Role Of Cultural Values And Intercultural Communication
CQ KNOWLEDGE (PART 1): KNOW WHAT DIFFERENCES MATTER
CQ Knowledge: What do I need to know?
Understanding cultural similarities and differences
Profile of a leader with high CQ Knowledge
Leaders high in CQ Knowledge have a rich, well-organized understanding of culture and how it affects the way people think and behave. They possess a repertoire of knowledge about how cultures are alike and different. They understand how culture shapes behavior.
“Can we please eat something normal tonight?!” It’s the kind of question I’ve heard countless times while traveling internationally with people. But this time, the question was coming from my four-year-old daughter! Our family was living in Singapore, and though Western food is readily available there, my wife and I love the local food. Looking straight into my daughter’s brilliant blue eyes, I quickly retorted, “Emily. You want something normal? You can’t get much more normal than rice. Do you know how many people eat rice in the world? That’s about as normal as you can get.” Before I could go any further, my wife gave me the look. Now was not the time to go off on a cultural intelligence lecture with our kids. But I wanted my daughters to understand that “normal” is relative to our experience.
Ethnocentrism—evaluating other people and their culture by the standards of our own cultural preferences—is found among people everywhere. Seeing the world in light of our own cultural background and experience is inevitable. But ignoring the impact of ethnocentrism on how we lead is the single greatest obstacle to CQ Knowledge.
Role Of Cultural Values And Intercultural Communication
Most of us tend to underestimate the degree to which we ourselves are a product of culture. It’s much easier to see it in others. Emily’s question made explicit a guiding assumption for many of us: My experience is what’s normal and best. Nowadays, Emily and my younger daughter, Grace, enjoy all kinds of spicy, different foods, and they’re as quick to catch me in my cultural blind spots as I am them. Grace recently asked me, “Shouldn’t CQ mean you show more respect for my love of country music?” Touché.
Is it really such a big deal to think certain kinds of food and music are “normal” and others are “weird”? Maybe and maybe not. But to remain unaware of how culture shapes the way people think and behave is not only foolish, it’s expensive. From Fortune 500 businesses to small and medium-side organizations around the world, research consistently demonstrates a high level of failure when expansion into international markets is done without an awareness of how people from other cultures think and behave.
Role Of Cultural Values And Intercultural Communication
After eight years of struggling in Germany, Wal-Mart sold its eighty-five stores there. Many journalists have theorized about what led to Wal-Mart’s failure given its huge success at home, but it’s widely agreed that its primary flaw was in ignoring the cultural differences between the United States and Germany. It tried to apply its success formula here in the States to a German market without modifying it. Whether it was the kinds of products offered, the ways items were displayed, the greeters at the entrance, or the policies used in the employee handbook, Wal-Mart’s stint in Germany seems to be a case study of what happens when greater attention isn’t given to understanding the relevance of cultural differences. As a result, Wal-Mart filed a loss of USD $1 billion because of the failure in Germany and has since become much more adaptive and successful in other overseas markets.
Even if an organization never expands internationally, it’s impossible to be an effective leader without having some insight into how culture shapes the thoughts and behaviors of the people touched by your leadership. In fact, Edgar Schein, author of the bestselling book Organizational Culture and Leadership, says it’s impossible to separate culture and leadership. Schein says cultural norms significantly influence how you define leadership—for example, who should get promoted, what success is, and how to motivate employees. He argues that creating and managing culture is all that’s really important for leaders. According to Schein, “The unique talent of leaders is their ability to understand and work with culture”—both the organizational and the socio-ethnic cultures they regularly encounter. Don’t dismiss cultural understanding as simply politically correct, warm and fuzzy stuff. It will define your leadership.
The ability to understand and work with a culture doesn’t just come intuitively. It requires a disciplined effort to better understand cultural differences. CQ Knowledge, the second capability of cultural intelligence, refers to our level of understanding about culture and the ways cultures differ. It’s not that leaders with high levels of CQ Knowledge are walking encyclopedias of every culture in the world. That’s impossible. Instead, they possess a growing repertoire of knowledge about the macro patterns across cultures. And they can discern when something should be attributed to culture, and when it’s more likely a result of something else—such as a personality conflict or power struggle.
In this chapter and the next one, we’ll review the most important cultural knowledge you need to lead with cultural intelligence. Our research reveals two subdimensions of CQ Knowledge: cultural-general knowledge, which includes understanding cultural systems, values, and language differences; and context-specific knowledge. Because this is a leadership book, we’ll focus on context-specific knowledge about leadership. These subdimensions are the basis of the strategies we’ll cover for developing CQ Knowledge. First, we’ll learn how to see culture and its role in the way we think, behave, and lead. Next, we’ll examine the role of language in how we understand and lead across cultures. Then, we’ll review the most relevant cultural systems and values that need to be understood. Finally, we’ll examine ten cultural value dimensions. Given the volume of information relevant to CQ Knowledge, the material is divided across two chapters. In this chapter, we’ll look at the first three ways to develop CQ Knowledge: (1) see culture’s role in yourself and others, (2) understand different languages, and (3) review the basic cultural systems. The fourth element—learn about cultural values—will be discussed in Chapter 5.
Role Of Cultural Values And Intercultural Communication
HOW TO DEVELOP CQ KNOWLEDGE
1. See culture’s role in yourself and others.
2. Understand different languages.
3. Review the basic cultural systems.
4. Learn about cultural values (Chapter 5).
Key Question: What cultural understanding do I need for this cross-cultural assignment?
See Culture’s Role in Yourself and Others
The path toward improving CQ Knowledge begins with seeing the influence of culture on everything we think, say, and do. Culture is defined as the beliefs, values, behaviors, customs, and attitudes that distinguish one group from another. Or as some more simply put it, “It’s the way we do things around here.”
One time my friend Vijay took me to a cricket match in Delhi. I had tried watching cricket before but I was always confused. But Vijay was a great teacher. As we watched the game in the sweltering heat, he started to explain the basic rules, the use of the wickets, the way scoring happened, and the ultimate goal of getting each bats-man on the opponent’s team out. Not only was the game starting to make sense, I actually felt myself getting drawn into the excitement of the competition. I would have been a sorry sight if I had actually tried to get out on the field and play. But I had a better understanding of what was going on while the cricket pros played their game.
Despite the emphasis of many leadership courses and books on strategic planning and rational decision-making processes, many seasoned executives lead from the gut. As pointed out earlier, this works surprisingly well when leading in a familiar culture. It’s not that there’s no strategic thinking behind what these executives are doing. Instead, the graduate school of experience has programmed their subconscious to quickly arrive at decisions based on understanding they’ve gained throughout the years. The challenge comes when a leader relies on that same implicit understanding for making decisions related to different cultures. It might be like a football player jumping in to play cricket assuming they’re playing football.
