Become a better boss by understanding the cultures you are working with
Published: 09 August 2018 By Erin Meyer
Become a better boss by understanding the cultures you are working with.
For anyone working globally, the nuances of hierarchy can be complicated
For anyone working globally, the nuances of hierarchy can be complicated. It is no longer enough to know how to lead the Australian, Chinese, Nigerian, or Danish way. You have to know how to manage up and down the cultural spectrum, and be flexible enough to adapt your style to the culture at hand
Answer quickly without giving it much thought. Does he wear an Armani suit or khaki trousers with jogging shoes? Does she travel to work on a mountain bike or in a Ferrari? Do you call him “Mr Director,” or are you more likely to address him as “Sam”?
How you respond to these questions depends on your individual personality. It also may reflect the country you come from.
In today’s global economy you might be an Australian leading a team in China, a Russian courting clients in Brazil, or a German acquiring a company in India. The ideal “power distance” between the boss and his staff is deeply woven into the education system and family structure of each society. If you’re the boss, it’s particularly important to understand what to expect from the culture you are working with.
For anyone working globally, the nuances of hierarchy can be complicated. It is no longer enough to know how to lead the Australian, Chinese, Nigerian, or Danish way. You have to know how to manage up and down the cultural spectrum, and be flexible enough to adapt your style to the culture at hand.
Here are a few pointers to get you started:
In an egalitarian culture
It’s okay to disagree with the boss openly, even in front of others. People are more likely to move to action without getting the boss’s approval. In a meeting with a client or supplier, it is not important to match hierarchical levels. It’s acceptable to email or call people several levels below or above you. With clients or partners, expect to be seated and spoken to in no specific order.
In a hierarchical culture
People will defer to the boss’s opinion, especially in public. People are likely to get the boss’s approval before acting. If your boss plans to attend a meeting, your suppliers or clients will send their boss. If your boss cancels, their boss will likely not come. Expect communication to follow the hierarchical chain; people correspond with others on their own level. With clients or partners, you are likely to be seated and spoken to in order of position.
It’s natural for us to experience our own way of doing things as normal. But as we gain cross-cultural experience, we begin to see that every style has its advantages and disadvantages.
And over time, a leader can start to smooth over the cultural gaps in team interactions, while capitalising on the assets each cultural group brings.
The more global the team, the greater the potential for misunderstanding but also the greater the opportunity for the experienced leader to achieve success.
This is the true value of leading in the global economy – getting the best of all worlds. – (Copyright Harvard Business Review 2015)
Erin Meyer is a professor specialising in cross-cultural management at Insead. She is the author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business.
Previously published in The Irish Times.
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