How People Perceive Authority Across Cultures
A leaders’ guide to mastering the Essence of People Alignment in today’s business reality.
Welcome! The People Alignment Compass (PAC) is a new initiative on Leadershipwatch. It gives business leaders concrete tips and insights on how to increase their company’s success by creating a culture of alignment. The checklists are hands-on and based on real life situations that we encountered over the many years we have been working with leaders in a variety of organizations and within a range of different cultures. If there is one fundamental insight that we take out of these years it is the ever-increasing importance for leaders to be able to create people alignment in today’s rapidly changing world. Not just aligning structures, procedures or systems, but people!
Successful leaders create organizations where people choose to collaborate when confronted with complex challenges and change. Where people create strength out of diversity and cultural differences. Where people act out of a common focus and sense of direction, and ‘own’ decisions reached as if they were their own.
Innovative thinking. Cross-cultural effectiveness. Sound and fast decision-taking. Successful execution. All these increasingly depend on your ability to lead and align the people in your teams. The People Alignment Compass helps you to detect potential weak spots in people alignment and points you at possible ways to strengthen it. Each episode addresses a different situation and provides key questions to guide you as you develop your own people alignment sensors. I wish you an inspiring journey!
How good is your cross-cultural compass?
For centuries the compass, invented in China, served as an indispensable navigation tool for seafarers steering their ships to unknown destinations. When admiral Zheng He, the formidable Chinese eunuch sailor, left Nanjing with 300 giant vessels and a combined crew of 28,000 in 1405, he carried a magnetic compass in his pocket. In a series of six epic voyages, Zheng He sailed via Thailand, Sumatra, Java, and Ceylon all the way to Africa’s eastern shores – an achievement comparable with, in Niall Ferguson’s words, ‘landing an American astronaut on the moon in 1969.’ (Niall Ferguson, The west and the rest, 2011, p. 32). Chistopher Columbus, who left Spanish Cadiz 87 years (1492) after Zheng He left the east, steered his comparably tiny ships (3) and crew (90) across the Atlantic aided by the stars, and a magnetic compass.
While in today’s mapped out world the physical location of continents and countries carries few surprises, finding your way in the midst of the cultural preferences and habits of people raised in different parts of the globe can be more challenging. Particularly when the successful functioning of your team depends on it. In a globalized world where you increasingly find yourself cooperating with people from different company entities (cross-sector) and nationalities (cross-culture), cultural misunderstandings can lead to unforeseen setbacks in the strategies that you set out to implement.
Situation – How to be aware of your authority across cultures
Consider these ‘West meets East’ pictograms developed by a Chinese designer who spent much time working in Germany. At the risk of oversimplifying (every European knows that the northern European countries are quite different from the south, just like every Chinese knows that northern and southern China are hardly the same): do these pictograms ring true to you? If you lead cross-cultural teams: are you aware that such culturally determined differences, how people from different cultures manage time for instance (see earlier post on this topic), and how they view you as a boss, profoundly affects the functioning of your team, and your role in it?
The ‘boss’ pictogram made me think of Carlos Gosh, the French-Brazilian CEO of the Renault-Nissan Alliance. Asked about his experiences managing Japanese team, he quipped: ‘Being a CEO in a Japanese company is absolutely remarkable. I mean, I feel so good because you have the impression you can do anything you want. People are so different towards authority; they respect what the CEO says. CEOs in Japan are not very talkative, they are very cautious about what they say, but when they say something it is done. Which is surprising for me because I am coming from a Latin environment where usually, when you give an order, people tell you ‘yes’ but they do something different. You spend a lot of time trying to bring them back to your decision. In Japan, no: you say something and it is going to be done. Whether it is wrong or right, it is going to be done. Now if it’s wrong, people will say ‘Yes, but the boss said this’ and then they assume the consequences. I find it very refreshing. When you notice you are being taken very seriously, when every single thing you say is going to be done, you are going to be much more cautious about the orientations you decide to give.’
How people accord status: it is an important cultural difference you may encounter in the teams you lead, or are negotiating with. Western cultures, the Americans and the Dutch for instance, tend to accord status to people on the basis of their achievements. Eastern cultures tend to ascribe status based on age, experience, education, and so on. Be aware that these perceptions exist, and have an impact on the way your team members will respond to you.
PAC Checklist – How to support team alignment by paying attention to how your authority is perceived?
What is the pre-dominant orientation of my team: achievement or ascribed orientation?
o Achievement (for instance):
- Focus is more on knowledge and expertise
- Titles are less important
- People will more easily challenge decisions
- People like to receive space for personal input
- People expect rewards based on performance
o Ascribed (for instance):
- Focus is more on seniority
- Titles are important
- People will not openly challenge decisions
- People will stick to your instructions
- People are motivated by direct rewards from you
In case of a cross-cultural team: is the team aware of this dominant orientation? Do all members feel equally ok with it? Did I discuss this with the team?
Is my leadership style fitting the team orientation?
o In the way I make clear to the team what I want to achieve and why?
o In the way I make clear what I expect from them?
o In the way I check whether decisions are really embraced by them?
o In the way I expect people to share their opinion openly?
o In the way I follow up on actions and results?
Asking yourself these questions may help you to spot potential areas of misalignment and improve the quality of decisions and execution.
Written by: Aad Boot and Hanneke Siebelink
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- Sustainable Change: Know How to Handle Complexity Across Cultures (leadershipwatch-aadboot.com)