x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

No place for colonialism in UAE workplaces

Working practices undertaken in an old, established market will not necessarily be a good fit when applied elsewhere

The British colonial administrator and one-time governor of Bengal Sir John Arthur Herbert (second from left) and his wife Mary on arrival in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1939. Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
The British colonial administrator and one-time governor of Bengal Sir John Arthur Herbert (second from left) and his wife Mary on arrival in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1939. Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

It's just downright wrong to show up at someone's house and start criticising them because they do things differently than you. It is even worse to try to impose your ways on them.

The other night at one of Dubai's numerous networking events, after being asked what I do and answering: "I am a executive leadership adviser and CEO coach", this new acquaintance replied: "Good, your work is really needed here, especially for the local businesses."

He went on to tell me that they (local businesses) really need to lead better, implying that they should lead like they do in his home country.

Unfortunately, it was not the first time that a foreigner practised what looks like modern-day colonialism.

Frustrated by this lack of perspective, it made me wonder: "Why do outsiders insist on practising business colonialism?"

Colonialism is a process whereby the "mother city" claims sovereignty over the colony, and the colonisers change the social structure, government and ways of life. In its purity, it is the establishment of colonies in one territory by people from another territory.

Bluntly speaking, colonialism consists of unequal relationships between colonists and the indigenous population where the perceived superior power imports the ways from back home to upgrade what they see as archaic methods.

Business colonialism follows the same approach; it is when an imported leader forces a concept from his home culture on to the business here. Much of the Arab world has been subjected to this colonialism. This legacy includes an importation of leadership approaches; they tend to conflict with the local patterns and customs and do not lead to reaching full potential.

The forcing of a leadership concept from one culture on to another happens way too naturally. Just because something works in an outside culture such as the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States or even India, doesn't mean it is right for here. It is inconceivable to think you can import one country's business practices and expect that they will work like they do elsewhere.

The European colonial period that lasted four centuries from the 1500s is over, and so should be business colonialism. The markets are more equalised today and expertise from the outside market is misaligned with the fundamentals in the UAE. The context here is different, and therefore the importation of outside approaches is misaligned.

Additionally, leaders need to be wary of relying on the assumption that their way is the best way. Leaders need to ensure that they do more than import an idea from a distant land and apply it as the answer for the local environment. They need to respond to local needs and make the new markets the centrepoint of their business.

Just as streetwise business operators get to know the customer and sophisticated organisations invest in consumer insights, leaders need to get to know whom they are leading.

Because people are different around the world, leaders need to look beyond their current hypotheses about employees and explore the causal factors that shape how they should be leading, with the purpose of constructing an effective approach.

The focus needs to shift from practising business colonialism, trying to impose one's outside approaches, to leading in a way that is most effective for the UAE. Business leaders, mind your manners.


Tommy Weir is the author of The CEO Shift and is the managing director of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center