The Great Divide: in Europe, North American management concepts often strike a sour note

Human Resources

Queen’s IRC Facilitator Lucinda Bray is a management development consultant based in Dublin, Ireland. In the following article, she talks about the gulf between European and North American ideas about leadership — and the hidden perils this presents for an HR consultant training executives in the Old World.

Although there have been many books published on how to manage a multicultural workforce, not much is available on how to teach management and leadership across cultures. As a Canadian HR consultant working in Europe, I have long felt uncomfortable with much of the management development literature from North America because it just didn’t fit. A recent book by Jeremy Rifkin provides some insight into the cultural values that underpin North American management and leadership models, and why these may not travel well.

In The European Dream, Rifkin compares the assumptions behind the American Dream with those he sees emerging as the European Dream. “The American Dream,” writes Rifkin, “is the idea that anyone, regardless of the circumstances to which they’re born, can make of their lives as they choose, by dint of diligence, determination, and hard work.” “Freedom” in a North American context means autonomy, self-reliance, and personal independence. In contrast, Rifkin identifies the characteristics of the European Dream: a focus on interdependence rather than autonomy, quality of life rather than workaholism, and sustainable development rather than perpetual economic growth.

These differences present hidden challenges for the management development consultant. For starters, the cornerstone of the American Dream is the notion of individual self-determination; that anyone can become President (or Prime Minister). Much of current North American thinking about management and leadership (e.g. empowerment, personal goal-setting, servant leadership) rests on this fundamental belief in personal autonomy. Yet European history has taught some very different lessons about personal freedom, and the ability of the individual to create his or her own future, and this leads to deep skepticism about North American “flavours of the month.”

Let’s start with the notion of empowerment — the idea that organizations should push decision-making down to the lowest level, and give staff the responsibility to manage themselves. In his book The Empowered Manager, Peter Block describes empowerment as “a way to treat all members of the organization as entrepreneurs so that employees feel that their units are their own businesses and that they, and they alone, are in the process of creating an organization of their own choosing.” While this idea fits fairly well with Scandinavian and Northern European cultures, it is completely foreign to the more hierarchical and formal working cultures of Central and Southern Europe.

And what about leadership? Even the word itself is loaded. After a leadership workshop I led in Brussels, two Spanish participants came up to me and said, “We understand what you mean by ‘leadership,’ but you need to know that the word ‘leader’ is associated with ‘dictator’ in Spain.” And as for the concept of the ‘servant leader,’ which rests on the (North American) assumption of an egalitarian society, this appears dangerously naïve within Europe.

I could go on. ‘Collaboration’ does not refer to a conflict-resolution style. ‘Performance management’ has fascist overtones to many European ears. And the prospect of giving individual feedback to subordinate staff can be almost humiliating to those coming from more formal, hierarchical working cultures.

While the Canadian culture shares many aspects of the American Dream (including the pioneer belief in an egalitarian society based on individual effort), it is closer to the European Dream in the value it places on sustainable development and a multicultural society. Perhaps that puts us in an ideal position to develop the new leadership models that would combine both the American and European dreams.

Recommended Reading:

The European Dream, by Jeremy Rifkin

Cultural Intelligence: People Skills for Global Business, by Kerr Inkson and David Thomas

When Cultures Collide, by Richard Lewis

Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business, by Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars

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