x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Collective consciousness provides the means to achievement

Leaders need to follow the traditional patriarchal style of leadership and put the "we" back into "me".

I still laugh when I think about buying my first new car after marrying into an Arab family. What I learnt that day was far more valuable than how to buy a car in the Middle East. I learnt about the “me” in “we” and how you are never separated from the group.

One day we were at my in-laws for lunch, which is not a simple small gathering, when my wife announced to her family that I was thinking of buying a new car. A storm of opinions as to what car, where to buy it, and so on started flying across the table.

I leaned back from the table and silently laughed as my wife’s brother, sister, cousins, nephews, parents, and even some people that I didn’t even know were relatives, passionately gave their opinion and took an active role in deciding what car I should drive. Yet none of them were paying for it.

In the end, I conformed and decided it would be wise to consider my father-in-law’s counsel, as it appeared to be the “group” thing to do.

The family enjoys an active role in each family member’s life when it comes to deciding whom to marry, where to work and live, and even what type of car to drive, among other matters. In this highly relationship-orientated society, each family works towards the long-term accumulation of position, prestige, standing, relationship and respect.

The effect of relationships is felt in practically every facet of life, including the way that business is carried out. It is, in a sense, how business is typically done – based predominantly upon relationships. As a result, in local organisations it is accepted, even desired, for leaders to adopt a patriarchal approach that models the familial relationship approach; however, expatriates expect self-sufficiency and personal initiative to overcome challenges.

Because of this, some expatriates wrongly criticise their local counterparts for not making timely decisions. To do so is to misunderstand the real purpose behind people’s behaviour. Employees act and interact within the decision-making processes of recognisable groups, looking to the patriarch for the final decision. He provides the purpose and modalities of each important decision.

The business context is hierarchal and consultative at the same time. On the surface, the group-individual dynamic can seem paradoxical to an outsider. While authority in the region ultimately rests on a single patriarch, that figure nonetheless is supposed to take others’ opinion into account when making decisions. The result is an environment that can be surprisingly conducive to mutual consultation for major decisions.

Consultation shapes the decision-making processes in significant ways. Culturally it is encouraged to decide affairs in consultation with those who will be affected by that decision. As a concept and long-standing local institution, shura – meaning “consultation” – is fundamentally different from other highly formalised political processes around the world. The irony is that it also breathes structure into the informal interactions within either family or business – certainly more so than in the West.

Two national cultural dimensions, collectivism and individualism, have frequently been used to understand how cultural dimensions affect human behaviour. The polarity of these cultural dimensions is primarily due to recognition that theories in management and organisational psychology have been based on individualistic cultures.

In general, management theories are aligned with Euro-American cultures. Their tendency to be individualistic stems in part from an environment in which self-reliance is highly valued. People from this orientation tend to be more self-centred and think of themselves as individuals, distinct from others.

Given the “family” influence creating a group culture, leaders need to understand that “me” is never separated from “we”, and as a result should leverage the group norm to positively effect performance and belonging.

Tommy Weir is a leadership adviser, author of 10 Tips for Leading in the Middle East and other leadership writings and the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center