Leadership In Great Britain

leadership in Great Britain UK

Who Is The Boss Here?

If you were not told beforehand, you might well pose this question when you attend a meeting with several British businessmen. The concept of understatement applies to leadership in Great Britain: do not put yourself in the foreground, maintain a low profile, do not emphasise your status.

Who leads the negotiations then? Well, everybody really. Everyone’s views are important. They are collected and juggled to and fro. They serve to broaden your horizons and are the foundation stone for subsequent decision-making. If you then go from the conference room towards the manager’s desk, you may well be surprised again because it is not in a separate office but at the centre of activity. Hard to believe for some cultures. Here too status is abandoned, proximity to the staff is more important. It is not a case of being able to check on employees more easily, it merely makes cooperation more straightforward, it takes less time for the manager to acquire a better feeling over a longer period of time for the staff ’s mood and their concerns, and aids the exchange of information.

That is not surprising if you know that British managers see themselves as people managers. This does not exclude the possibility of there being an executive floor in the headquarters of some large companies, but these are very much more accessible than in some other countries. British people managers do not have secretaries but personal assistants (PA) who do a lot of organising and offer support and bear no resemblance to the image of outer-office dragons who shield their boss from the rest of the world. You will rarely come across a chauffeur or separate lifts and canteens reserved only for members of the board. In British working life, hierarchy is much less pronounced than in many other countries and there are no status symbols.

Leadership styles according to Daniel Goleman

The six styles of leadership according to Daniel Goleman (D. Goleman, R. Boyatzis, A. McKee (2013): Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence) are bound to be on the agenda in many management seminars:

1) Authoritarian: ›Do what I tell you to!‹

2) Authoritative: ›Come with me!‹

3) Affiliative: ›My first priority is people!‹

4) Democratic: ›What do you think of that?‹

5) Performance-orientated: ›Do it like I do!‹

6) Coaching: ›Try to do it yourself! Try it out!‹

None of the various styles is always the best, the different strategies should be applied according to the situation. So much for the theory. Most people would probably agree that this is the best method. However, the question is, which company actually works in this way? Who has taken it to heart? Where is it no longer just wishful thinking or an ideal? What images are really present in people’s heads ‒ whether consciously or unconsciously? How well does the learning content of a seminar match inner nature and cultural heritage? Where are they implemented more quickly or more naturally?

If, for instance, you are working in the finance sector, the hierarchy is often more pronounced especially in insurance, status symbols are more important and therefore the style of leadership is more authoritarian and performance-orientated. The market is a national one, whereas the banking sector is becoming more international, and the authoritarian style of leadership is starting to become more relaxed. In the British finance sector, a mixture of coaching, democratic and affiliative styles of leadership have asserted themselves.


When describing styles of leadership the word empowerment is a term you often come across. It means that the employees are given the opportunity of working more independently. The idea behind this is to encourage them to discover their own strengths and capabilities. Autonomy and self-determination are no longer reserved only for the managers. The employees‘ room for manoeuvre grows and their influence on company progress increases while management concentrates on encouraging, stimulating and supporting the staff in this process of development. The manager becomes a coach.

In view of the fact that Great Britain is an individualistic country, it is not surprising that empowerment has become established there as the style of leadership. Empowerment does not need very much training because cultural characteristics already supply the necessary foundation for it to become incorporated into the day-to-day interaction between manager and employee.

This is different in group-orientated societies. Here they have more trouble handling so much personal responsibility and the fact that staff contribute their own ideas and concepts, especially when dealing with a superior. You expect the employees to be the performers and therefore to be controlled. They are more likely to turn their sights upwards.

The Job Of A Manager

How much specialist knowledge does a manager need? For leadership in Great Britain, you could answer ›none. really. You can learn any specialist knowledge that is needed. Good common sense and a knowledge of human nature are more important!‹. In other cultures, the answer is more likely to be: ›specialist knowledge is the most important thing. Years of experience in the same field bring about the expertise which goes to make a manager!‹

British managers see themselves as generalists. They have extensive knowledge which, however, does not go so deep. From their point of view, it is therefore realistic to acquire quickly the necessary knowledge for the job. During their careers, they often gain experience in very different fields of work. What counts is the big picture. They have visions, specify the general direction and in strategic assignments are propelled mainly by their common sense. Their employees have the actual specialist knowledge, meaning they then take over the role of adviser and are not only the performers.

For this reason, people managers do not issue clearly defined instructions, they ›just‹ set targets. It is left up to the employee to decide how he is going to achieve these targets. Simplified, you could dare to say that a British boss is only as good as his staff. British managers are heavily dependent on their staff and not only the other way round. Both sides are in continuous contact with one another in order to keep each other up to date.

As a result, it is more a case of cooperation in British companies and you very rarely find a top-down mentality. The manager gathers the staff’s opinions and different points of view, gains an overall picture of the situation and possible options, weighs up the pros and cons and then makes his decision. The solutions should be pragmatic!

