From the Desk of an Intercultural Coach: Get On My Back
We all want great leaders, but what we look for in a leader differs…
Having received her first job offer at a corporation, Ling was thrilled to find herself relocating to Newark, New Jersey. She was looking forward to the opportunity, she had finished her PhD in Seattle, WA, and felt she had a handle on how to work with U.S. nationals—or so she thought. Right from her initial cross-cultural coaching session, Ling found herself despairing at how badly things were going during her first month on the job.
“When my boss delegates to me, I feel lost about how to go about solving the problem. I get the sense she delegates it to me and then expects me to complete the task. I am embarrassed to say, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ I am not getting much guidance. I am new and do not want to look needy—always asking for help. How do I know if I am on the right path? My boss’s lack of structure leaves me wondering if she is an effective leader. Or if she's testing me or setting me up to fail?”
Ling elaborated, “Another concern I have is that the task I am to complete is not important. If it were, my manager would make sure I am on the right track by overseeing my work. My sense is she is not a good boss and the project is not a priority. She lacks structure and does not teach me how she wants the job to be done.”
In Ling’s case, there are different factors at play with the main two being:
- A move from China to the United States—which includes a dramatic shift from a hierarchical culture to an egalitarian culture.
- A shift from academia to the corporate sector—which includes a pivot from working with a doctoral advisor, who teaches, guides, and corrects and treats her advisees much like an apprentice, to working in a fast-paced competitive pharma company in a direct and low context region of the United States.
Ling comes from a culture where hierarchy, face, and micro-management are expected leadership traits. In China, leaders are supposed to know more than their subordinates (or at least appear to, so as not to lose face). Chinese leaders often show subordinates the path and how to travel down this path. Conversely, American leaders provide more autonomy and have an egalitarian approach: “Here is the end result we are looking for. Now find the path on your own, carve your own path. Let me know if you need additional resources.”
The truth is that leadership comes down to trust. Do I trust my leader’s competency? Does my leader trust me? Do I trust my ability to meet my leader’s expectations? Do I trust my leader to have my back? Will my leader forgive me, teach me or reprimand me if I fail? Depending on one’s culture, trust can be shown in different ways. Understanding how to read the different cues is critical.
What Ling lacked was an understanding of U.S. culture, despite feeling comfortable working with U.S. nationals. After time spent linking behavior to deep-rooted cultural values during our cross-cultural coaching sessions, Ling felt equipped to request a meeting with her manager to discuss expectations—on both sides of the table. I explained to Ling that in the U.S., we say, “Get off my back!” when being micro-managed. Ling charmingly retorted, “But I want my boss to get on my back!”
Insights from an Intercultural Coach
- Discussing questions and concerns with an Intercultural Coach is a useful and “safe” way for individuals to understand how cultural values link to leadership expectations.
- Exploring the impact that national culture has on one’s leadership style, as well as one’s expectations of leadership, illustrates there is no single best way to lead across cultures.
- Managers can also learn to be more inclusive by learning about management expectations in different cultures and adjusting their style to ensure talent from other countries feel secure in their new roles and new environments.
If you are interested in learning more about Cartus’ Cross-Cultural Coaching, please contact your Cartus representative or email firstname.lastname@example.org.