Managing Across Cultures

‘Research seems to point at race, specifically, as having a significant influence on leadership attributes’


SA is in a prime position to marry its two cultures into a “best-of-both-words” style of management

Dr. Kay Brugge Specialist Coach at My Pocket Coach

With the global realisation that business success requires the integration of opposites, SA is in a strong position to lead the way in merging its dominant individualistic (Eurocentric) style of management with the emerging communalistic (Afrocentric) approach.

There is a definitive call for synergy or an emergent “best of both worlds” hybrid between the traditional western approach based on power relations and the African humanistic philosophy of Ubuntu, which fosters creative co-operation.

RECONCILING the leadership dualities that exist in SA presents a number of challenges, with much debate having gone into effectively managing across cultures. Cultural differences influence individuals’ perceptions and attitudes towards management, as well as their motivation to comply with certain management styles and expectations. This is where management’s role needs to evolve in harmony with the cultures in which they are rooted. And, research seems to point at race, specifically, as having a significant influence on leadership attributes.

Both an individualistic (Eurocentric) and communalistic orientation exist in SA, with the dominant management practices, for historical reasons, being Western. They are seen to be based on power relations, and not always driven by the quest for consensus between managers and those managed.

They are also in stark contrast with the African humanistic philosophy of Ubuntu and its associated leadership style, which fosters creative co-operation, open communication and teamwork, as well as reciprocal moral obligation.

But there is a definitive call for synergy, or an emergent “best of both worlds” hybrid between Eurocentric and Afrocentric leadership approaches and management styles. This has been formally termed “pragmatic humanism” by the corporate crusader, Albert Koopman, and would seek to build trust and respect for different values and common values, and foster learning.

This consensus is also consistent with the global realisation that business success requires the integration of opposites, as opposed to identifying them as inconsistencies and rejecting them. And, while the existence of “either-or” helps to rationalise personal styles, viewpoints and structures, the resultant polarities are overly simplistic and misleading. To be successful in today’s complex, rapidly changing and highly competitive business environment, critical opposites must be embraced and managed.

Patrick Fitzgerald, director; graduate school of public and development management at Wits University, argues: “It is incontrovertible that American, French or Japanese managers do not manage in the same style or manner- yet successful management cultures exist in all these societies.”

It can, however, be argued that the emotional and moral intelligence inherent in the South African context and particularly the African leadership approaches are a requirement for a truly successful management culture. Yet, both the Eurocentric and Afrocentric approaches have strengths and limitations as will be explored. In fact, the very strengths can become the biggest weaknesses.

In an article entitled, Why CEOs Fail, Fortune Magazine listed six habits of highly ineffective CEOs. Failure to implement the right corporate strategy was not one of them – rather it was the deceptively simple emotional intelligence shortcoming termed “people problems”.

Emotional intelligence, simply defined, means the ability to understand and manage one’s emotions and those of others.

EQ rather than technical skills, intellect or a track- record alone are determining factors in leadership, employee and organisational success. Conversely, lack of emotional intelligence skills- such as problems with interpersonal relationships and adaptability- are related to executive derailment (demotions, reaching a plateau or being fired).

According to Beverly McNally and Ken Perry, in an article titled Phenomenological examination of chief executive derailment/failure, executive derailment is linked to some enduring themes:

  • Problems with relationships;
  • A failure to meet business objectives;
  • Inability to build and lead a team;
  • Inability to develop or adapt (rigidity);
  • Insensitivity to others, cool, aloof, arrogant, overly ambitious.

Conversely, leadership skills that are directly related to emotional intelligence are participative management; the ability to put people at ease; self-awareness; building and mending relationships; decisiveness (which requires independence); doing whatever it takes; straightforwardness and composure; confronting problem employees (which requires assertiveness); and change management.

A number of characteristics ascribed to the Afrocentric and Eurocentric approaches and leadership styles as well as cultural dimensions can be analysed from the perspective of whether they reflect emotional intelligence, (EQ) and/or moral and cultural intelligence.  These are outlined below.

Harmonising Relationships, Co-operation and Collectivism

Harmonising relationships and co-operation falls under the interpersonal emotional competence of social relationships. Embedded in the African philosophy of Ubuntu with its inclusivist and collectivist orientation, this resonates a fundamental emotional intelligence capability related to leadership effectiveness. This includes such things as participative management that forms good working relationships mending relationships, co-operation and constructive group membership.

Organisations are placing increased value on interpersonal relationships and managers who do not handle their emotions well, who lack understanding of themselves, their emotions and those of others, or who are abrasive or abusive, make others uncomfortable.

Participative management echoes the important value of interdependency, which is close to one definition of Ubuntu, stating ‘I am because we are,’’ and involves, among others, getting the necessary buy-in. The ability to develop and maintain working relationships with various internal and external factors is related to the intrapersonal emotional intelligence competence of impulse control.

