To succeed in international business, leaders need the flexibility to adapt their management style to the cultural context.

The degree of respect we show to authority is deeply rooted in the culture in which we are raised. As Erin Meyer, Affiliate Professor at INSEAD business school and expert in the area of organisational behaviour explains, later in business, this impacts how we view the ideal relationship with our boss or subordinates.

How do cultural differences manifest themselves in the workplace?

When you visit the headquarters of Heineken, the Dutch brewing company, in Amsterdam, you will find a lot of tall, blond Dutch people and a lot of... Mexicans. In 2010, Heineken purchased a substantial operation in Monterrey, Mexico, and now a large number of head office employees come from northern Mexico.

Among them is Carlos Gomez, who describes his experience a year on from moving to Amsterdam: “It is absolutely incredible to manage Dutch people and nothing like my experience of leading Mexican teams, because, in my experience, the Dutch do not care at all who the boss in the room is.”

For someone such as Carlos, who has learned to lead in a culture where deference to authority is relatively high, it is both confusing and challenging to lead a team where the boss is seen as just one of the guys. In this case, the challenge was particularly strong, as the Netherlands has one of the most egalitarian cultures in the world.

He explains: “I will schedule a meeting in order to roll out a new process, and during the meeting my team starts challenging the process, taking the meeting in various unexpected directions, ignoring my process altogether, and paying no attention to the fact that they work for me. Sometimes I watch them, astounded. But often I just feel like getting down on my knees and pleading with them, “Dear colleagues, in case you have forgotten, I.....am...... the boss.”

‘Power distance’

Geert Hofstede, one of the first researchers to look at the idea of what good leadership looks like in different countries, coined the term ‘power distance’, which he defined as: ‘The extent to which the less powerful members of organisations accept and expect that power is distributed unequally’.

Subsequent research into this topic brings to the fore questions such as:

  • How much respect or deference is shown to an authority figure?
  • To communicate a message to someone two levels above or below you, should you go through the hierarchical chain?
  • When you are the boss, what gives you your aura of authority?

Who has the answers?

The answers to these questions vary dramatically depending on the country. Professor André Laurent of INSEAD polled hundreds of managers, asking: “Is it important for a manager to have at hand answers for most of the questions subordinates may raise about their work?”

While 45% percent of the Japanese sample claimed it was important for the boss to have most of the answers, only 7% of Swedes thought the same way.

One Swedish manager commented, “Even if I know the answer, I probably won’t give it to my staff... because I want them to figure it out for themselves!” Conversely, one Japanese respondent said, “I would try not to ask my boss a question unless I was pretty sure he knew the answer.”

What happens when different cultures converge?

Most East Asian countries are high-power-distance cultures. One of the many reasons for this is the strong impact of the Confucianism belief system, whereby mankind would be in harmony with the universe if everyone understood their role in society and behaved accordingly. Confucius devised a system of interdependent relationships, in which the lower levels are obedient to the higher, while those who are higher in the hierarchy protect and mentor the lower.

In order to understand many East Asian hierarchies, it is important to think not just about the lower level person’s responsibility to follow, but also about the responsibility of the higher person – whether father, boss or elder – to protect and care for those lower down – whether children, staff or youth. And although Confucius has been dead for centuries anyone leading a team in China can benefit from understanding these principles.

An Australian who lived in China for many years reflects: “In China, the boss is always right, and even when the boss is very wrong, he is still right.”

Gradually, he had learned to understand and respect this system of reciprocal obligations: “Your team may follow your instructions to the letter, but in return, you must understand your role to coach and take care of them.”

In a hierarchical culture, protect your subordinates, mentor them, look out for their interests, and you may reap many rewards. The same Australian notes: “There is great beauty in giving a clear instruction and watching your competent and enthusiastic team willingly attack the project without challenging you every step of the way.”

What are the main traits of a successful leader?

In today’s global business environment it is not enough to be either a low-power-distance leader or a high- -power-distance leader. Managers may find themselves leading a team with both Dutch and Chinese employees (as well as Italians, Swedes and Mexicans).

Managers must develop the flexibility to manage up and down the cultural scale. Often this means going back to square one. It means watching what makes local leaders successful. It means explaining your own style frequently. It may even mean learning to laugh at yourself.

But ultimately it means learning to lead in different ways in order to motivate and mobilise groups who follow in different ways from the folks back home. That’s exactly what cultural intelligence means.

What practical steps can managers take to avoid the pitfalls when leading a global team?

Erin Meyer explains that you might sit down for a morning of annual performance reviews and as you Skype with your employees in different cultures, your words are magnified or minimised significantly, based on your listener’s cultural context.

So, be aware and work to understand how your own way of giving feedback is viewed in other cultures. Then you can experiment a little to adjust your words, to suit the context.

As you better understand these cultural tendencies, you can make a concerted effort to soften the message when working with cultures less direct than your own.

Meyer references Marcus Klopfer, a German client, who uses specific vocabulary to soften the message when working with such cultures: “I start by sprinkling a few light positive comments and words of appreciation. Then ease into the feedback with a few small suggestions. And add words like “minor” or “possibly.” Then wrap up by stating that this is just my opinion, for what it’s worth, and that they can take it or leave it.”

Such an approach is a quick and effective way to help with cultural understanding and achieve the desired results.

Key takeaways

  • The degree of respect shown to authority in the work-place reflects the prevailing culture
  • East Asian hierarchies are reciprocal: with power comes responsibility
  • In today’s global business environment, leaders must be prepared to adapt their management style
  • With multicultural teams becoming the norm, a mix of management styles may be required
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