Stay or Go



“A secret to success is to understand how parental and familial models shape the way we lead and want to be led”. This excerpt from 10 Tips for Leading in the Middle East by Dr. Tommy Weir enlightens us on how dissimilarity in cultures can affect our professional life.


Typically, in Western society, parents raise their children so that they will go off to a university, and upon graduation become independent and live away from home. Deep down, mothers and fathers in the West strategize and work for their children to leave home when they turn eighteen. Just think of the scenes in American movies that show adult children (in their twenties) moving back in with Mom and Dad. How do those parents react? You can see the disgust and horror on the parents’ faces as they are inconvenienced by this reality. Immediately they go back to working to help the child reclaim his or her independence.


As strange and harsh as it sounds, in Western society, parents pride themselves on raising their children to be independent and to live away from the home, away from the tribe. Thinking back on my own upbringing, which was in the mainstream, I am not sure there was really any option other than packing up my stuff to go off to college and later to independently enter the world. Deep down, parents feel like they have failed when this doesn’t happen, and they certainly brag when “little Johnny” is off on his own.


But in Arab society it is shameful and inconceivable to kick children out of their homes. Just as Western parents are saying good-bye, Arab parents nearly require that their children stay home until they are married, and then may even encourage their son or daughter to bring home a new spouse to live with them, or at least next door. Arab fathers take pride in the familial relations model.


The experience of one of my good friends is a good example. After finishing his law degree in Lebanon and spending a few years gaining practical experience, Nabil, headed off to complete his masters degree in law in the United Kingdom. Upon finishing, he returned to Beirut, moved back in with his parents, passed the bar exam, and set up his own law practice, which took off with immediate success.


After a few more years of working, around the age of twenty-nine, he decided it was time to move out on his own. When he broke the news to the family, Nabil’s father responded, “Why so soon? Why do you want to move out now? Wait until you are married.” Nabil gave some sort of explanation.


Then, with a quizzing look on his face, his dad asked, “What did your mom do to you? I can fix it.”


“Nothing,” replied Nabil.


Then the bribery set in; his dad offered to get him a new TV, change his bedroom, or do practically anything that Nabil might ask. At this point, in an attempt to convince his father that it was OK for him to move out, he took him over to the window and said, “Dad, see that building up the street? That is where I am moving to.” Even though it was just a few buildings away, his parents were still devastated that he was moving out and claiming his independence.


These parenting approaches carry over into underlying management thought. The Western management style pushes employees to become independent; the focus is to reduce the dependence on the manager as quickly as possible. It is both a motivational strategy and a vote of confidence. Conversely, in the Arab world, the group identity and connection, the sense of belonging, is foundational. This carries into the workplace as well.


Can you imagine the shock and frustration when these two approaches collide, which they readily do? Let’s look to Mike and Mohammed to see what happens in reality.


Mike, as an expatriate manager in Saudi Arabia, was very concerned about “Saudization”; he took it personally. So he told his Human Resources department that he wanted to hire a fresh Saudi graduate for a particular vacancy. Having his heart in the right place, Mike was committed, and looking forward, to grooming this recruit into a strong future leader for the company.


Mike was actively involved in the interview process, meeting each candidate himself. When he met Mohammed, he knew he was the one to hire. Mohammed had all of the tangible requirements—the right degree, high test scores, a good psychometric profile, and so on. In addition, he had the intangibles that Mike could not put his finger on, but his gut said “yes.” Mike liked Mohammed a lot, and had a very good feeling about him.


Mohammed was even looking forward to working for and learning from Mike. He thought Mike was genuinely interested in him and in helping his career grow. Everyone could tell that Mike was taking this seriously, and not addressing nationalization as a tax, like many do.


As they started working together, Mike spent considerable time with Mohammed to help him get started, learn the ways of the company, and build his private-sector achievement since he was a first-generation corporate citizen. Everything seemed to be going well.


At least, that is, until the relationship began deteriorating, unaware to each of them at first.


One day Mohammed came to Mike and presented an idea for a project. Liking the idea—and even more, Mohammed’s confidence—Mike said, “Go for it!” and sent him on his way. It was very similar to the way that a parent in the West bravely sends his or her child out into the world at eighteen years of age to stake independence.


The next day, Mohammed came into see Mike asking all sorts of questions. At first Mike answered a few, but then he pushed Mohammed away to go out and independently get the job done. As these episodes continued, each time Mike would tell Mohammed that he believed in him, that he could do it; then he would send him back out. Mike was practicing a leadership style that came very naturally to him, pushing his employees to be independent.


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


Mohammed started wondering, “Why is my boss not giving me face anymore? He used to have ample time to teach and mentor me; he was like a dad at work.” And Mike started to second-guess his selection and his belief in Mohammed. He wondered why Mohammed was not able to perform in dependently. While both men were well-intended the relationship broke down. Mike was pushing Mohammed to go on his own, but Mohammed was looking for support from his boss. This story is lived 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. An imported individualistic cultural model from a multinational corporation or Western orientation lacks validity in the group-oriented Arab market. Accordingly, leaders ought to consider what this variation in orientation means for leadership strategies and approaches. Employees coming from a group-orientation background expect and require much interaction with and “face” from their manager, and the amount they receive impacts their engagement in work. In contrast, expatriate leaders often revert to a model that has proven successful at home. Unfortunately, many of them not only try to impose their imported ideals but expect locals to adopt them, which can pose a serious organizational problem. For example, a move toward individualism in the workplace on the part of many expatriate leaders is juxtaposed to the dynamics of honor and shame in the local business culture. Expatriate leaders need to temper colonialist leanings and to understand the local culture, be sensitive to and respect it, and learn how to be the best leaders possible within these parameters.


About Dr. Tommy Weir:


Dr. Tommy Weir is a leadership advisor, author of 10 Tips for Leading in the Middle East and other leadership writings and the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center.


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