By growing your CQ Knowledge, you can better understand things you may otherwise miss when moving into a new cultural context. This involves understanding the rules, albeit often unspoken, that are behind the behavior and assumptions in a particular culture—whether that’s an ethnic group, an organizational culture, or the subculture of a political party or religious group. The objective of the acquired understanding isn’t to become like the people in that cultural group or to be able to play their games. The goal is to understand and appreciate the rules behind their lives and society so that you can effectively lead.
Let’s consider a few of the different layers of culture we experience as leaders. National culture, such as French or Chinese culture, is the layer of culture that most powerfully shapes behavior. We may not think of ourselves as overly influenced by our national culture until we travel abroad. Then suddenly we find ourselves identifying with other people from our country more than we do when we’re home. Though many subcultures exist within most countries, national culture is the cultural orientation that most significantly shapes how most people think and behave.
Next is the influence of different ethnic cultures. I’ll repeatedly note the danger of making broad generalizations about all people from a particular country, and this is partly because of the diversity within most domestic contexts—whether it’s Zulus and Afrikaans in South Africa; ethnic Chinese, Indians, and Malays in Malaysia; or African Americans and Hispanics in the United States. Most leaders have some consciousness of the ethnic diversity within their own country, but they may need to grow their awareness of the diversity that exists elsewhere. Leaders outside the United States are often perplexed by what appears to be an overly sensitized concern about racism and prejudice in the United States related to the African American subculture. And the very fact that we refer to that subculture as “African American” rather than “black” is confounding to many non-U.S. leaders. But if you’re going to be working in the U.S. context, it’s important to understand the long history that helps explain the values, behavior, and customs of African Americans compared to the dominant Anglo culture in the United States.
The other culture most consistently encountered by leaders is organizational culture. One of the things I love about my work is the chance to experience so many diverse cultures across different industries and organizations. Spending one day with Coke’s executives and the next day with Facebook’s can make me feel like I should have had a passport to move from one place to the next—even though I haven’t left the country. The same is true when presenting to a group of executives at Samsung as compared to Hyundai. I have to further shift my thinking before presenting to a group of academics and yet again before talking with a group of faith-based leaders. CQ Knowledge includes growing our understanding of the distinct ways organizations celebrate successes, motivate teams, and share their stories.
Each of us is part of several other subcultures, including cultures organized around generational differences, sexual orientation, regions across a country, and religions. Consider the cultures of which you are a part and the ones that most strongly influence how you lead. We aren’t merely passive recipients of culture in any of these contexts. Culture isn’t something that just happens to us; we’re also active creators of it. Many leaders inherit organizational cultures with unhealthy practices and dysfunctional behavior throughout the company. It’s extremely challenging to change an organizational culture but it can be done. And we play a role in morphing and adapting the other cultures we belong to as well.
One of leaders’ most important roles is to be conscious of how culture shapes their behavior and that of others. Take, for example, Giovanni Bisignani, who recently stepped down from a decade as CEO and director general of the International Air Transportation Association (IATA), the trade association for over 90 percent of commercial airlines globally. One could easily mistake Bisignani’s bright-eyed, affable nature as simply that of a nice guy who has had a lot of global experiences. He’s one of the warmest people I’ve ever met. Within seconds of talking to him, he puts you at ease, makes a personal connection, and starts telling stories about tea with Mrs. Gandhi and his favorite travel spots. But this hospitable, gregarious character is a ferociously determined leader who loves a challenge and is relentlessly focused on driving change and bringing about results. The impact of his ten years of leadership at IATA is more than impressive:
• Since 2004, he saved the air industry $54 billion.
• He reformed a dusty, near obsolete organization into the largest Citibank customer in the world.
• He improved the ease by which we travel through e-ticketing, bar-coded boarding passes, and self-service check-in kiosks. More important, he’s led air travel to become the safest mode of transportation in the world.
• He built collaborative initiatives between some of the most unlikely partners: competing airlines, democratic presidents and dictators, big guys like Lufthansa and little guys like Air Zimbabwe—just to name a few.
• He moved IATA from being an organization led and dominated by Europeans and North Americans to one in which 60 percent of its members are from developing countries and more than 65 percent of its revenue is from the Middle East and Asia.
Giovanni understood the ubiquitous role of culture in every interaction and negotiation, and as a result, he led monumental change to one of the hardest hit industries of the twenty-first century—the air industry. And he’s been a catalyst for some of the most unlikely cross-border collaborations. This is a guy who has dinner with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano one evening and heads off to Iraq the next day to help Iraqi Airways get the airplane parts they need to fly passengers safely. Giovanni’s cultural understanding is the compass that gives him the direction he needs when stepping into any meeting.
Not every leader is as convinced as Giovanni about the relevance of cultural understanding. Jeff, a U.S. sales manager from a billion-dollar manufacturing company, talked to me a week before making his second business trip to China to visit a couple of factories in Guangzhou.
Jeff was very animated as we talked. With his legs constantly moving up and down and his fingers nervously tapping on the table, he said, “Okay, no offense. But doesn’t this whole cultural thing get a little overplayed? I mean, people are people and business is business. I’ll probably have to eat some weird food next week, but otherwise, I don’t see what the big differences are.”
I resisted jumping in for the moment and listened as Jeff carried on with his line of reasoning. Continuing with what seemed like a lot of nervous energy, Jeff said:
The way I see it, everyone is just trying to find a way to make a decent living and get ahead in life. I don’t care whether you’re Chinese, Mexican, or American, people are pretty much the same everywhere. They care about their kids, like you and me. They know you have to be aggressive to survive in this global market. And everyone wants to get ahead. The marketing strategy might need to adapt a little bit, but I think manufacturing is manufacturing and selling is selling wherever you go. Either you’re cut out for it or not!
If you only travel to major cities, stay in global hotel chains, and interact with locals who have been trained how to serve international travelers, it’s easy to believe the world is pretty much the same everywhere. And there’s some merit to Jeff’s point that all people share some basic universal characteristics. But the way we express and approach those universal characteristics varies widely across cultural and individual differences. A leader’s ability to distinguish between what’s universal, what’s cultural, and what’s personal is one of the most important indicators of cultural intelligence. This discernment stems from growing your CQ Knowledge. As you gain a better understanding of cultural norms, you know whether you’re experiencing something that is unique to an individual or typical of most individuals from the culture involved.
The iceberg is a familiar metaphor used when talking about the powerful influence of culture (see Figure 4-1). In my version of this metaphor, I place the universals shared across all humanity at the tip of the iceberg. As Jeff noted, there are a few universals that are true for most everyone and these are things we can readily see. But when you go a bit deeper, you find a slew of differences attributable to varying cultures and individual personalities. This is an important point of understanding. We’ll refer back to these three categories of human behavior (universal, cultural, and personal) throughout the book, but here’s a brief explanation.
