How do leadership styles differ across cultures? Why is it important to understand a culture’s approach to leadership when working internationally?
According to cultural communication expert Erin Meyer, leadership styles differ drastically across cultures. If you’re a manager, Meyer argues that it’s your responsibility to adapt your leadership style to what your subordinates are used to. But even if you’re not, knowing how leadership works in different cultures can help ensure you give a good impression and don’t offend anyone.
In this article, we’ll look at how Meyer divides cultural leadership styles into two extremes (egalitarian and hierarchical) and present some strategies for working and leading in different kinds of cultures.
Egalitarian vs. Hierarchical Cultures
In her book The Culture Map, Erin Meyer defines two cultural leadership styles: egalitarian and hierarchical.
The leadership style preferred in a country reflects the amount of “power distance” expected in that country. Power distance, a concept introduced by pioneering cultural theorist Geert Hofstede, measures how hierarchical a country is and how its citizens value authority. The citizenry’s expectations of how power is distributed determine whether a country prefers an egalitarian or hierarchical leadership style.
In an egalitarian culture, the power distance is low. In other words, everybody is equal—even in the workplace. Companies in egalitarian cultures tend to have a flat organizational structure. People speak as easily to the CEO as they do to the lowest-ranking employee.
In a hierarchical culture, the power distance is high. In other words, your rank matters. Companies in hierarchical cultures have clearly defined levels, and the employees stick to them. They talk to their immediate boss and subordinates but receive permission to talk with anybody further up or down the chain.
General Strategies for Working in Hierarchical Cultures
If you need to speak with someone several levels above or below you, always get permission from the person in between. Then, make sure to copy that person on any emails you send. This way, your email recipient understands that they can respond freely without violating local business etiquette.
(Shortform note: Pay attention to your tone in emails—especially when emailing someone of similar rank. Don’t write anything that might be interpreted as bossing them around. People in hierarchical cultures are particularly sensitive to suggestions of unearned authority.)
In hierarchical cultures, there are often subtle ways in which rank is expressed in business. For example, in Japan, the lowest-ranking person always operates the elevator buttons, while the highest-ranking person stands directly behind him/her. Learn these rules well so you don’t unintentionally offend your colleagues or clients. You should also learn the non-subtle ways too, like proper bowing etiquette in Asian cultures.
Err on the side of caution and refer to people by their last name unless they indicate otherwise. And don’t insist that people call you by your first name, since this can introduce unnecessary discomfort in your relationship. Consider a compromise like “Ms. Jane” instead. (Shortform note: Many hierarchical countries, like South Korea and Japan, have language tenses that indicate politeness—you speak, quite literally, differently to someone based on whether they’re above or below you in rank. If you’re speaking English, referring to people by their last name or having them refer to you by their last name may be one of the few immediate ways you can show respect.)
How to Lead in a Hierarchical Culture
Take your responsibility to protect seriously. Your subordinates’ faithful obedience doesn’t give you license to treat them poorly. Hierarchical leadership works best when the leader protects and mentors their subordinates well. (Shortform note: Of course, the idea that leaders need to protect their subordinates isn’t exclusive to hierarchical cultures, with one article attributing it to the American 1967 business book Organizations in Action.)
When you need your team’s input, tell them before the meeting happens. If they know in advance that you want their honest opinion, they’ll do their best to respect you by providing it. They’ll also have more latitude to consult with their colleagues. (Shortform note: You could also consider soliciting anonymous opinions. Try setting up a dummy email account or Google document where people can express their thoughts privately.)
Even if you’ve requested people’s input beforehand, call on people whose opinions you want to hear in meetings. People used to hierarchical leadership styles tend not to volunteer their input unless specifically asked. (Shortform note: But skip this strategy if you’re an external presenter. Calling on people in front of their bosses could embarrass them.)
Alternatively, consider removing yourself from the meeting entirely. Instead, have someone present the meeting’s conclusions to you later on. Your subordinates will feel more comfortable expressing their ideas honestly if you’re not present. (Shortform note: But remember that there may still be hierarchical relationships at play that affect the meeting results. Hierarchical relationships can be based not just on job title but also on factors like gender, age, or years at the company.)
General Strategies for Working in Egalitarian Cultures
Remember that speaking with someone several levels above or below you is likely totally normal—no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel. (Shortform note: If you’re particularly intimidated by somebody, try comic visualization: Picturing them in a funny situation encourages your brain to turn its stress response off.)
Copy people on your emails on a need-to-know basis. Copying the boss unnecessarily may make an egalitarian employee feel like you’re trying to make them look bad or that you think they need extra oversight. (Shortform note: Some people worry that if they don’t copy their boss on emails, they can’t keep their boss informed. Try some other strategies, like sending your boss occasional recaps of your exchanges.)
How to Lead in an Egalitarian Culture
Learn and adopt the external cues that indicate that you’re ‘one of the guys.’ For example, call people by their first name and insist they call you by yours. Using last names may be overly formal and stiff to someone from an egalitarian culture. (According to Meyer, this is true of Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Australia, but can vary regionally in the United States and the United Kingdom.) (Shortform note: This may reflect the psychological concept of social mirroring, the idea that we unconsciously copy people we like. Many texts recommend mirroring others’ gestures consciously in an attempt to get them to like you.)
Meyer also recommends several strategies that fall under the 5-step method of Management by Objective, a framework developed by management expert Peter Drucker in the 1950s. Although she mentions the term “management by objective,” Meyer doesn’t present her strategies using the step-by-step sequence Drucker did. We, however, will use the 5-step framework because it’s easier to understand.
Step 1: Set goals for your team.
Step 2: Share these goals with your team.
Step 3: Ask your employees to set their own goals. Approve them as long as they support the team objectives you’ve shared. Meyer recommends this specifically because people from egalitarian cultures feel more comfortable with a facilitator rather than the traditional hierarchical leader. Similarly, she recommends facilitating instead of leading meetings, too.
(Shortform note: Meyer merely recommends that these goals be “concrete and specific.” But modern-day versions of Drucker’s strategies tend to recommend specifically SMART goals. SMART is an acronym used to represent Specific, Measurable, Acceptable, Realistic, and Time-Bound goals.)
Step 4: Monitor your employee’s progress on those goals. Meyer recommends adjusting the frequency of your check-ins based on the employee’s progress—not an element of Drucker’s strategy.
Step 5: Assess your employee’s progress, and reward them as necessary. Meyer specifically recommends financial motivation like bonuses.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Culture Map summary:
- The eight axes you can use as a framework to analyze cultural differences
- How to better relate to those of another culture to accomplish business goals
- How the Vikings have more gender equality than we see today