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Ace the cross-cultural test

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in Leaders & Managers,People Management

Sit through any lecture by a diversity consultant and you will inevitably see a slide that distinguishes between egalitarian and hierarchical leadership styles. American managers typically adopt the egalitarian, empowerment-driven model while those from some other cultures (such as many Asian nations) favor a hierarchical approach.

This becomes relevant if you recruit employees from places such as India, Japan and South Korea. These workers may possess great job qualifications but lack familiarity with organizational structures that do not emphasize status and stratification. This is especially true if the individuals have never lived in a Western country.

Your challenge as a manager is to help new hires from foreign lands adjust to an egalitarian system. Someone from a hierarchical society may not accept the notion of quick, merit-based advancement up the organizational ladder. They may assume that managers at higher levels are vested with different rights than worker bees.

What’s more, a worker who’s used to hierarchy may conclude that differences in attitude, actions, dress and speech patterns reflect class distinctions. That may make it hard to respect an egalitarian boss who dresses informally, rejects status symbols (no fancy car!) and insists that everyone call him by his first name.

Help newcomers acclimate to your culture by defining their job duties and doling out responsibility with care. Don’t expect them to exert more authority than they’re ready to wield. It may take time for them to abandon deeply entrenched cultural norms.


In Managing Across Cultures, authors Charlene Solomon and Michael Schell discuss the hazards of expecting an employee who’s used to hierarchy to instantly embrace Western-style egalitarian leadership. Consider how you generate group participation in meetings.

“Time and again we hear stories about Chinese, Indian and Japanese workers who won’t speak during a meeting because someone of higher status is present,” they write. “By contrast, in egalitarian cultures, meetings often are conducted to make decisions and determine implementation tactics.”

During your orientation program, help newcomers understand the cultural mores at your organization. Don’t just list performance expectations; cite behavioral expectations such as how you want people to speak up in meetings, propose ideas and collaborate with peers.

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