I love to sit in a busy train station or shopping center and watch all the people. Even in a faraway place where I don’t know anyone, I can feel a level of connection simply by watching what appears to be a father with his children, a fellow traveler with her bags, or a couple laughing together. I relate to all these things. We share basic human needs. And emotions such as fear, joy, and disappointment are common to everyone. Acknowledging what we have in common can be the first step toward making the foreign seem more familiar. But it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Figure 4-1. Three Categories of Human Behavior
If I sit in a train station and watch a stranger with his kids, I can experience a form of connection as a dad, but if I make assumptions about what their relationship should look like, I’ve moved into questionable territory. Or to use the earlier analogy, interpreting cricket using the rules of football would lead to misunderstanding and confusion. I might think I understand and be entirely wrong.
As noted in Figure 4-1, certain aspects of a culture are visible. The way people drive, the local currency, religious symbols, or the way a business images itself are things that can be observed and identified. These are the visible cues about cultural differences that exist in any culture. But the most important points of understanding are the beliefs, values, and assumptions that lie beneath the surface of what’s visible. As represented by the iceberg, beneath the surface are the beliefs, values, and assumptions that drive behavior.
If Jeff fails to see the profound differences between the way a Chinese business partner and an American one thinks and behaves, he’s sure to hit all kinds of roadblocks and will unlikely see lasting success working cross-culturally. Ignorance about the cultural differences that abound in the multicultural workforce around us puts us on the pathway toward ineffective, irrelevant leadership.
Consider the Chinese concept of guanxi as an example of why Jeff needs to realize that a “people are people” approach is an insufficient rule of thumb for guiding his interactions in China. Guanxi refers to the connections and resulting obligations between two individuals. It exists between Chinese families first and foremost, but it’s also found among classmates and professional colleagues because of a shared history together. When adopting guanxi, individuals loosely keep track of the favors given and the debts owed between one another. Given the underlying presence of guanxi in most Chinese relationships, Jeff would be wise to learn the significance of the gifts his colleagues in Guangzhou may give him as a way to establish and build a relationship together. The same actions done at home might appear to be bribery or little more than just a token gesture. But misunderstanding what this means in China could derail everything Jeff was sent there to do.
Talk to most anyone who has worked on getting a deal in China and he will tell you stories about people who insisted on getting him drunk. In a culture where guanxi can make or break you in business, getting drunk with a potential business partner is often viewed as a crucial way of solidifying that relationship and showing that you are, in fact, friends. First, business dinners usually start with an invitation. Typically, the person doing the inviting should be of at least the same leadership level as the person being invited. Furthermore, the person doing the inviting pays for dinner. Chinese individuals who follow more traditional norms will make the dinner invitation in person or by phone, not by email or text message. Email is considered too impersonal, and it allows a tangible record of those with whom you do business.
Unlike during most Western business dinners, business itself is usually the least talked about topic during a Chinese business dinner. If anything, it’s saved for a sliver of time at the end of dinner, although at that point, most of the people involved are so drunk that no real business decisions can come out of it. But don’t think this means it’s a waste of time. The point of the dinner is to solidify relationships. It’s a big part of determining whether you’re trustworthy and to see how you behave when you aren’t sober enough to filter what you say. Expect personal questions and don’t be afraid to talk about your personal life. And if you keep drinking, it will be seen as a symbol of friendship. The more you drink, the more pleased your cohorts will be, because it shows you’re willing to get drunk with them, just like you would with your friends. The Chinese believe that drinking together deepens and strengthens friendships because it loosens people up and helps relieve misunderstanding, no matter how tense the situation might be. Granted, there are certainly times when excessive drinking will be used to wear you down. But the primary orientation behind this practice is social.
If Jeff assumes that going out for dinner and drinks is optional, similar to what it might mean in many other cultural contexts, he can be blindsided. There may be health or religious reasons why Jeff decides he can’t fully participate in this drinking scene. But he at least needs to make that decision being consciously aware of the meaning behind it. We’ll further address how to use this kind of cultural understanding to effectively lead when we get to CQ Strategy and CQ Action.
For now, the point is to see the relevance of cultural differences to how we lead and do business. A former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and the United Arab Emirates told me that during his career he had witnessed a continual stream of U.S. salespeople moving in and out of the Persian Gulf to sell their goods and services. All too often he saw North American sales reps losing opportunities to their British, French, or Japanese counterparts because they tried to use the same sales pitch from home in the Middle East. Meanwhile, their counterparts from other countries spent more time learning about the local culture and even the local language. As a result, they secured contracts lost by the North Americans. This might not be any more true of North American sales reps than sales reps from other countries but the point is that learning about cultural markets has a direct connection to generating sales.
Culture is everywhere. It shapes how you lead and it influences how others perceive your leadership. As you better understand the relevance of culture, you’ll be much better equipped to assess situations and make decisions that are appropriate for your organization and the individuals involved.
At the deepest level of the iceberg are individual differences. Leaders functioning at the highest levels of cultural intelligence are able to see when the behavior of others is a reflection of their cultural background and when it’s idiosyncratic behavior from one individual. There are ways I behave that are consistent with how most North American men behave. I’m task-oriented, independent, and I prefer clear, explicit communication. And there are characteristics of me that would be unfair to generalize to other North American men, including my insatiable wanderlust and the intensity with which I approach most anything I do. A culturally intelligent leader will learn to identify the personal quirks and characteristics of individuals versus those that fit cultural norms. The best way to do so is by understanding cultural systems and values—something explained later in this chapter and the next. By learning these broad cultural norms, you have a way of knowing whether a behavior is consistent with cultural tendencies or idiosyncratic.
A recent study asked people in seventy-two nations to share their predominant images of the United States. The winners: war and Baywatch! In a post-9/11 era, it takes little guessing to figure out why many people in the world equate the United States with war. As for Baywatch, it’s the most exported U.S. television program in the world, quickly being crowded out by Friends, which is now in syndication every hour of the day somewhere in the world.
Many of my U.S. friends are very conflicted about our military interventions, and I don’t know many Americans who watch, much less like, the characters on Baywatch. But that doesn’t change the fact that some people will make assumptions about people from the United States that are entirely off base. And the same thing happens everywhere. Not all Chinese leaders want to take people drinking and not all Millennials are looking for flexible work schedules.
The reverse is also problematic—that is, observing an individual’s behavior and generalizing it to an entire culture. One Canadian leader who managed a Sikh Indian employee told me, “One of the things I’ve noticed about Sikhs is they don’t like to travel. Every time I ask Mr. Singh to attend a meeting out of town, he comes up with an excuse.” When I asked her whether she had observed this among other Sikh employees, she said Mr. Singh was the first Sikh she’d hired. But she had assumed it was a cultural thing because who wouldn’t want to get out of London, Ontario, every once in a while at the company’s expense. She presumed any unfamiliar, inexplicable behavior she observed must have been related to his cultural background.
