Expatriate bosses - how to manage cultural differences

One of the hardest challenges for bosses in the global economy is managing cultural diversity. This means managing a workforce from around the world and also, increasingly, working as an expatriate in a foreign context. How can bosses become effective leaders in a foreign context? How can they gain the respect and also the trust of foreign employees? This issue, sometimes also called cross cultural intelligence, is occupying more and more attention today and there are many aspects to this new capability.


Foreign language

There is no better way to integrate into the foreign culture than to learn the local language and be able to communicate with your employees in this local language. However this can take a long time and it might not be efficient for stints that are short-term. A more practical strategy would be to at least learn the common phrases and terms so that you can communicate with your employees without the aid of an interpreter. Direct communication, even though it might be sparse and hesitating, can do wonders in terms of showing sincerity and seriousness.

Show that you “understand”

Showing empathy can be very important and in gaining the trust of employees. You can do so by showing that you understand local practices and customs and accepting them too. For example, during Chinese New Year, it would be a great gesture to give out Hong Bao’s and to have Lion Dances arranged in the office. Adopting such practices removes barriers and the divide between you and your local employees. Become a part of the culture by immersing in local cultural practices and everyone will know that you understand them.

Work capabilities matter

Do not forget that ultimately it will always be about knowing the job and guiding the organisation. Knowledge will always gain respect, but that is only the start. Leadership requires followers, and this means gaining trust. In trying to lead the organisation, do not always rely on the head and rationality but also understand the fears and concerns of employees and address them sincerely; if necessary ensure that they are trained for new changes and practices. While transformation is about adopting a rational new way of doing business, leading and ensuring change is managing emotional concerns.

Leadership style

All bosses tend to have their own leadership style with some being more participative while others more autocratic. Managers are posted abroad many a times because they have been effective and are high-performers. However, these qualities can sometimes become a liability in a foreign context, especially when there is a misfit with the local culture. It is important to be flexible and be able to mould your leadership style to fit the culture. Therefore, you should be mindful of the type of culture you are in and then try to adapt your leadership style to it, no matter how hard it might be.

Use technology

Technology is great leveler – leverage it. It is a great way to communicate especially with a younger workforce.  Use it for direct communication with the employees and to share ideas with them on a frequent basis. Invite new ideas and make it a two-way process. Interactions which take time if they were personal can be much more efficient online. Set up blogs or forums whereby new ideas and thoughts can be shared and all of a sudden the entire organization can be digitally invigorated through a technology platform.

Handling conflict

Conflict situations are natural and when they happen in a foreign culture, special care must be taken to handle them. Most conflicts arise when one group feels they have been discriminated against or treated differently; therefore it is very important for you to ensure that universal practices and policies be followed and implemented in a common way. Even though you may be unbiased, it is important to avoid any actions that can be interpreted otherwise. It is also important to establish norms that show all employees are treated equally and fairly, and rewards and punishments apply to all.


One of the most sensitive issues in a global context is being glocal – global yet local. Thus, glocal is the key challenge facing expat bosses in a foreign cultural context. You can be a most effective leader in your own country yet fail miserably in a foreign land. Being knowledgeable and having domain competence is a given, but not sufficient. Empathy and cross-cultural intelligence are new skills which must be acquired. Learning the foreign language is a huge asset, but even learning key phrases and terms which allow direct communication can get the job done. The goal is empathy and understanding, ensuring that employees trust you. This means becoming one of them, through following local customs and practices, and also adapting one’s own natural leadership style.

But do not forget that becoming glocal also means retaining one’s global identity too which means leading the organisation to new goals and heights and not just accepting as-is practice. Leading must not only be through rational appeals but also through understanding emotional concerns. Achieving this fine balance is what leadership in a global environment is all about.


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