Compassion and affirming others

Compassion and affirmation of others, which includes nurturing and a humane orientation, are recognised as key interpersonal emotional competencies related to interpersonal relationships, namely empathy. Empathy, as a form of moral intelligence, is a powerful tool to manage conflict; having to tune into another person’s feelings helps a person to think more clearly, and show passion and forgiveness.

Within organisations, empathy is significant to understanding others’ needs and feelings and to help them develop through feedback. Within the South-African cross-cultural management context, empathy, as an emotional and moral intelligence, is critical to leveraging diversity by respecting people from varied backgrounds, exhibiting sensitivity to group differences, harnessing diversity as an opportunity and creating an environment where people can learn and challenge any bias and intolerance that might exist.

Open Communication

The Ubuntu-driven community concept requires that management be approachable and the atmosphere be informal with a free flow of information. Among black South Africans, for example, the focus is on oral communication and the personalisation of relationships as a form of building trust.

Communication is an interpersonal emotional competency necessary to deal with difficult issues in a straightforward fashion, to seek mutual understanding, to welcome sharing of information and to foster collaboration and trust. Feedback itself is critical to foster self-awareness about our mental “blind spots” as it is a simple reality that others tend to see us a little clearer than we see ourselves. Self- awareness, an intrapersonal emotional competency in turn, constitutes a cornerstone of emotional literacy and relates to understanding one’s strengths and weaknesses as well as one’s emotions and their effect on others and oneself. All of these are self- management and interpersonal management- related competencies.

Business and Corporate Responsibility

Central to the Ubuntu- based Afrocentric approach is the notion of “social responsibility”, which includes being “other- oriented” and “process- oriented”, with the emphasis on humane orientation, communal responsiveness and communal responsibility. An interpersonal emotional competence and social responsibility is important as it relates to being co-operative and a constructive member of one’s social group. It also means contributing to organisational goals, while being aware of the greater good and contributions to society as a whole. This supersedes emotional intelligence to include moral intelligence.

Individualism versus Collectivism

If individualism echoes independence, then the Eurocentric rather than Afrocentric notion has merit from an emotional intelligence perspective. Independence is defined as self- reliance and self- directedness in people’s thinking and actions. Within an organisational context people with this emotional competence rarely depend on others for important decisions. They also do not do things for them even though they may still pay attention or use ideas from others when appropriate.

A study by the University of South Africa Graduate School of Business Leadership (GSBL) on cultural similarities and differences based on racial influences within the South African context in 2001 showed that, typically, black managers measured higher on collectivism than white managers, for instance.

Hierarchy/ Stratification/ Power Relations

The Eurocentric concepts of hierarchy, stratification and power relations, which are entrenched in the command- and- control model, while no longer considered effective, are also generally not considered to be “emotionally intelligent”. They preclude participative management, which in turn is rooted in other intrapersonal and interpersonal emotional intelligence competencies, such as forming good working relationships, being co-operative and constructive members of a group, and controlling anger and other impulses.


The GSBL study showed that white managers measured higher (above average) than black managers (below average) on assertiveness. Assertiveness is an interpersonal emotional intelligence competency.

Organisationally, this competence is seen as a key leadership skill and also helps people to share ideas effectively, work more cohesively and deal with problem employees in a non- detrimental way.

Often a lack of assertiveness is due to personal rather than cultural reasons. It is feasible that some people lack assertiveness in spite, rather than because of culture. It is easier to ramp up someone’s assertiveness than tune down their aggressiveness, which should put assertiveness as an important, leadership skill within the reach of those who lack it.

The Learning Organisation

In his book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge notes that “Our traditional view of leaders- as special people who set the direction, make the key decisions and energise the troops, are deeply rooted in an individualistic and non- systematic worldview. In learning organisations, leaders are designers, stewards and teachers.”

To this one may add that they are also servant leaders, who help their employees accomplish their own goals. Learning organisations, which exhibit emotional and moral intelligence, are able to innovate, adapt and grow in a rapidly changing and competitive environment.

The elements of emotional and moral intelligence that are inherent, particularly in the Afrocentric approach to leadership, resonate with few exceptions, the gist of the learning organisation.  Senge says the learning organisation is characterised by:

  • People contributing to something larger than themselves. These visions still emanate from the individual but reach beyond self- interest. This finds expression in the notion of Ubuntu, a life orientation that is opposed to individualism and insensitive competitiveness and which promotes social responsibility but not to a point of depersonalising the individual;
  • Participative and reflective openness. The former relates to participative management, the latter to looking inward with the willingness to challenge one’s thinking and accept that others may be right and we may be wrong, and to accept this graciously. It requires developing skills of inquiry, reflection and dialogue which have the emotional and moral intelligence equivalents of communication, harmonising relationships, empathy, self- awareness and assertiveness;
  • A shared (not imposed) vision provides the energy and focus for generative learning which occurs when people strive to accomplish what they value deeply. If an organisation resonates a set of beliefs that corresponds with that of their people, they become energized. Building such a vision from the bottom up requires the ability to inspire, but also integrity, and draws on the total spectrum of emotional and moral intelligence. The Afrocentric leadership approach of harmonising relationships, collectively, co-operation and dialogue are key to cementing a shared vision; and
  • Team learning. This is vital as teams, and not individuals, contribute to learning in modern organisations. This, in part, requires one to determine what in the pattern of team interaction undermines learning which, in turn, requires dealing with defensiveness through dialogue, empathy and assertiveness.