Later, we’ll note the value of using cultural norms and values as a starting point for understanding others. But caution is always needed. Cultural intelligence is required to discern between what’s universal, what’s cultural, and what’s personal. Once we understand the impact of culture, we’re ready to understand the middle layer of the iceberg: languages, cultural systems, and cultural value orientations.
Understand Different Languages
A few years ago, the Dairy Association led a wildly successful marketing campaign throughout the United States built on the slogan “Got Milk?” Unfortunately, when the campaign was exported to Mexico, the translation read, “Are you lactating?” There are countless other examples like this. A U.S. software company suffered from having the name of its industry translated as “underwear” when launching internationally. A European company couldn’t succeed selling its chocolate and fruit dessert called “Zit” in the United States nor could the Finns who attempted to sell “Super Piss,” a Finnish product for unfreezing car door locks. These examples are humorous but the challenge of language goes beyond funny translations. Microsoft experienced a great deal of resistance from many regions around the world in response to its icon “My Computer,” which assumed everyone owned his or her own computer. And Microsoft’s “mail” and “trash” icons looked nothing like the mailboxes and trash bins used in most places globally.
Read almost any book on effective leadership, and you’ll learn about the essential role of consistent, clear communication. Clarity is one of the universal leadership skills desired by followers from all cultures. And communication, whether creating a marketing campaign, drafting a memo, or casting a vision, is ubiquitously tied to culture. Some say language and culture are one and the same, pointing to the reality that Eskimos have several different words for snow and very few to describe tropical fruits. The reverse is true in some tropical contexts. Language and culture evolve together as people live in relationship to their surroundings. As we grow in CQ Knowledge, we need to understand some basics about communication and language and their relationship to culture.
Some flippantly quip, “English is becoming the lingua franca of international business.” But in actuality, English is just one of the major languages of world trade and the mother tongue of only 5 percent of the world’s population. Leaders who speak more than one language have an advantage over those who don’t because when you’re fluent in a language, speaking and thinking in that language becomes an automatic, subconscious action. Not only can we more easily communicate with others who speak that language, we also gain a heightened ability to see how they label the world. It provides a way to understand what’s going on that is much harder to grasp when done through translation. Jaguar, the British automobile maker, discovered the importance of language when it began in-house German-language studies to help increase its competitiveness in Germany against Mercedes and BMW. A year after doing so, Jaguar’s sales in Germany jumped 60 percent.
If you speak only one language, consider signing up for an introductory course or hiring a tutor to learn a foreign language. Chances are, you won’t have to look far to find someone who can teach you the basics. Or you could get a Skype “pen pal” with whom you can regularly communicate in another language for free. While becoming fluent is a great ideal, just the process of learning another language significantly contributes to growth in CQ Knowledge. You might find yourself innovating and leading in new ways simply as a result of learning a new language. And being able to say even a few words in a counterpart’s native tongue speaks volumes.
Language understanding can be an issue even when working within another English-speaking context. Different expressions and terms are frequent points of confusion among North Americans, Brits, Indians, and Australians.
Similar communication challenges exist when moving from one organization or profession to the next. An academic talking with a group of business executives needs to translate academic terms into words that communicate effectively in the corporate context. I often encounter people who work in professional cultures that are unfamiliar to me, such as medical professionals, biochemists, or automotive manufacturers. I immediately observe the difference between the cultural intelligence of those individuals who can talk to me about their work using language I understand versus others who use all kinds of trade lingo that means nothing to me. Doctors and nurses with CQ Knowledge have to adjust their verbal and nonverbal language when talking about a diagnosis with family members versus doing so with medical peers. With CQ Knowledge, we understand that our words stem from a variety of the cultural contexts that shape who we are.
I chair the board of a nonprofit organization. This nonprofit was extremely successful during the first seven years of its existence. But then for the next three years its activity and bottom line began a steady decline. One of the things a consultant observed in talking with several of the staff and constituents was an unusual aversion toward anything that sounded “corporate” or institutional. In fact, one business leader who observed this nonprofit described the organizational culture as having antibodies in its system toward anything that sounded remotely corporate. Our board was in the midst of seeking a new leader for the organization, and part of applying cultural intelligence was to change the title of the primary leader from CEO to team leader. Of course, if the sole change made was in the title on the job description, the aversion toward corporate culture would be addressed only momentarily. But this shift in language was the first step toward developing a leadership plan that uniquely suited the culture of the organization, expressed in a language that resonated with its members rather than just mimicking titles and structures from other places.
Communicating, both formally and informally, is perhaps the most important thing a leader does. Many of the problems that occur in an organization are the direct result of people failing to communicate in ways that truly enhance understanding. Learning appropriate language for a cultural context provides the understanding necessary for adapting the way we communicate, something we’ll revisit when looking at the fourth CQ capability, CQ Action.
Review the Basic Cultural Systems
Another important part of understanding different cultures is to learn about different cultural systems. Cultural systems are the ways a society has organized itself in terms of meeting basic needs and the structures required for order. Without careful observation, the significance of these systems can easily be missed. There are six cultural systems that are most relevant for leaders: economic, marriage and family, educational, legal and political, religious, and artistic.
Economic Systems: Capitalist vs. Socialist
Every society has to come up with basic ways of meeting its members’ universal needs of food, water, clothing, and housing. Understanding how a culture has organized itself to produce, allocate, and distribute these basic resources is extremely important to culturally intelligent leadership. Most of us are pretty familiar with the two most predominant economic systems today—capitalism and socialism (Table 4-1)—though most economic systems are a mix of the two.
Capitalism, found in places like the United States and Singapore, is based on the principle of individuals gaining resources and services based on their capacity to pay for them. The assumption underlying capitalism is that individuals are motivated to care for themselves and the market exists to meet their needs. Competition is seen as good for the consumer and thus for the whole.
Role Of Cultural Values And Intercultural Communication
On the other end of the continuum is socialism, found in places like Denmark and New Zealand. The state plays a much more active role in the production and distribution of basic resources by ensuring some equality of access for everyone in society to basic resources. Most of us have strong opinions about which system is superior, but we must beware of assuming there’s only one right way to distribute goods and services. There is a wide range of other possibilities for how cultures address economic needs, particularly in more tribal contexts. You don’t need to be an expert on how the entire economic system works in every culture; but a general awareness of the differing ways in which economic systems are organized will enhance your ability to negotiate and develop a working relationship outside your home culture. Table 4-1 offers you a few ways to begin thinking about the leadership implications of these cultural differences.
