Culture and Leadership Style – A Primer

The July-August issue of the Harvard Business Review contains an article written by the author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, Erin Meyer, about differences in leadership styles around the world. Since support team are typically global, the outcome of her research is very helpful to us practitioners.

Here’s a quick summary:

  • There are two dimensions of leadership: attitude towards authority and attitude towards decision making.
  • Authority can range from egalitarian (we freely discuss ideas without regard to rank or role) to hierarchical (where the boss is deferred to).
  • Decision making ranges from consensual (we expect everyone to discuss and agree to decisions before they are made final) to top-down (decisions are made at the top, without waiting for consensus).
  • We implicitly accept the way things work in our culture and, if faced with a different culture, get confused (or angry!) that things are not proceeding “as they should”.

The author’s perspective is that leaders should expect these differences and adapt to them. I don’t quite agree: I think everyone in a global team would benefit from understanding the leadership dimensions and openly discuss both the overall decision-making process and individual decisions (I guess that makes me a consensual/egalitarian!) In any case, here are some suggestions on how to function in each of the 4 types of leadership cultures:

  • consensual/egalitarian (e.g. the Netherlands): expect a long discussion before decisions are made, and resist the temptation to have the boss just jump in an make a decision.
  • consensual/hierarchical (e.g. Japan): while the team will accept decisions pushed from above, it’s very important to seek input from everyone, and especially from those that dissent.
  • top-down/hierarchical (e.g. India): if you want the team to give input, specifically ask for it — and beware of making an off-hand comment if you are the boss, as it may be interpreted as a command.
  • top-down/egalitarian (e.g. US): politely speak up regardless of your rank before decisions are made, but be prepared to “disagree and commit” afterwards.

What are your experiences with your remote teams?

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