To Lead Across Cultures, Focus on Hierarchy and Decision Making
By Erin Meyer
From the July-August 2017 Issue, Harvard Business Review
Cultural differences in leadership styles often create unexpected misunderstandings. Americans, for example, are used to thinking of the Japanese as hierarchical while considering themselves egalitarian. Yet the Japanese find Americans confusing to deal with. Although American bosses are outwardly egalitarian—encouraging subordinates to use first names and to speak up in meetings—they seem to the Japanese to be extremely autocratic in the way they make decisions. As a Japanese manager living in the United States and working for Mitsubishi put it: “I couldn’t figure out how to adapt my approach from one day to the next, because the culture was so contradictory and puzzling.”
Problems like this manager’s are widespread. In many years of researching, consulting, and teaching executives and managers in hundreds of global companies, I’ve found that it’s common for people from different countries to grapple with mutual incomprehension. Often that’s because managers fail to distinguish between two important dimensions of leadership culture.