Lindheim, T., “‘Good leaders do the dirty work’: Implicit leadership theory at the multicultural workplace” (2020). Understanding Values Work, p. 97-115.
Background & Theory:
Implicit leadership theory presents the idea that managers and employees bring implicit, taken-for-granted ideas of good and bad leadership to their daily interactions. In seeking to understand what is generally considered “good” and “bad” leadership, the environment of a multicultural workplace can present an interesting dynamic. This study looks deeper into how the cultures of individuals play a central role in forming perceptions of “good” and “bad” leadership.
Research was completed to answer the following question:
- Do dynamic cultural configurations play a central role in shaping implicit ideas of leadership in individuals?
Three nursing homes in Oslo, Norway were selected for this qualitative study, primarily because Norwegian nursing home employees tend to come from a diverse set of cultures. Specifically, this data set included participants originating from 40 different countries. This study was conducted through participant observation, semi-structured shadowing, and interviews that allowed researchers to study leadership practices. 200 hours of observation were spent, followed by 27 individual interviews. NVivo was used to code and analyze interview transcripts and field notes.
From the data, it was found that perceptions of good and bad leadership come from two sources: institutional/organizational contextual factors and individual experiences of leadership from country of origin and country of residence. Addressing the first source, regulatory laws and policies were mentioned in relation to the institutional level. Laws, as well as agreements reached between the organization and unions, allow employees to feel at ease knowing that both the employer and the employee must abide by the same rules. From an organizational standpoint, it was found that leaders who wore the same uniform and took on daily tasks with their employees were expected to be more egalitarian in their behavior. Leaders who spent less time with employees were not expected to uphold such egalitarian behavior.
In addressing the second source, descriptions of leadership in employee countries of origin were more similar than expected, most describing a hierarchical style of leadership with inaccessibility to leaders. Likely due in part to this experience of hierarchical leadership style, the flat-structured and approachable Norwegian leadership style stood out to employees.
Although most employees understood the hierarchical style of leadership to be negative, some pushed back mentioning the positives of authoritarian leadership. Additionally, some employees mentioned that the Norwegian style of leadership presented problems in relation to employee criticism. Whereas hierarchy required leaders to be polite to their employees even in criticism, flat-structured leadership allowed leaders to evade criticizing employees. This made some believe that the employees control the employer instead of the other way around.
What We Can Learn:
Looking over this research, we can take away this key insight:
- The degree to which managers and employees meaningfully respond to implicit ideas of leadership, including considerations of the multiculturality of employees, highly impacts communication and cooperation.
For Consultants: The cultural diversity of an organization’s workforce plays into perceptions of what good and bad leadership looks like. In approaching organizations, it is necessary to consider how cultural background affects perception and ultimately, leadership evaluation.
For Everyone: Workplace conflict can often arise due to differing perceptions of what leadership should look like. Understanding how your culture and the cultures of others can affect individual and group perception of leadership is important when dealing with this type of workplace conflict.