Managing a Multicultural Team. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it!

This post is by Paul Murphy, Director of Channel Sales, Asia-Pacific.

It is commonly assumed that leadership behaviors are driven by the cultural norms of a given country or region. But research shows that organizational culture is actually a much stronger driver of leadership behaviors than is country or regional culture.

For example, an employee at a large US multinational in China is far more likely to use the behavioral norms of that organization than those of her home country. Similarly, an English manager working for a local Japanese firm is much more likely to embrace the behaviors of that firm than those of his home country.

What does differ dramatically inside multicultural organizations is the way people communicate. A US manager wanting to take a directive approach with an employee will likely use very clear and concise language, whereas a Chinese manager in the same location may use a more subtle and circular message to direct an employee. Both managers are being directive, but their communication styles are very different.

It is easy to confuse leadership style with communication style. In Situational Leadership® II, we learn that leaders must apply differing degrees of directive or supportive behavior depending on the development level of the direct report.  The challenge is not to look at which style of leadership (directive vs. supportive) is most appropriate in a certain culture, but to take a closer look at how we communicate that style with each other.

Here are a few things to remember:

  • All cultures have both supportive and directive leadership. However, the way these styles are perceived may differ. Just because an employee perceives that their manager isn’t being clear doesn’t mean the manager isn’t being directive.
  • Pay attention to leadership style and communication style. It is possible to act in a supportive manner while communicating in a way that may be perceived as directive.
  • Position your organizational culture as the key driver of behaviors. Make allowances for communication styles, but still identify desired directive and supportive behaviors for leaders.

Leaders from any background, though they inevitably have a preferred leadership style, should be able to learn to flex their style with a bit of training. However, their communication style may still be misunderstood by colleagues from different backgrounds if their communication styles are misaligned.

Use these tips to keep your focus on communicating the right leadership style appropriately!

About the Author

paul-murphyPaul Murphy is the Director of Channel Sales, Asia-Pacific, responsible for all aspects of the indirect channel business within APAC for The Ken Blanchard Companies. Paul is based in Hong Kong and can be reached at

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