I recently returned from a trip to Beijing where I was working with senior managers to develop leadership skills in one of the largest companies in the world. This is a truly global firm, with headquarters in China and the U.S., and most of its leaders are native to their respective countries.
As part of the process, I was using a 360-degree feedback instrument to provide insights on the strengths of each leader, which in this context provided something of a cross-cultural view into how employees feel about their leaders' effectiveness. I was surprised to find that, in the aggregate, leaders in the East outperformed leaders from the West in every category of the assessment — which is to say, the Chinese participants judged their bosses better than their Western counterparts did at focusing on results, communicating, innovating, building relationships, employing technical expertise, and a host of other leadership abilities. That was surprising because when I've conducted a similar (though to be fair, not exact,) analysis with our broader database of companies and employees, Western leaders outpaced their Eastern counterparts. What to make of these seemingly contradictory results?
As I rested sore legs from hiking The Great Wall, I gave this a lot of thought. Several people have suggested to me that perhaps the Eastern responders to the 360 survey were not as candid as their Western colleagues or that they were more concerned about the possibility of retribution should they give low ratings. But the scores in most cases were very close — in some measures only a difference of two hundredths of a percent. If either of these possibilities were the case, I'd expect the differences to be far greater. And there was a third party managing the 360 process so the feedback was anonymous and about as protected as one can get.
So perhaps there are other reasons. Joe Folkman, one of the world's leading psychometricians, suggested to me that maybe superior recruiting in Eastern markets was what made the difference. The company is very popular in Asia — kind of like working for Google in the U.S. So it may be that the company attracts superior talent in the Asian markets. Or the Chinese leaders' scores might be higher for the same reason that women tend to score higher on 360s than men the world over: Because they frequently feel they need to be seen to be working harder. Being perceived to work hard often contributes to strong leadership scores, since it's viewed as a sign of commitment.
There are other factors to consider as well — time in a job (the longer people work together the higher they tend to score their leaders, provided leaders don't get complacent), the success of a unit (successful units tend to view their leaders as successful), and so forth. And of course, this is just one organization.
But, then, an entirely different thought came to me. What if I was asking the wrong question? What if the important thing wasn't which group scored better but the fact that the scores were so close? Granted that Western leadership skills were at one time considered superior, what if that advantage, perceived or real, no longer exists? From atop the Wall, it looked to me like the similarities mattered far more than the differences. In fact, the list of commonalities was long. Here are just a few:
1. The direct reports of both groups felt that the ability to inspire and motivate was a critical attribute of great leaders in general — and something they all wanted from their own. In all my work, inspiring and motivating is the attribute most strongly associated with the highest leadership scores (and the best company performance). The world over, I would argue, everyone prefers leaders who bring out the best in us and inspire us to be better than we ever thought we could be on our own.
2. The leadership attribute managers in both groups valued most, though, was the drive for results. Isn't that just like a senior executive — Just get the job done! Leaders always have to produce results no matter where in the world they are, of course — that's the point of leading. But I'd say that when leaders, East or West, can combine their focus on results with an ability to inspire, they have the magic bullet for managing up and down the organization.
3. Both groups were equally interested in improving their own leadership skills. No complacency here, despite what so many leaders of change initiatives might have you believe. No matter their background, few people show up to work each day intending to do a lousy job. Most want to do good work and to feel good about the work they are doing. When leaders can harness that natural inclination and cultivate it, it becomes passion, which can make all the difference in performance.
4. Nearly everyone who had done some kind of leadership development in the last two years had been focused on remediation of some weakness area. The world over, no matter what culture we grow up in, it seems we are inexorably drawn to fixing our weaknesses when we think of making improvements. While I can easily show you why raising the bar and building on strength is a far more valuable route, nowhere is that intuitively obvious, it would appear.
5. When it came to developing a strength, the initial reaction from both groups was to do more of the same. That works to a point but, as I have previously discussed, there is great power in developing different but complementary skills that can magnify our strengths. And yet, despite Eastern Yin Yang traditions, using complementary skills to make a strength more effective was no more obvious to the Chinese participants than it was to their Western colleagues.
I'm not saying that cultural differences don't exist or don't matter (I really did not enjoy the jelly fish or Yak tendons that I ate, for instance). The client kept focusing on them, as well. But in the end perhaps this matters more: We are more similar, even as leaders, than we had ever thought.
This post is part of the HBR Insight Center The Next Generation of Global Leaders.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 2/15/2012.