Being the Boss in Brussels, Boston, and Beijing

By Erin Meyer – The Harvard Business Review

Problems like this manager’s are widespread. In many years of researching, consulting, and teaching executives and managers in hundreds of global companies, I’ve found that it’s common for people from different countries to grapple with mutual incomprehension. Often that’s because managers fail to distinguish between two important dimensions of leadership culture.


The first of these is the one we’re most familiar with: authority. How much attention do we pay to the rank or status of a person, and how much respect and deference do we pay to that status? On this dimension, the Japanese are clearly more hierarchical than Americans. The positions are reversed, however, when we look at the second dimension: decision making. Who calls the shots, and how? Does the boss decide, or does the team decide collectively? On this dimension, which is often overlooked, the Japanese are more consensual than Americans.


The management approach that works in Lagos won’t be as effective in Stockholm.


Approaches to authority and decision making are not the only ways in which cultures differ, but they are arguably the most important in the leadership context. And if international managers confound the two, they will make mistakes in adapting their leadership styles to the cultures and situations at hand.


In this article, I explore the two dimensions and how they affect global leadership effectiveness, focusing particularly on how attitudes toward decision making impact global teamwork. I conclude by mapping selected cultures along both dimensions and comparing the resulting expectations about the role of the leader.


Attitudes Toward Authority

Over the past century, the biggest leadership trend in the U.S. and parts of Western Europe has been the abandoning of hierarchical management processes for a more facilitative, egalitarian approach. Command-and-control has been replaced with empowerment. Managers have been trained to stop telling their employees what to do and instead move to “management by objective,” open-door policies, and 360-degree feedback. Early on, addressing the boss by first name rather than title became the norm. Company hierarchy further dissolved when the CEO began “management by walking around,” having impromptu discussions with people at all levels without even letting their supervisors know. Then the corner office yielded to open-plan spaces. Since most management literature and research still come out of the U.S., business school education has largely reinforced this trend.


But attitude toward authority is one of the most striking points of difference across cultures. In Nigeria a child learns to kneel or even lie down as a sign of respect when an elder enters the room. In Sweden a student calls her teachers by their first names and, without implying any disrespect, feels free to contradict them in front of her classmates. Unsurprisingly, the management approach that works in Lagos will not get the best results in Stockholm.


Understanding this disconnect is important. In general, the greatest business opportunities lie in the big emerging economies, which include Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Russia, and Turkey. In nearly every case, these are cultures where hierarchy and deference to authority are deeply woven into the national psyche. The management orthodoxy of pushing authority down in the organization does not fit easily into the emerging-market context and often trips up Western companies on their first ventures abroad.


Take the case of an American firm I worked with two years ago. I’ll call it Chill Factor, as it delivers innovative cooling solutions to consumers and small businesses. For the previous 15 years, Chill Factor had been training its employees in the latest egalitarian leadership methods, encouraging low-level workers to show initiative, while teaching the bosses to leave their doors open, accept 360-degree feedback, and set objectives rather than issue edicts. Additionally, the business had set up the flattest organizational structure possible. This progressive culture helped the company attract talent and keep employees inspired and engaged. The entire workforce was humming with creativity and innovation.

After decades of success in the U.S., Chill Factor took a big jump and negotiated a joint venture with a company in Hangzhou, China. But within weeks the Chill Factor managers were complaining about the lack of initiative shown by their Chinese staff.


As one manager related to me:

My Chinese employees don’t see it as their job to have ideas or make suggestions to their leaders. They just follow instructions. Subordinates do not volunteer solutions but simply present problems. Their measure of success is to do what they are told, when they are told, and to do it well. But I expect them to produce new ideas and to give the bosses information so that we can make the best decisions for the benefit of the business.