East and West Perceive Authority Differently. And It Affects Your Cross-Cultural Team

Compass

When working with cross-cultural teams, especially teams where East meets West, team members can have very different perceptions of authority. Are you aware that these different perceptions affect the functioning of your team, and your role as a business leader?

In the year 1405, a Chinese eunuch named Zheng He decided to discover the great unknown: the West. In a series of six epic voyages the formidable admiral, commanding 300 giant vessels and a combined crew of 28,000, 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.’ ( The west and the rest, 2011, p. 32).   87 years later, Christopher Columbus left the Spanish town Cadiz and steered his comparably tiny ships (3) and crew (90) across the Atlantic. Aided by the stars and a Chinese-invented compass, he hoped to reach the continent he was just dying to discover: Asia. Columbus never faced up to the fact he found America instead.

While today the physical location of continents and countries carries few surprises, and Google maps ensures you don’t get lost even in places where you never were before, finding your way in the midst of unfamiliar habits and preferences can be a lot more challenging. Particularly when the successful functioning of your business team depends on it. In a globalized world where you increasingly collaborate with people across business units, different teams and cultures, cultural misunderstandings can lead to unforeseen setbacks (read one true story recounted by a business leader here). And because Asian (China, India, Japan, ..) cultural values often contradict our own (America, Europe), people can feel particularly lost in teams where East meets West.

People in the East and in the West Perceive Authority Differently ….

Consider these ‘West meets East’ pictograms developed by Yang Liu, a Chinese designer living 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 Asians and Westerners manage time for instance, and how they view you as a boss, profoundly affect the functioning of your team, and your role in it?

The ‘boss’ pictogram made me think of Carlos Ghosn, 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.’

… and this affects the functioning of your team

How people accord status: it is an important cultural difference you may encounter in the teams you lead. Egalitarian western cultures, like the American and the Dutch, tend to accord status on the basis of concrete achievements. Eastern and more hierarchical cultures (China, India, …) 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 (read more about cultural differences in Indian-Dutch business teams here).

Here’s a Useful Checklist You Can Use:

Effective leaders establish teams where people collaborate successfully despite differences in the way they deal with authority. Where people ‘own’ decisions reached as if they were their own. Below you find a useful checklist that will help you to deal with authority in mixed East-West teams.

What is the pre-dominant orientation of my team: achievement or ascribed orientation?

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

Ascribed (for instance):

  • Focus is more on seniority
  • Titles are important
  • People will not openly challenge decisions
  • People will stick to your instructions

Is my team aware of this dominant orientation? Do all members feel equally ok with it? Is my leadership style fitting the team orientation?

  • In the way I make clear to the team what I want to achieve and why?
  • In the way I make clear what I expect from them?
  • In the way I check whether decisions are really embraced by them?
  • In the way I invite people to share their opinion openly?
  • 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 collaboration in your cross-cultural team.

Do you like to learn more about how to lead cross-cultural teams? Join me at the Sietar Europa Annual Conference where I will be sharing more insights in my keynote session.

You can also register (at the top) to stay up to date with upcoming LeadershipWatch articles. Your personal information will be kept strictly confidential.

Co-written by Hanneke Siebelink


Aad Boot leaning against a door postAad is a global business advisor, change leader, executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with senior executives and leadership teams globally in three key domains: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad and our services. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization contact us.

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