Marriage and Family Systems: Kinship vs. Nuclear Family
Each society works out a system for who can marry whom, under what conditions, and according to what procedures. A related system of child care becomes standardized in most cultures. The most commonly described family systems are kinship systems and nuclear-family systems (Table 4-2). Most of the world is organized around kinship-based societies in which blood relationship and solidarity within one’s family and clan is central. For example, a Chinese philanthropist is likely to be more concerned about giving in a way that benefits his or her family and heirs than to making a pledge with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Or a Middle Eastern executive is more likely to do business with someone who knows his family or has some previous connections to his family than with someone who has impressive credentials. This is called consanguine kinship, in which identity rests most in how individuals are genealogically connected. Kinship societies are made up of extended families in which the household often includes three or more generations. Even corporate leaders in kinship cultures like South Africa or Oman will often spend time trying to determine one’s genealogical connections as part of a first encounter.
Table 4-1. Economic Systems
The basic ways a society organizes itself to meet its members’ universal needs of food, water, clothing, and housing.
A society created around the idea of individuals gaining resources and services based on their capacity to pay for them. Decisions are market driven.
A society in which the state coordinates and implements the production and distribution of basic resources through central planning and control.
• Consider how best to motivate personnel in light of the predominant economic system. Competition tends to be a better motivational strategy in capitalist societies and cooperation in socialist ones.
• Understand which industries in a particular place are state run and which are privatized. And be aware that even some privatized companies have heavy state-level investment.
• When expanding your organization into a country with a different economic system, consider what human resources policies will need to be revised in light of the way health care and retirement is done, how to do performance reviews, and appropriate compensation.
In contrast, the nuclear-family system, sometimes called affinal kinship, is found more predominantly in the Western world and among the middle class. It is usually based on two generations whose group members are related by marriage. Family refers to parents and children, and, essentially, it dissolves with the death of a spouse. Societies based on nuclear families are those where employees are much more apt to pick up and move when a better career opportunity comes along. And the identity of individuals in these societies is more typically derived from one’s immediate family and one’s vocation rather than the heritage of one’s extended family. Nuclear-family systems place a great deal of value on parent-child relationships, husband-and-wife relationships, and sibling relationships. Family systems play a profound role in the choices employees make and the things that motivate potential markets.
Table 4-2. Family Systems
The system a society develops for who can marry whom and the arrangements for how children and senior members are cared for.
The family finds its identity in several generations of history and the household often includes three or more generations.
The family is based on two generations whose members are related by marriage and consists primarily of parents and children.
• Expect introductions in kinship societies to be embedded with references to siblings, uncles, parents and grandparents, etc. Learning about the career of an individual’s parent may be very important. In contrast, introductions in nuclear-family societies are usually focused on one’s vocational role and what one does for the organization. Conversations about family are considered “personal” and only appropriate after getting to know one another a bit better.
• When leaders from nuclear-family systems work with colleagues and employees from kinship family systems, keep in mind that allowing room for family obligations will be important when recruiting and retaining talent from kinship societies.
• When leaders from kinship family systems work with colleagues and employees from nuclear-family systems, beware that they may not see the importance of hearing or sharing about extended-family relationships during an initial introduction.
Understanding the colliding approaches to family life is becoming increasingly relevant to how we lead. As elderly parents are living longer and as more men take on responsibility caring for children, understanding a culture’s approach to family is critical. In fact, the family system is widely regarded as the single most important cultural system leaders need to understand; but this information often feels irrelevant to some leaders. Consider why some basic knowledge of these kinds of differences would help a Western leader trying to negotiate a contract with a business owned by an ethnic Chinese family. Many of the most successful firms in cities like Beijing, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore are run by ethnic Chinese leaders who reflect a kinship approach to business. These companies are typically managed by the patriarch of the family, who leads with unquestioned authority and is aided by a small group of family members and close subordinates. When the owner retires, the firm is typically passed to the next generation. These companies rarely relinquish control to outsiders and they usually put only family members on the board of directors. Or for multinational companies working in Middle Eastern contexts, it would be beneficial to consider the importance of working with local contractors who are connected to a local sheik’s family or donating funds for a sheik’s family village in order to gain the sheik’s cooperation and approval. Family systems are an extremely relevant issue for how you lead across borders. The material in Table 4-2 will help you consider this further.
Educational Systems: Formal vs. Informal
Societies develop patterns for how their senior members transmit their values, beliefs, and behaviors to their offspring. This is at the core of how societies develop systems for educating and socializing their young (Table 4-3). Most of the world today is moving toward more formalized education in which young people are taught through schools, books, and professional teachers. But even in many developed cultures, such as South Africa, Israel, or Japan, informal education from one’s senior family members is seen as critically important alongside the priority of rigorous, formal education in these places. And the use of rote teaching in which students are expected to recite information taught versus the development of analytical skills is an important difference among many educational approaches. If you play a role in designing training, consider how the varied educational perspectives and experiences will shape how participants respond and learn. Think carefully about the age of the person you send to conduct training in a context where people expect teachers to be more senior.
Table 4-3. Educational Systems
The patterns for how the senior members of a culture transmit their values, beliefs, and behaviors to their offspring.
The use of schools, books, and professionally trained teachers to educate youth.
The emphasis of wisdom passed to youth from extended-family members, parents, and siblings.
• Develop and adapt training programs for employees with an understanding of the educational systems and preferences of people in different cultures. Some teaching methods may be very foreign or uncomfortable to individuals from certain cultures.
• Seek to understand the extent to which formal, academic research is valued as compared to conventional wisdom in the ways you motivate, negotiate, and market your work.
• When seeking to debunk a myth or advance a new idea, understand the primary source of socialization in a culture (e.g., sage wisdom versus academic research).
Leaders coming from Asia are often frustrated with the perceived limitations among Westerners for memorizing and retaining information. They see Westerners as struggling to synthesize individual parts into a whole. Western leaders experience the same frustration when their attempts at analysis are met with resistance from Eastern counterparts. An understanding of the educational system and approach to learning used by a culture will enhance the way you conduct meetings; develop partnerships; and market, train, and develop personnel.
Legal and Political Systems: Formal vs. Informal Governance
Most cultures develop systems for maintaining order to ensure citizens will not violate the rights of others in the society. This results in the legal system of a society, which is closely tied with the government of a particular place. In places like the United States, there’s a formal legal system governed by a written constitution and through local, state, and federal laws. Although less formalized and complex, many smaller-scale, technologically simple societies also have effective ways of controlling behaviors (Table 4-4).
Because many businesses lack knowledge of how the governing system works in a new place, they become extremely frustrated when it comes to maintaining good working relationships among employees and with local officials. One of the greatest mistakes made by leaders as they move in and out of various countries is assuming the government system works pretty much like it does at home. Another typical response is assuming a legal system is corrupt or inferior because it’s different. Understanding and respecting a society’s legal system will significantly enhance the ability to work effectively in that culture.
