For a region that is one of the most culturally diverse in the world, Asia is often painted with broad strokes and talked of as a uniform whole.
The term ‘Asian culture’ itself tends to be a big misnomer. South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia all have distinct office norms and customs, and that’s before we even break things down to the country level. Approaching such a heterogeneous demographic with a singular mindset can hardly be considered inclusive, AND there’s a big risk of unique needs being ignored.
Let’s not forget, work cultures are constantly changing, especially in the digital age where people have access to international media right in their pockets. Consider the speed in which The Great Resignation swept across the corporate globe, and you’ll have an idea of how influential external cultures can be.
This concoction of local and foreign influences creates a variegated corporate landscape, where some organisations fit more closely to the conventional perception of what is ‘traditionally Asian’, some others are completely ‘Westernised’, and even more are either somewhere in between, or something else altogether.
For leaders in Asia, adopting an arsenal of leadership styles and adapting accordingly is key to navigating this complex landscape.
Defining leadership styles within the Asian context
Before we continue, it might be helpful to define three of the most common types of leadership styles and how they are perceived and practised across Asia.
1. Direct Leadership Styles
The Direct Leadership Style occurs when employees are expected to follow instructions and punishments are doled out against those who do not meet expectations.
While it is true that some Asian societies such as Singapore tend towards collectivism, where people avoid confronting their leaders even if they don’t agree for the sake of preserving peace, there are instances whereby Direct leadership styles are suitable where employees need to follow instructions and be told what to do for safety and security reasons.
That said, leaders who take this approach should be wary of coming off as overbearing, especially since it’s been reported that micromanagement and unreasonable demands are the most common reasons for quitting amongst Singaporean employees. The retaliation might not come directly, but employees will take action once the pressure is too much to bear.
2. Democratic or Participative Leadership Style
The Democratic Leadership Style, sometimes known as participative leadership, applauds employees for contributing to decision-making. This leadership style bestows responsibility and autonomy, and can be a great way to groom employees into future leaders, especially sales agents. This leadership style has certainly been gaining popularity in the APAC region.
Implementing it however, is easier said than done. This is especially so amongst employees who may have been brought up to show deference towards people in positions of authority.
When executed correctly, however, the participative leadership style has the potential to foster a sense of belonging amongst employees and make work fulfilling for them. Even so, it must be stressed that this style might not work in every situation, especially during crunchtime when teams do not have the luxury of spending too much time making decisions.
3. Empowering or Autonomous Leadership Style
The Empowering Leadership Style is possibly the closest thing one can have to a flat hierarchy. Leaders of this style expect subordinates to take full responsibility for their work in exchange for high levels of freedom and flexibility.
Undoubtedly, almost all corporate leaders have had to allow employees to be autonomous to some extent in the past two years. Employees are allowed to structure their own day and given trust and respect to deliver the goods on time.
Of course, this arrangement is not suitable for certain leaders, or even certain businesses that require close supervision. Examples include healthcare and manufacturing where new workers must follow very precise instructions for safety reasons.
Choosing the right leadership style (or combination of styles) for your organisation
The above section is by no means an exhaustive list, and leadership styles aren’t quite as clear cut and defined in real life, either. Rather than expecting a particular approach to reap rewards, leaders in Asia should endeavour to understand their employees on a personal level and be open to refining their approach in order to connect with and lead their staff.
Being adaptable and open to change doesn’t just allow leaders to manage various teams across various countries, but also keeps them primed and malleable for change to come. After all, few of us could have foreseen ourselves managing entire teams across conference calls several years ago.
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