We should be realistic and caution against becoming overly sentimental about the Afrocentric approach, as both this and the Eurocentric approaches to leadership have their strengths and limitations, some of which are considered below.

When Strengths Become Weaknesses

Many black executives have shared their frustrations with me of trying to “marry” their natural affinity for the philosophy of Ubuntu with what is seen to be best business practices. Harmonising and personalising relationships, compassion, servant leadership and dialogue are all in line with good leadership and the requirements of the learning organisation, and thus strengths.

Yet, these process orientations become a weakness when black managers, as they tell me, have to deal firmly with problem employees who do not deliver. The black managers are concerned that, when laying down the law, they may alienate them, hurt their feelings, impede future working relationships or highlight organisational inefficiencies.

As one executive put it, he feels constant conflict between his philosophy of Ubuntu and the demands of the balanced scorecard (the business performance evaluation model that balances measures of financial performance, internal operations, customer satisfaction and innovation and learning). Failure to deal decisively and openly with problem employees and instances where they may act ineffectually is thus never properly examined. These cover-ups and defense routines can create dysfunctional learning behaviours as they prevent detection of different perspectives and truths. They are furthermore not emotionally intelligent behaviours and, as discussed, are related to executive derailment.

Similarly, many of the behaviours associated with the command and control model are double-edged swords, too; particularly when in the hands of alpha males; who represent about 70% of all senior executives according to the Harvard Business Review. Being decisive, assertive and using a direct communication style are associated with emotionally intelligent leadership and can be considered beneficial. However, these behaviours, when not kept in check, can be perceived as intimidating, autocratic, aggressive, uninspiring or even closed-minded. Or they may be perceived as non- participative and devoid of responsiveness to the need for a process orientation, joint exploration, learning and a collectivist/ team orientation, as opposed to individualism. All of these behaviours are associated with the learning organisation.

Fitzgerald states that leadership is “… a lost recipe, which we are only able to cook imperfectly, or on occasion, when all the ingredients come right, almost by accident”.

This is a wise and elegant view in that a good meal is always more than the sum total of its ingredients. Even isolating the ingredients through reverse engineering, in the hope of reconstituting that perfect meal, will not achieve the desired objective, as many hopefuls have discovered by isolating corporate success “recipes”.

This is also true for organisations, whose culture arises “almost by accident”. It is not different cultures that make it what it is, it is neither emotional intelligence or moral intelligence alone. It is the nature of the pattern of the relationships between the people that make up the organisation. While they bring their respective cultures, personalities, genders, expectations, personal learning experiences, hopes and dreams to the party, the result is emergent- a learning process- something novel, something that never existed before (and probably cannot be repeated).

This may explain why organisations in spite of being rooted in some overarching mold, whether Eurocentric or Afrocentric, have very idiosyncratic and emergent corporate cultures which defy the simplistic dichotomies so readily attributed to different cultural groups constituting them.

Act yourself into a new way of thinking

Organisations, whether Eurocentric or Afrocentric, have idiosyncratic and emergent corporate cultures which defy the simplistic dichotomies so readily attributed to different cultural groups constituting them. This is why organisations get it completely wrong when they send their managers on life-coaching programs in the hope of ramping up their assertiveness. Or, in typical chauvinistic style, they send their female managers to make them “less aggressive”. These strategies are based on a disregard for the notion that behaviour is context-specific and a function of interaction between people.

At the least, leaders should be emotionally and culturally “intelligent” enough to facilitate learning and innovation, create a climate that allows for joint exploration and lots of process, rather than trying to control the manner  in which people relate to each other by implementing overly rigid, impersonal rules, or imposing top-down ‘visions’ and inflatable procedures that are driven by the bottom line and outcomes alone. It is useful to remember that we are much more basically human than otherwise. As the Harvard Business Review (May 2005) put it: “People more readily act themselves into a new way of thinking than think themselves into a new way of acting.” This alone will turn SA into a melting pot rather than a mosaic of approaches that make an uneasy or over easy blend.”

Dr Kay Brugge holds a PhD degree in psychology and neuropsychology and is a professional life strategist at My Pocket Coach.  Call us on (011) 781-1444