It’s also important to be aware that there are often variations even within a nation’s given legal system. For example, China has universal laws that govern the country, but there are numerous issues that are governed by individual provinces and cities. Many other countries have similar variations among different districts, provinces, and regions. In some contexts, laws apply differently to different ethnic groups within a society. Malaysia, an Islamic state, has a different set of standards for its indigenous Malay citizens than it does for citizens of Chinese or Indian descent. One U.S. company operating in Kuala Lumpur began offering yoga classes for employees during the lunch hour. The class was led by a North American instructor as a way to offer employees holistic exercise. There was enthusiastic participation from several of the Indian and Chinese personnel. But no Malays, the predominant population in the country, ever came to yoga. Eventually the company learned that it’s illegal for Malays to practice yoga because yoga is believed to incorporate elements of Hinduism, which could corrupt a Muslim’s faith. Complete understanding of all the specific legal structures is not necessary, but an appreciation for the significance of how a legal system affects the way we work in different contexts is essential. The suggestions in Table 4-4 will help you get started.
Religious Systems: Rational vs. Mystical
Why do bad things happen to good people? How come drunk drivers survive while innocent people get killed? Why do tsunamis kill some innocent people while others escape?
Every culture develops a way of explaining what otherwise seems inexplicable. There are no uniform conventions for answering these questions, but all societies offer a variety of supernatural and religious beliefs for things that go beyond human understanding. Admittedly, there are many differences within most cultures for how different individuals and their religions answer questions like these. One of the distinguishing differences between how many cultures organize their supernatural belief systems is rooted in the extent to which they take a rational, scientific approach to answering the inexplicable versus a more spiritual and mystical outlook on life. The rational approach puts more emphasis on individual responsibility and work ethic whereas the mystical way places a higher degree of confidence in supernatural powers, both good and evil (Table 4-5).
Table 4-4. Legal Systems
The systems developed by a society to protect citizens’ rights.
A very formalized system that is chronicled in things such as a written constitution and laws.
Although less formalized, simple legal systems are still binding and are passed along through conventional wisdom. Citizens and visitors are presumed to understand and follow the rules.
• Recruit local expertise to aid you in negotiating with legal and government officials.
• Take the time to learn which laws are relevant for your work in a respective place.
• Find out what unwritten practices should be used or avoided with legal officials. For example, giving a gift to a government official will be essential in some cultures and can get you arrested in another.
Religious and supernatural beliefs can shape work-related attitudes in profound ways. Max Weber, often called the founder of sociology, analyzed the relationship between Protestantism and capitalism. Capitalism is partially driven by a Protestant work ethic, which is prevalent in Western societies and emphasizes hard work, diligence, and frugality with the aim of accumulating capital. It’s assumed this approach will be the best for society. The guiding thought is: A society won’t survive without expecting people to work hard for it.
Role Of Cultural Values And Intercultural Communication
Table 4-5. Religious Systems
The ways a culture explains the supernatural and what otherwise seems inexplicable.
The emphasis is on finding reason-based scientific answers to the supernatural with a focus on individual responsibility and work ethic.
The emphasis is on supernatural powers, both good and evil, that control day-to-day events and life.
• Be respectful about how you discuss your religious beliefs and learn what might be most likely to offend someone in light of his or her religious beliefs. Be alert to the most potentially offensive things that could be done in regard to a culture’s religious beliefs and seek to avoid those practices.
• Become a student of how religious values and supernatural beliefs affect the financial, management, and marketing decisions made by organizations in a particular culture.
• Find out key religious dates. Avoid opening a new business in China during the Festival of the Dead or on Deepavali in India. And don’t schedule an important meeting on days such as Christmas or Chinese New Year.
In contrast, Islam emphasizes charity to the poor and has rigorous measures to ensure profitable gains don’t come at the expense of the poor. As a result, most Islamic banks prohibit charging interest on loans because gains from loans are seen as exploitive gains from the poor. Innovative businesses working in the Islamic context have factored in this reality by charging a fee up front rather than charging interest. Non-Islamic companies working in Islamic countries need to have a basic understanding of these Islamic practices.
One French business opened its Thailand office one flight above a statue of Buddha. Only after several months of virtually no business did this company learn that no one was coming to the office because it was violating a sacred rule: Never put yourself above Buddha, literally! After moving to a new location, business took off. Elsewhere, a Japanese multinational corporation was caught off guard by the extent to which religious beliefs affected its global expansion. The company decided to build a factory on a piece of land in rural Malaysia that was formerly a burial ground of the aboriginal people who had lived in the region. After the factory was built, mass hysteria resulted among the factory workers of Malay origin. Many employees claimed they were being possessed by spirits. They believed that erecting the factory on the former burial ground had disturbed the spirits, causing them to swarm the factory premises.
We can’t underestimate the powerful role of religious beliefs and practices in how we work in different places. For Western leaders, who are often perceived to be Christian even if they aren’t, conversing about some of the other great religions of the world will demonstrate significant respect when interacting with leaders from other parts of the globe. Those coming from religiously devout contexts into more secular ones need to understand the perceptions that may be associated with religious devotion. You need not abandon your own religious convictions or pretend to have them in order to convey honor and appreciation for the views and practices of others. This is a significant point to understand about cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence doesn’t mean abandoning our convictions, values, and assumptions. Instead, we’re seeking to understand and respect the beliefs and priorities of others and express our own values and beliefs in ways that are appropriate, respectful, and effective.
Artistic Systems: Solid vs. Fluid
Finally, every society develops a system of aesthetic standards that gets manifested in everything from decorative art, music, and dance to the architecture and planning of buildings and communities. There are many different ways we could examine artistic systems. One way of thinking about it is to observe the extent to which a society’s aesthetics reflect clear lines and solid boundaries versus more fluid ones. Many Western cultures favor clean, tight boundaries, whereas many Eastern cultures prefer more fluid, indiscriminate lines (Table 4-6).
In most Western homes, kitchen drawers are organized so that forks are with forks and knives are with knives. The walls of a room are usually uniform in color, and when there is a creative shift in color, it usually happens at a corner or along a straight line midway down a wall. Pictures are framed with straight edges, molding covers up seams in the wall, and lawns are edged to form a clear line between the sidewalk and the lawn. Why? Because Westerners view life in terms of classifications, categories, and taxonomies. And cleanliness itself is largely defined by the degree of order that exists. It has little to do with sanitation and far more to do with whether things appear to be in their proper place.
Maintaining boundaries is essential in the Western world; otherwise, categories begin to disintegrate and chaos sets in. Most Westerners want dandelion-free lawns and roads with clear lanes prescribing where to drive and where not to drive. Men wear a tie to cover the adjoining fabric on the shirt they put on before going to a symphony, where they listen to classical music based on a scale with seven notes and five half steps. Each note has a fixed pitch, defined in terms of the lengths of the sound waves it produces. A good performance occurs when the musicians hit the notes precisely.
