x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Growing up in the family and workplace

The Life: Cultures can collide: the contrasting backgrounds of a boss and his employee result in workplace miscommunication.

I am speaking at the Emiratisation Congress this week and plan to highlight a birthday milestone that also shapes the way leaders manage - the 18th birthday.

As harsh as it sounds, parents in the West usually pride themselves on raising their children to become independent and leave home when they turn 18. Thinking back on my own upbringing, there was little option other than to pack my stuff, head to college then independently enter the world. Deep down, parents feel they have failed when this doesn't happen and they certainly brag that "little Johnny" is off on his own.

In Arab society, however, it is shameful and inconceivable to kick children out of a home. Just as western parents are saying goodbye, Arab parents almost demand their children stay at home until they are married, even encouraging them to bring the new spouse to live in the family home - or at least next door.

So, you can imagine the shock and frustration when these two approaches collide, which they often do. Let's look to Mike and Mohammed to see what happens.

Mike, an expat manager, was committed to nationalisation. He took it very seriously and instructed his HR department to hire a new Emirati graduate for a vacancy he had coming up. With his heart in the right place, Mike looked forward to grooming the recruit to be a strong future leader for the company.

Actively involved in the interview process, Mike met each candidate himself, including Mohammed. Mohammed had all of the tangible recruitments - the right degree, test scores, psychometric profile and so on. Mike liked Mohammed a lot and his gut said yes.

Mohammed looked forward to working for Mike. He thought Mike was genuinely interested in him and would help his career grow.

They started working together and Mike spent considerable time helping Mohammed learn the ways of the company and build his private sector achievement - something that was important to a first generation corporate citizen. Everything seemed to be going well.

One day Mohammed presented a new project idea to Mike. Liking the idea, and even more Mohammed's confidence, Mike said: "Go for it." With a vote of confidence he sent him on his way.

The next day Mohammed visited Mike again with a number of questions. At first Mike answered but later pushed him away to go and independently get the project done. This interaction continued: Mike kept telling Mohammed he believed he could do it, sending him back out. In his eyes he was practising a leadership style that came naturally to him - pushing his employees to be independent.

But how do you think Mohammed felt? Without meaning any harm, Mike was giving Mohammed a message that he did not really care or have the time for him.

Mohammed began to wonder: "why is my boss not giving me face time any more? He used to have time to teach and mentor me"

In turn, Mike questioned his selection and belief in Mohammed, wondering why he was not performing.

Despite their best intentions, the relationship broke down and it stemmed from different perceptions of independence and adulthood. Mike was pushing Mohammed to go it alone and Mohammed was looking for support from his boss.

This scenario lives out day after day across the Middle East. A secret to success is to understand how parental and familial models shape the way we lead and want to be led.


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