x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Cultures will collide in diverse UAE workplace

The Life: The diversity in the workforce requires every leader to acquire greater workplace intelligence.

With each passing year and the accumulated experiences, it becomes clear that what we accept as common, bleeding into normal, is really utter confusion under the surface. On one level it appears we have a collective workforce as diversity is accepted as the norm, but underneath the surface complexity still exists.

Depending on whose statistics you choose to believe, somewhere between 80 and 90 per cent of the nation's private-sector workforce is made up of expatriates. Knowing this makes me continually question what leaders should do when at least eight out of 10 of their staff are not working in their home country.

Each day when you show up to work you are really going to the United Nations; in effect you are the secretary general on a micro level. Let's dive in and make sense of what it means when the world shows up in your boardroom, office or shop floor.

The first thing to be aware of when leading expats is the fact they are not in their home nation; they have packed their bags and boarded the plane to work away from family, friends and familiar surroundings. This revelation brings a dichotomous reality with it: the motivations for expat decisions are common to one another and yet very different at the same time.

The commonality is that nearly every expat chooses to leave home and plant his or her career in another country for the opportunity. This aspect of the GCC puts a smile on my face - everyone is here because of the opportunity, they can do better than at home or they would not have "gone for it". Driving down Sheikh Zayed Road you can see the business owner in the Bentley beside you and the labourers filling the bus - each is succeeding in his or her own right.

The pursuit of a better life, success, is common among all. But, and it is a big but, the differences are vast. Some expats plan to just stop through on a contract posting to gain experience, build their resumé and then move on. Others are escaping conditions in their home countries and are sinking roots hoping they can create a new future for their family. And the most populous group is here for their work career, but plan to settle back home later in life.

These are examples of high-level differences at the meta level; if we had the time to dive deep we will find a plethora of distinctions. These create the collision that happens when cultures come together. I am not speaking of national debates between countries. However, these do come with employees when they come to work. While expats tend to be more open than their fellow-countrymen back home, they still retain historical biases.

As leaders what we need to do is to exhibit workplace intelligence, understanding and sensing where others are coming from and building a climate of trust. This is similar to the psychological concept of mentalisation, which describes the ability to understand what underlies others' behaviour. It is a leader's ability to understand where their employees are coming from and why.

This is the behavioural side of leading; it is the science of leadership. When cultures collide, you need the ability to perceive and interrupt employee behaviour and become responsive to the underlying drivers of their actions and attitudes. Without this you are handicapping your leadership impact, being myopic or accepting surface understanding as being sufficient.

The diversity in the workforce requires every leader to acquire greater workplace intelligence.


Tommy Weir is an authority on fast-growth and emerging-market leadership, an adviser and the author of The CEO Shift. He is the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center