x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

How to adapt at work

The Life: How companies in the UAE are offering intercultural training for expatriates.

Kamran Hussain is the vice president of Kwintessential Arabia, a company that offers multicultural training in the Emirates. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Kamran Hussain is the vice president of Kwintessential Arabia, a company that offers multicultural training in the Emirates. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Business may be fundamentally the same the world over, but management style differs greatly.

Suggestions by subordinates might be welcomed in one culture but seen as inappropriate in another. Employees in a new country may be confused if bosses are not more hands-on, or feel stifled when they are.

These concerns are particularly acute in the UAE, where expatriates make up the majority of the workforce.

"If someone's coming from the UK they've got expectations or experience based on British culture and then move across to the UAE where things are slightly different, the reaction can be negative," says Neil Payne, a director of Kwintessential Arabia. He helps run the office along with Kamran Hussain, the company's vice president.

It is one of a small number of companies, including Embrace Arabia and Spearhead Training, offering multicultural training in the Emirates.

"What we do is really give an explanation of the differences between them, how locals prefer to manage and how to interpret certain behaviours or actions so that when these things do come up it doesn't result in a negative response."

The relationship between boss and subordinate tends to be more acute in the Middle East. Managers expect to be spoken to in a more formal manner and dealt with more deference than those in Europe.

"If you're someone from the UK you may be used to giving feedback to your boss on their decisions or company policy but you go into the Arab world where if you did that, in a public setting anyway, it would not go down very well," Mr Payne says.

Any criticism or challenges to ideas and opinions should usually be done in private and in the right context. Similarly, local managers do not like to publicly chastise employees, because the employees could lose dignity and respect.

"People in the UAE will not want to upset others in order to push through a deadline. Managers would therefore expect deadlines to be met, [but] would show flexibility should other priorities come into play. Subordinates should take the same approach to their manager," says Mr Payne.

Managers tend to reach decisions only after discussing the matter with major stakeholders, which takes time and careful navigation.

"Emiratis are event rather than time-driven. If you try to rush things, you will give offence and risk your business relationship, so patience is a necessary cross-cultural attribute," he adds.

Mr Payne says the style of Arab management is typically less structured than it is in the West but bosses tend to keep a close eye on staff as a deadline approaches.

Expatriates attending Kwintessential Arabia courses also learn there is a tendency to avoid issuing bad news and sometimes to give flowery acceptances, which may only mean "perhaps".

Emiratis are tough negotiators, he says, but high-pressure sales tactics are generally not appreciated.

"Repeating your main points indicates you are telling the truth. Emiratis may repeatedly ask the same question to see if your response is consistent." Mr Payne says demand for cultural awareness training among companies and executives has remained steady.

"As the cultural differences have become more on the agenda and more in the media as well, there has been a bit of an uplift in terms of interest but it's been pretty steady for a number of years," he says.

Most of the courses offered by Kwintessential Arabia last for a day and cost a minimum of Dh10,000 (US$2,720) a person.