The Key Characteristics of Hierarchical Cultures

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Culture Map" by Erin Meyer. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is a hierarchical culture? How do hierarchical cultures approach leadership?

In a hierarchical culture, the power distance is high. In other words, your rank matters. In some hierarchical cultures (notably, Asian), respect is a two-way street. It is not just the subordinate’s duty to obey. Rather, the boss is responsible for the success and well-being of his employees. He is often viewed as a paternalistic figure.

Keep reading to learn about the key characteristics of hierarchical cultures and how they develop.

Defining Hierarchical Leadership

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. (Shortform note: The expectation of giving/receiving permission sometimes results in a “kiss up/kick down” leader” who is excessively harsh to subordinates and overly submissive to his/her managers. This may be a red flag to watch for in hierarchical cultures.)

In meetings, the boss’s idea is the most important. Subordinates won’t speak unless explicitly requested to do so—and if they disagree with the boss, they keep their thoughts to themselves. Problems are pushed up to the boss so everyone can follow his or her vision and direction. (Shortform note: Meetings may also look physically different. Sinickas recommends holding different meetings for managers and non-managers, as well as having a podium for the speaker, when working in hierarchical cultures.) 

The boss signals his/her authority through status symbols such as a corner office. Subordinates value these symbols; they signify that the boss deserves respect. In a hierarchical culture, if a boss deserves respect, the subordinates by extension also deserve respect. (Shortform note: Education is another highly regarded status symbol. But in some hierarchical cultures, it’s only the name that counts. China has a famously grueling university entrance exam. But once you’re accepted, it’s historically very rare to be expelled—even if you’re failing.)     

How Hierarchical Cultures Develop

According to Meyer, the historical reasons that hierarchical cultures developed differ between Europe and Asia. 

Firstly, the more hierarchical European cultures (Spain, Italy, and France) were all part of the Roman Empire. Ancient Rome had many class-based social and political systems. Meyer argues that these systems laid the foundation for a hierarchical system in these cultures that is evident in their modern-day leadership styles. (Shortform note: The Roman Empire lasted for 1000 years, so these class-based systems weren’t always the same. For example, near the end of the Roman Empire, non-Italian-born citizens could be invited to the Senate. But although the details of these hierarchies evolved over time, the hierarchies themselves existed quite consistently.)

Similarly, the strong influence of the Roman Catholic Church on these European countries also helped establish today’s hierarchical system. As evidence, Meyer notes that the Roman Catholic Church is extremely hierarchical, with individuals speaking to their priests and bishops instead of directly to God. (Shortform note: It’s also notable that even the highest powers in historically Catholic countries still answered to the Pope. In other words, everybody was in a hierarchy—even at the top.)

But in Asia, Meyer argues, modern-day hierarchical leadership styles reflect the philosophies of Confucius. Confucius thought that in order for societies to function smoothly, ranks and responsibilities had to be clearly delineated and strictly adhered to. According to Meyer, this Confucian influence over large swathes of Asia explains why so many Asian countries lead hierarchically in business. (Shortform note: Confucian ideals about filial piety are also used as justification for non-democratic styles of leadership—the ultimate hierarchy—especially in China. But some interpretations of Confucius’s writing argue against submission, arguing that Confucianism allows people to not only choose their leaders but also rebel against bad ones.)

The Key Characteristics of Hierarchical Cultures

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  • 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

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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