At the same time, the people managers support their employees but also make demands on them through empowerment. They feel they are responsible for a positive atmosphere in their department, which is the basis for good performance. 

Challenges In Bi-national Cooperation

In some countries, expertise prevails, the manager’s professional ability is all-important. The employees, therefore, expect clear, detailed instructions from above. They assume that the superior is the expert and has more professional knowledge than they do. An employee can only operate within clearly defined limits and if he is uncertain he asks. It is better to ask for ›permission‹ once too often than not often enough.

This of course is the direct opposite to the empowerment style. For this reason, some people may find it very difficult to work under a British boss: how do you cope with this newfound freedom? How do you cope with knowing that you most probably have more professional knowledge than your own boss? You have to be prepared to make your own way, without always asking the boss for approval. You can even challenge your boss, question his opinion, follow something up – and not just accept something because he is the boss. All this should not be underestimated.

And on top of all this, you have to deal with the British coded speech! Empowerment might sound very tempting but it is in reality foreign ground for many people and they find implementation difficult. This also applies to British bosses if they are not aware that their employees are used to a completely different distribution of roles. In order to avoid large areas of friction, you should urgently consider booking a training course on intercultural awareness as soon as possible. It is not sufficient just to mention that the style of leadership in Britain is called empowerment, or to give everyone a piece of paper with the definition of the word on it.

What daily bi-national cooperation really involves can only be conveyed over a period of time in an intercultural training course. This style of leadership often leads to employees feeling lost. They report over and over again that they do not know what is expected of them and that the British boss is so vague and does not express himself clearly. The British boss wonders why his staff are not producing results, the employee must therefore be wrong for the job. A disastrous conclusion …

Seen from the other angle with a British employee working in a company where expertise prevails: the British often complain that the style of leadership is very restrictive, there is less freedom to think for yourself and the system is only acceptable if your opinion coincides with that of the manager. Otherwise, things might easily become uncomfortable. Some bosses think they must always have the best answers for everything.

Most British employees find that having their room for manoeuvre reduced is very demotivating. Motivating employees If we look at the challenges described in the previous section it becomes clear that the motivation of employees in Britain is different from that in some other countries. British employees have a high degree of personal initiative, they are driven naturally from within (intrinsically) and only need to be given the necessary room for manoeuvre by the boss in order to act this out.

Heron’s Six Styles Of Intervention

Most managers in Britain see it as their job to fully develop the inner drive of their staff. If we look at possible instruments of leadership we can see, using the six styles of intervention developed by Heron (J. Heron (2001): Helping the Client. A Creative Practical Guide), that the so-called pull-mechanisms in Britain have a far greater motivating effect than push mechanisms.

There are three pull mechanisms:

Cathartic/cleansing: By asking many different questions the manager helps the employee to sort out his thoughts.

Catalytic: The boss talks through a variety of questions and scenarios with the employee in order to catalyse/ reach a decision. The employee is encouraged to draw his own conclusions.

Supportive: The manager uses praise and constructive feedback to increase the employee’s self-confidence.

The focus is on what the employee has done or achieved. Push mechanisms, on the other hand, are much more authoritarian and comprise informing, determining and confronting. Of course, Heron says that a healthy mixture, depending on the situation and employee, is the best solution.

Fair Play

A term that is always mentioned as being a strong element of motivation is fair play. It was originally used in sport and describes conduct that goes beyond merely keeping to the rules. The opposing party should be respected. The opponent’s dignity should be preserved, even in the fiercest fight, and the aim should not be a victory at all costs. Care is taken that everyone has the same opportunities and conditions, that participants are fair to one another and that composure is maintained both in triumph and in defeat. Fair play can be transferred to all sorts of business situations, no matter whether colleagues, the boss and employees or customers and suppliers are involved. People who live by fair play motivate others to achieve peak performance.

Choosing Personnel

Who is the most suitable candidate for the vacant post? In more than 15 years as a trainer the answer I hear most often, – irrespective of which sector of industry or field of activity – is: he must have a pleasant manner when working together with others, be flexible in mind and deeds, have a positive disposition and must be modest and low key. He should not boast and show off about what he has achieved and should be proactive, assertive, prepared to take risks and should be a good team player. Unassuming individuals are well-liked. Good common sense goes without saying.

In interviews, practical examples from the candidate’s field of activity are therefore requested which give an idea of his way of working. Professional ability, however, is not usually mentioned as being particularly relevant.

In Britain, applicants do not have to show certificates but supply references. What former colleagues, superiors or customers have to say about the candidate counts far more than a piece of paper with a grade on it. If you change your job you do not receive a certificate, but a reference that merely confirms what position you held and how long you worked for the company. When recruiting personnel, head hunters are employed or a personal network or that of a reliable acquaintance is used. 

Iris Engler
Extract from Business Culture Great Britain, Courtesy of CONBOOK Verlag  

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