Table 4-6. Artistic Systems
A society’s approach to aesthetics including decorative art, music, architecture, web design, and city planning.
A preference for clean, tight boundaries that emphasize precision and straight lines.
A preference for more fluid, indiscriminate lines with an emphasis on ebb and flow and flexibility.
• Determine whether you need to alter the color schemes, navigation logic, and representations on your website for various regions. What might seem like a clear navigation approach in your culture might be very confusing in another place.
• Beware of assuming that symbols or logos can be universally applied in all cultural contexts. Do your homework to find out how symbols will be received in the places where you work.
• Learn what cultural icons are revered. For example, inappropriate use of lions or the Great Wall when marketing to Chinese will erode credibility.
In contrast, many Eastern cultures have little concern in everyday life for sharp boundaries and uniform categories. Different colors of paint may be used at various places on the same wall. And the paint may “spill” over onto the window glass and ceiling. Meals are a fascinating array of ingredients where food is best enjoyed when mixed together on your plate or, just as likely, on a communal plate. Roads and driving patterns are flexible. The lanes ebb and flow as needed depending on the volume of traffic. In a place like Cambodia or Nigeria, the road space is available for whichever direction a vehicle needs it most, whatever the time of day. And people often meander along the road in their vehicles the same way they walk along a path.
There are many other ways aesthetics between one place and another could be contrasted. But consistent with the CQ model, the important point is a basic understanding of how cultures differ within the realm of aesthetics. Soak in the local art of a place and chalk it up to informing your strategy for international business. When designing a website, beware of how culturally bound color, navigation, and symbols are. Do more than simply translate the words of a brochure or instructional guidebook. Consider how the layout and design may need to be adjusted. It’s unrealistic to come up with a different version of every document for every culture reflected in today’s global organization. But careful thinking about the role of culture in how people will understand and react to design and aesthetics is essential. Use the suggestions in Table 4-6 to consider how this relates to your team.
Understanding these basic cultural systems and some overarching ways they function across various cultures is a key part of developing your CQ Knowledge. It’s easy to overlook the importance and relevance of these systems if we don’t take time to consider them. And as demonstrated in the iceberg metaphor (see Figure 4-1), there will always be individuals within a culture who stray from the cultural norms for aesthetics or any of these cultural systems.
CQ Knowledge begins with understanding culture’s role in people’s thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. It’s a matter of discerning what’s universal to all humans, what’s attributable to specific cultures, and what’s idiosyncratic to individuals. Then we need to understand the role of language in culture and gain a basic grasp of the systems developed by cultures to deal with economics, family, education, legal issues, religion, and artistic expression. In the next chapter, we’ll look at one more crucial aspect of CQ Knowledge: understanding ten cultural dimensions used to compare cultures.
CQ KNOWLEDGE (PART 2): UNDERSTAND TEN CULTURAL VALUE DIMENSIONS
The journey toward leading with cultural intelligence continues. As described in Chapter 4, CQ Knowledge is your level of understanding about culture and the ways cultures differ. Chapter 4 reviewed three ways to develop CQ Knowledge: (1) See culture’s role in yourself and others, (2) understand different languages, and (3) review the basic cultural systems. This chapter explains one more important dimension of building and applying CQ Knowledge: Learn about cultural values.
You’ll undoubtedly see a connection between what a culture values and the cultural systems (e.g., economic, aesthetic, legal) reviewed in Chapter 4. Cultural values are what get emphasized most when teaching people about cross-cultural leadership. How do people in Mexico approach time or authority compared with people in Germany? Although cultural values are only one dimension of what you need to know to effectively lead with cultural intelligence, they are a significant part of building your repertoire of cultural understanding.
Given the abundance of books devoted to describing these values and the norms for various cultures, I’ve simply provided a brief overview of ten of these cultural value dimensions to demonstrate how they connect with our research on CQ. All of the usual cautions against stereotyping apply here. It’s dangerous to assume that all Norwegians are direct or that all Koreans prefer hierarchical leaders. And it’s never appropriate to describe an entire cultural group with negative, judgmental descriptions, such as “___ people are all lazy and corrupt.”
As long as we remain open to expecting variability among different people from the same culture (e.g., some Latinos are more concerned about punctuality than others), using cultural norms as a best first guess is worthwhile for shaping initial expectations and interactions. This is one of the best ways to discern the difference between what’s cultural and what’s personal (see Figure 4-1).
Individualism vs. Collectivism
My oldest daughter is in the midst of deciding what university to attend. My wife and I are guiding her on things we want her to consider, but, ultimately, where she goes will be her decision. This is the individualist way: teaching kids from an early age to make choices, be responsible for themselves, and pursue their dreams. Some of our friends from more collectivist cultures can’t fathom that we won’t tell Emily where to go. The collectivist way is for parents to strongly influence where a child goes to university and to make that choice in light of what will be best for the entire family.
Individualism versus collectivism is, at its core, a difference in identity. From an individualist perspective, if a decision affects you, you should be the one to make it. Individualism is the norm in countries such as the United States, Germany, and Australia, whereas collectivism is the norm in most of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (most of the world!). From an early age, collectivists are taught never to be the sore thumb that stands out because the sore thumb gets chopped off. Bringing honor to one’s family and blending in with society is what is most highly valued.
When McDonald’s began opening restaurants in India, a very collectivist culture, it soon learned it had to adapt its “employee of the month” program. Being singled out with rewards for excellent work is a strong motivator for many in individualist cultures, but it’s a demotivating factor in a place where you’re socialized to blend in. McDonald’s wisely adapted its motivational program toward being the team or restaurant of the month. Understanding the primary source of identity—the individual or the group—is an insight that will shape whether you lead with cultural intelligence.
In individualist cultures, the pace of life is typically faster. Decisions happen expediently and that becomes expected of others. Little distinction is made between in-groups and out-groups. In collectivist cultures, loyalty to one’s in-group, typically one’s family and friends and sometimes one’s colleagues, is of utmost importance. Social harmony is a top priority. It’s been said that if Maslow had been Chinese, the top of his hierarchy of needs would have been social harmony rather than self-actualization.
The majority of the world is collectivist, but the majority of leadership literature is written by and for individualists. As more Asians, Latin Americans, and Africans publish their leadership perspectives, we will have more insights into leading in the collectivist context. In the meantime, we need to filter most of the leadership material we read with an eye toward how it needs to be adapted for the collectivists we encounter or lead. Understanding the implications of individualism versus collectivism is an essential part of growing your CQ Knowledge.
Table 5-1. Individualism vs. Collectivism
Emphasis on individual goals and rights
Emphasis on group goals and personal relationships
For a description of the ten cultural clusters listed here, see Appendix 1. Note that most nations include people from multiple clusters (e.g., the dominant cluster in North America is Anglo and the dominant cluster in China is Confucian, but many other clusters exist in both places). The clusters simply provide a reference point for the largest cultural groups in the world.
