If you are an MBA student from one of the western countries, you may have the impression that your Asian or Middle Eastern peers don’t have leadership qualities that are at par with yours. Some of these students could seem less competitive, less involved and less determined in your team exercises and may even underperform in your negotiation class.
However, most likely, the behavior of Asian and Middle Eastern students can be explained not by their less developed leadership skills but by differences in the definition of leadership in their cultures.
According to “Cultural Appropriateness of American Based MBA Leadership Topics, Service Learning and Instruction Style in a Kuwait University Program” by Terry Rodriguez from American University of the Middle East in Kuwait, there are significant differences between students from the Arab World and from the US:
- Americans rank achievement higher (62 out of 100) vs. nurturance scale than the Arab World (52 out of 100). Americans view achievement in a more favorable light than nurturance.
- Americans rank power distance (40 out of 100) low while the Arab World ranks large power distance much higher (80 out of 100). Where low power distance is present, managers and subordinates have egalitarian relationships with access to near equal levels of power. High power distance thrives inside hierarchical organizations where importance is placed on the social status of employees. In the Arab World, this would indicate inequality of power and privilege within the society and relative acceptance of this situation.
- Americans also rank Individualism (91 out of possible 100) versus collective concern for the group much higher than the Arab world (38 out of 100). The world average is 64. This infers that members of the Arab World would tend to have a strong commitment to the “group” (family, work, societal, etc.) to which they belong.
- Americans rank uncertainty avoidance much lower (46 out of 100) than the Arab World (68 out of 100). This high score in the Arab World would manifest itself in strict rules and policies; in attempts to control the unpredictable.
Emotional Disposition and Leadership Preferences of American and Chinese MBA Students by John Humphreys from Texas A&M University – Commerce, Nan Jiao from Dongbei University of Finance and Economics and Theresa Sadler from Texas A&M University – Commerce show similar results regarding cultural differences between US and Chinese students.
Dissimilar to archetypal American characteristics, Chinese are labeled as a collective and long-term oriented society whose citizens accept a large power distance and seek to avoid uncertainty. Due to their collectivist nature, Chinese followers are intent on the maintenance of harmony within group processes. They tend to exhibit durable organizational commitment and subordinate personal goals for group objectives, with relationships being more important than explicit technical abilities. In addition, they more easily accept the leader’s vision and authority than many in Western societies. In large part, this is due to the accepted power distance within Chinese traditions. Leadership in China tends to exhibit paternalistic and autocratic behaviors which are congruent with Confucian follower values and the Chinese perception of exemplary leadership. Chinese leaders tend to not trust followers and use legitimate power as a primary means of influence. Additional research shows that to avoid losing face, Chinese students prefer thinking carefully about the topic before answering the questions or participating in group discussions and favor listening over talking, as they believe that through listening they can learn best1.
All the findings indicate that intercultural differences may significantly impact team dynamics and leadership behavior at business schools with mixed classes including US and international students. Differences in appreciation of individualism vs. collectivism, democratic vs. paternalistic type of leadership, attitude towards uncertainty involved in the negotiation processes and levels of acceptable involvement in class discussions among students from different countries can complicate educational processes and create misunderstandings. Lack of awareness of these cultural differences may negatively impact outcomes of the learning experience and create unnecessary tensions between students from different cultures. While many international students highly value US leadership values and are interested in absorbing them as a part of their MBA education, the management of MBA programs should communicate existence of these differences in the beginning of the MBA programs and integrate materials addressing and narrowing cultural gaps into their leadership courses. In our view, awareness of these differences among students and the faculty should be the first step in this direction.
- Understanding Chinese International Graduate Students’ Adaptation to Learning in North America: A Cultural Perspective, Zhongheng Zhang Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Juan Xu Brock University, 2007
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