Employees Without Roots

Local firms must make staff feel at home, writes Dr. Tommy Weir, advisor on emerging market leadership.

In nearly every pair of eyes, there’s hunger for opportunity. Whether it is a taxi driver navigating the streets, a salesperson helping me to find the right item or the CEO of a bank, people often come to the region because the opportunities are better than back home.

In a way, Dubai specifically reminds me of the New York City of last century. Back then the Big Apple symbolised a land of opportunity and people from around the world eloped there in the hope of a better lifestyle. Make no mistake: people come to the GCC region with similar dreams.

The growth ambitions of the region have created an expat swell.

And this societal cohabitation is a great thing as you can experience the whole world at your fingertips. While Dubai does not have parts of the city named after the immigrants, such as Chinatown and Little Italy, the city still offers the opportunity to taste and experience more nationalities than the United Nations has member countries.

The coexistence of so many nationalities in the workforce creates a certain kind of leadership uniqueness. The popular leadership textbooks do not address this reality nor do the leadership theories that are historically Western-rooted. To add to this complexity, the workforce in the private sector is predominantly made up of expats. And by expats, I am not referring only to the common expat stereotype meaning Western professionals but to anyone who has left their native country and come to the region for work.

The leadership reality is you are leading a diverse expat workforce. Over the years I have been wondering: “What does it mean to lead people who came here from numerous countries in search of better opportunities?”

The first thing is, we know by definition that all expats have a similarity – they are not home. While this seems obvious, we need to understand the practical realities of it.

Is it easier to move from your home country or change jobs? Of course, leaving your home country is usually the harder and more emotional decision to make. So it is mentally easier for expats to change jobs once they’ve emigrated. The level of emotional commitment in the workplace is lower amongst expats than in indigenous workforces. And, as a leader, you need to be aware of this worrisome fact.

The second insight is that expats usually do not have the same depth of core “belonging” relationships that they enjoy in their home country.

As a leader you can overcome the lessened emotional bond to the workplace and replace the extended relationships by making your company a place of belonging. The depth of belonging an employee feels at work has a connection to how well they perform on the job.

Right or wrong, the GCC workplace is brimming with expats. The percentage of expats in the private sector is among the highest in the world. So to be a great leader in the GCC, you need to learn how to lead expats. It makes no difference if you are an expat or national, leadership success in the region is largely dependent on the ability to lead expats.