Spring 2009. Retrieved online October 6, 2009 by Justin Bannister NMSU Research & Resources
NMSU researcher studies workplace
Would an American with excellent leadership skills in the workplace still be a good leader in Asia? Would a European business leader fare well in Australia? Looking at leadership skills and how they translate into various cultures is part of the research that has made Peter Dorfman, a professor at New Mexico State University’s College of Business, an internationally known researcher.
“I’ve always been fascinated by people and how they work in organizations, how they get along, how they interact, what happens when conflicts arise,” Dorfman said. “I’m especially interested in seeing how those interactions are different in this country as compared to other countries.”
Dorfman came to NMSU’s Department of Management in 1978 for what he thought would be a three- to four-year stay. Thirty years later, he’s still at NMSU, teaching human resource management and general organizational behavior.
“One of the reasons I like living in New Mexico is the cross cultures we have. I enjoy seeing that mix of cultures in my classes, too,” he said. But to successfully learn about leadership skills around the world, one must visit other countries, and Dorfman has traveled extensively during his time as a researcher and teacher. He spent time in Berlin just this past summer and has even taught classes in Hong Kong.
He has worked with John Howell, a professor emeritus in the NMSU College of Business, on a number of projects and the two have been honored with a number of national awards for their research.
Dorfman sits on the board of directors of the Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness project (GLOBE), a research project started in 1994 to look at leadership and cultures around the world. GLOBE is a multi-phase, multi-method project where investigators from around the world examine the interrelationships between societal culture, organizational culture and organizational leadership. As part of the GLOBE project, 200 researchers looked at 950 organizations in 62 countries. Their work has been published in two books.
“We were looking at different dimensions of culture, and how they relate to economic success and human success. We also deal with different leadership processes across the world,” Dorfman said.
According to Dorfman, a focus on cross-cultural issues can help researchers uncover new relationships by forcing investigators to include a much broader range of variables often not considered in contemporary leadership theories, such as the importance of religion, language, ethnic background, history or political systems.
“Anglo societies such as the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia believe in different kinds of leadership styles than Confucian Asia,” he said. Participative leadership is desirable in Anglo, German and Nordic cultures but much less so in Asian and Middle East cultures.
One paper co-written by Dorfman examines a hypothetical case of an American executive of four similar teams from South America, Africa, Europe and Asia. The feeling was that much of the published work outlining success for large, multinational corporations was either too general (i.e., always try to be open-minded about other cultures) or only pertained to a certain region or culture (i.e., never show the sole of your shoe to someone from an Arabic country.)
The paper highlights the various attributes of countries and cultures and determines what kind of leadership would be most desired. Specifically, researchers looked at how countries and cultures view leadership traits including performance, assertiveness, preparing for the future and helping others.
When researchers looked at the area of uncertainty avoidance, for example, they found leaders in countries like Singapore and Switzerland go to great lengths to develop elaborate strategies to handle the unknown. Meanwhile, leaders in countries like Greece and Russia tend to enjoy taking risk and often require much simpler strategies.
Dorfman said in general, most cultures – and their organizations – change very slowly. Because of his travels and studies, he believes if any culture were to change rapidly, it would be in Asia.
“China today is so much different than China of 10 years ago,” he said. “However, while many of the more observable aspects of China are changing, such as the wealth of the average person, there is a real question as to whether the underlying cultural dynamics will change. For instance, it is unlikely that the Chinese concept of ‘guan xi,’ roughly translated as obligations through networking, or the pervasive influence of Confucian ideas, will disappear from family or organizational life.”
Understanding variables like the pace of cultural change in China, or etiquette regarding the soles of your shoes in Arabic countries, can be a key to success for an organization. Helping students and others develop that kind of understanding is where Dorfman’s expertise is winning accolades at NMSU.