• Motivate with personal incentives and goals.
• Recognize that partnership usually involves one to two people, not a group.
• Motivate with group goals.
• Recognize importance of long-term relationships.
One morning when I was preparing to facilitate a leadership seminar in Delhi, I had an interesting interaction with my host, Sagar:
Dave: Are the training materials all printed and ready, Sagar?
Sagar: Oh, yes! They’re at the print shop next door. They just need to be brought here.
Dave: Great! I’ll run next door and get them.
Sagar: No, no. I’ll send someone to get them.
Dave: That’s kind of you, Sagar, but I don’t mind at all. I can use the exercise after the long flight. It’s no problem. I’ll just run next door and come right back.
Sagar: Please wait here a while. We will drink tea and I’ll have someone bring them to us.
Was Sagar just trying to be a gracious host? Should I have insisted on getting the materials or was I being too task oriented, missing that Sagar just wanted to have tea together? Or was he trying to save face and keep me from knowing they hadn’t even been printed yet? Either of these could have been the reason Sagar was reluctant to let me get the materials. Interpreting the many possibilities behind this kind of exchange is something we’ll explore further as we look at CQ Strategy. After I debriefed this experience with a couple of Indian colleagues and did some additional reading about norms in India, I began to see that this conflict over picking up a print order may have been primarily related to differing views between Sagar and me regarding power distance.
It seems I wasn’t sufficiently status conscious to suit Sagar. A high power-distance culture views it as the lot of some individuals in life to courier materials and carry books while others are given the role of doing things such as teaching or being an executive. For me to have picked up my own things would have been a slight on Sagar, demonstrating he didn’t know how to take care of a guest teacher. And it’s possible it may have been a slur on the importance of education itself. By the way, the materials showed up right on time.
Power distance refers to the amount of distance that is expected between leaders and followers. Countries scoring high in power distance—such as Mexico, India, and Ghana—offer a great deal of formal respect to leaders. Titles and status are revered, leaders and followers are unlikely to socialize together, and subordinates are not expected to question their superiors. Power distance is the extent to which differences in power and status are expected and accepted. It reveals where the power lies and how it’s structured.
Again, this value varies not only in national cultures but also across other cultural contexts including generational subcultures, professional cultures, and organizational cultures. When visiting a new organization, notice how individuals address the people to whom they report, what kinds of titles are used, and how they’re displayed. How are you introduced to the senior leader and what does the office setup suggest about power dynamics? Don’t miss these important observations when you’re in the interviewing process with a new organization or when you’re courting a client in a new cultural context.
Individuals from high power-distance cultures who come to work in the United States often demonstrate their discomfort with the attitudes toward authority figures that differ from what they see at home. An engineer from India said, “The first time my North American supervisor told me, ‘I don’t know,’ I was shocked. I asked myself, ‘Why is he in charge?’ In my country, a superior would give a wrong answer rather than admit ignorance.”
An international student from Indonesia, another culture scoring very high in power distance, made this comment about her experience coming to study at a U.S. university:
I was surprised and confused when on leaving Whittier Hall the provost … held the door for me.… I was so confused that I could not find the words to express my gratefulness, and I almost fell on my knees as I would certainly do back home. A man who is by far my superior is holding the door for me, a mere student and a nobody.
Canada, Germany, Finland, Austria, and Israel are described as some of the lowest power-distance cultures in the world. In low power-distance cultures, most people feel at ease socializing with their leaders and addressing them as peers. Subordinates feel free to question their managers and they expect to have input in the decision-making process.
Leading with cultural intelligence requires adapting your leadership style for various value orientations. I prefer a participative style of leadership (low power distance) in which status is downplayed and people’s opinions are equally valued. I’m not a big fan of formal titles, and for me, the flatter the organizational chart the better. But as I come to understand the way my culture’s low power distance shapes my leadership preferences, it’s also helping me to see how high power distance shapes the preferred styles of leadership among others. Subordinates in high power-distance cultures expect leaders to tell them exactly what to do. At the very least, if I insist on using a more empowering, participative style of leadership in a place like India, I have to creatively figure out how to make that work and I need to accept that multiple leadership styles can be effective.
I experience the contrast in power distance when I move between the Middle East and Western Europe. But I also experience it between organizational cultures such as more top-down, authoritative structures within U.S. government agencies and the military as compared to when I interact with leaders from Facebook, a place described by insiders as anti-hierarchical and title agnostic. In fact, I recently interviewed Bill McLawhon, head of leadership development at Facebook, and I asked him how their low power distance culture shapes the way they work globally. I said to Bill:
You’ve described a very strong culture at Facebook—hierarchy agnostic, fast, autonomous, no victims/excuses, take risks, etc. Many of these values are diametrically opposite to the core values of most developing world cultures. How is that influencing your approach to leadership development globally?
You’re absolutely right and I know this can be an issue. We’ve already observed it among some of our teams. We want to find the right individuals globally who are culturally synchronous with both their local context and Facebook. It won’t work if they can’t bridge both cultures.
We’ll cease to be Facebook if we eliminate all our core values from how we operate. But we’re conscious of this challenge and it’s one of the things that we’ll be prioritizing most this next year—how do we develop high performing teams who can effectively utilize our diversity across the world to make even greater impact?
This is the kind of insight and intentionality we’re seeking by learning about these cultural value dimensions. Leaders and organizations may decide not to adapt to some of the cultural norms of various places where they work, but before you can make that strategic decision—something we’ll look at in the next chapter—we have to first understand that there are equally valid ways of approaching leadership and power distance. The best leadership approach depends on the organization, the followers involved, and the task to be accomplished.
Table 5-2. Power Distance
Low Power Distance
High Power Distance
Emphasis on equality; shared decision making
Emphasis on differences in status; decisions made by superiors
For a description of the ten cultural clusters listed here, see Appendix 1.
Leading Low Power-Distance Individuals
• Forgo formalities.
• Create ways to question or challenge authority.
Leading High Power-Distance Individuals
• Follow chain of command carefully.
• Do not question or challenge authority.
Uncertainty avoidance is the extent to which you are at ease with unknown, unpredictable outcomes. High uncertainty avoidance is a discomfort with ambiguity and uncertainty. People oriented toward high uncertainty avoidance focus on ways to reduce ambiguity, and they create structures to help ensure some measure of predictability. For example, someone leading staff primarily from the high uncertainty avoidance cultures in Germany, Japan, or Singapore would be wise to give very clear instructions and timetables for when and how the assignment should be completed. Simply telling an employee to write a plan in order to competently address the problem may create all kinds of dissonance for a team member oriented toward high uncertainty avoidance.