing field is the key to empowering everyone to communicate and work together. Leaders need to give every employee the freedom to express their unique experiences, values, beliefs, and practices in their work.
To achieve this, leaders should start by facilitating open communication. This reduces reliance on one-on-one private chats and requires everyone to share in public channels, promoting equal and open visibility across the organization. An example of this process in action would be employees sharing work in a public Slack channel rather than submitting it directly to the manager.
Next, leaders must hold everyone accountable to the same standards. They should provide all employees with equal feedback and recognition, which reduces competition by leveling the playing field for salaries and responsibilities throughout the workplace.
As leaders create opportunities for collaboration that involve everyone—despite their background and communication style—misunderstandings are bound to arise. Leaders can help employees move past these hurdles by encouraging questions and honest conversations. This cultivates an environment that enables people to acknowledge differences, understand each other more deeply, and connect in meaningful ways.
Still, no leader should expect their employees to fully understand or be in tune with several different types of cultures. This is why they should set an expectation for people to voice concerns during this process, as well as provide avenues for team members to share feedback anonymously.
Soft Skills Keep Leaders Open to New Ways of Thinking and Leading in the Global Workplace
To foster a workplace environment that acknowledges the strengths of different cultures, leaders must develop a set of essential soft skills. Communication and active listening, for example, enable them to create a culture of open-mindedness and collaboration, while empathy allows them to build trust by understanding and appreciating the perspectives of those around them.
Emotional intelligence and resilience are two other soft skills leaders need to develop, as they help them learn how to regulate their internal emotions and empower them to bounce back from setbacks and challenges in a fast-paced, ever-evolving workplace. And, perhaps most importantly, cultural acceptance is a soft skill that enables leaders to include and benefit from the diversity of everyone’s culture, language, and traditions.
Of course, leaders still require hard skills to remain effective, but technical knowledge can be easily taught as it shifts with the influx of new technology. Soft skills, on the other hand, are like muscles that need to be developed over time. They will never cease to be useful as leaders navigate relationships, influence people, and adapt to new challenges. Ultimately, soft skills develop as leaders grow and learn more about themselves.
Nellie Wartoft is a Swedish entrepreneur who launched social learning platform Tigerhall in 2019, revolutionizing how professionals learn from one another in the real world. Under her leadership, Tigerhall has quickly gained traction with users across 32 countries and employees in 12 markets. She has raised over $10 million in venture capital from visionary investors such as Sequoia Capital and Monk’s Hill Ventures, and Tigerhall’s customers include global Fortune 500 firms in technology, fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), professional services, and financial services.
Before founding Tigerhall, Wartoft was a top biller at Michael Page, where she led the sales and marketing practice and saw firsthand the issues in talent development and enterprise learning and how the technology used in corporate learning led to employee dissatisfaction and disengagement in their own professional development. Her experience led her to launch Tigerhall, which bridges the skills gap by providing actionable insights from industry experts, or Thinkfluencers, delivered in ways that leverage common user behaviors familiar to people from their favorite social apps.