· 2 min read · Features

Leadership without borders


What happens when your team is virtual and spread across offices, countries and cultures? Without informal human connections, how do you as a leader gauge the relative strengths and weaknesses of the people you work with?

The globalisation of teams has amplified the importance of finding ways to understand each individual’s way of looking at the world and ways to collaborate.

One way to build understanding of individual and group dynamics is to use personality profiling. No longer confined to recruitment and assessment, profiling is becoming a valuable tool in providing a common language around behaviour, optimising performance and the dynamics of teams operating across borders and cultures.

Some of the impetus for the growing use of cross-cultural personality profiling is coming from managers themselves as they seek support from HR. But post-recession, HR departments are also using these tools to help re-build international teams that were disrupted by restructuring.

The definition of successful leadership has long been couched in purely Western terms. The charismatic, decisive, stable extrovert has been the end-game for many leadership development programmes. But does this work in other cultures or contexts, and how can this impact international teams?

To better understand this we researched 50,000 national personality profiles from 48 countries around the world, using our own profiling tool to define national characteristics that arise both between and within cultures.

We found that if a manager combines an understanding of cultural and societal norms with insight into how he or she will be perceived, the strengths they bring to teamwork across cultures will be greatly enhanced. After all, leading others is not only just about the values and style of the leader, it's also about understanding the values, preferences and motivations of their team.

For example, the degree to which managers are personally supportive and empathetic has a big impact on team dynamics. We discovered that people from the Czech Republic and Romania have a strong business focus and tend to take a more authoritarian approach.  Managers set the direction, with high expectations and strict codes of conduct.  In contrast, in Norway the boss is seen as a coach and facilitator – a first among equals. Decisions are consensual and communication is open and engaging.  

It is the understanding of these differences, and your own natural style, that helps bridge any gaps created by distance and culture. Employing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach can be problematic and does not account for cultural and individual differences.

Case study

We worked with a small team in Vietnam that is part of a large multinational and had to become more integrated with the business. Cross-country collaboration was the new way of working, where previously activity was more self-contained, with little need to engage beyond borders. Feedback on this team had been varied, but it was widely identified as not being able to work effectively together.

By using national character profiles, we were able to help the group understand how they were perceived by others in the organisation both within Asia and in North America.

While they were decisive, enthusiastic, driven and successful when compared to others in the same country, when compared to international colleagues they were seen as indecisive, unwilling to make a final decision or taking a long time to do so. Moreover, they were considered introverted, un-commercial and overly process driven. They were also singled out for not speaking u, or contributing valuable ideas.

This new understanding and awareness allowed them to adapt their work style, contributing more successfully to cross-country collaboration. It also improved their ability to work across process lines and with teams from other areas. 

Tracy Arnold is head of Facet5UK, a personality profiling company.