Q&A: Nicola Payne: “Middle Eastern leaders may not expect to be questioned or challenged”

Author: Kirsty Tuxford | Date: 16 Dec 2015

Expert on multicultural workplaces explains the common mistakes Western managers make in the GCC

Nicola PayneApproximately 80 per cent of the population of the UAE alone are expatriates. But how many of them understand the differences in working culture between the West and the Middle East? Nicola Payne works for Kwintessential, training multicultural workforces to work together. She says it is important to bear in mind that the GCC is not homogenous and is host to a plethora of different ethnicities with their own cultures. People Management asked her how we can all find common understanding at work.

Are roles more clearly defined in Middle Eastern organisations than they are in the West?
That depends broadly on whether an individual is working for a global organisation or one run by a Middle Eastern firm. There are differences in business culture between the two, with further distinction as to whether the organisation is run by Arabs, Kurds, Turks or Iranians and so on. Although definition of roles is essential to any company, regardless of the home entity, outsiders are likely to witness greater role definition within a Middle Eastern entity. Not only are role remits clearer, staff are more likely to be under the direction of a manager with less scope for decision-making and initiative.
When managing staff from Middle Eastern cultures, should a boss be more authoritative?
The Middle Eastern working environment is typically hierarchical in nature, and hierarchy is important for the smooth, seamless running of business processes and productivity. Leaders are likely to be more direct, expect employees to carry out business tasks without question or challenge, and might only expect opinions from team members if they have requested them. A manager who takes over a team in the GCC with little acknowledgement of company culture might find that they lose the respect of their new team if they start asking opinions, expecting initiative and creating manager/team open working settings.
What is the local approach to deadlines and timescales?
Timescales are rather fluid in the Middle East, and while timely delivery is worn as a badge of honour in Western businesses, it is given less precedence in local business culture. It is suggested that Western managers make sure team members understand the different cultural approaches to time management from the outset, making their own time management expectations clear. As with a team from their home country, they should put time expectations in writing and follow up regularly with requests for updates to ensure the necessary progress is being made.
How important is relationship-building?
It is essential to Emiratis, especially when doing work with new contacts. Emiratis have a preference for transacting business arrangements with family or close friends, making trust a critical factor when building relationships outside this framework. Such relationships cannot be hurried as it takes time to build trust and develop the necessary rapport. Initial meetings often take no account of business matters at all and will focus on purely personal matters until the individual feels sufficiently comfortable to progress to business matters. The slow pace at which this phase may progress often comes as a surprise to Westerners.