Ever wondered why people from different cultures have different ways of acting with their boss?

Picture: Yang Liu

Japan, China, United States, Germany, and the Netherlands - each of these cultures has a different predominant leadership style. So, here is a story. Once upon a time, a very successful manager from Sweden was transferred to an office in Japan - to open & lead a new department. He didn’t feel any discomfort or fear - as he was a very successful leader in his own country - he was “one of them” within the organization, always sitting in the open space and considering the ideas of his subordinates. Surprisingly to him, he felt very differently when arriving in Tokyo. Employees treated him as a king and called him The Boss. This was something he was not used to and not comfortable with. Later, they also gave feedback about him as irresponsible and unclear in his directions and needs. Here is an example where cross-culture management should have been implemented well to create effective leadership. Just because low-key and open-door policy leadership style worked for this manager in his home country does not mean this style will succeed in another culture in the same way.

In today’s blog, we will talk about two different leadership styles - egalitarian and hierarchical. This topic has been studied by both Geert Hofstede (Power Distance Scale in his dimensions) and Eryn Meyer (The Culture Map).


Low Power Distance/Egalitarian Style

People in low power distance cultures seem to have an egalitarian relationship with one another. They expect and accept power relations that are more democratic. Supervisors/leaders and subordinates/citizens have almost equal levels of power regardless of their social status. For example, bosses are much closer to their employees. Instructions can be challenged, subordinates can criticize and give an opinion about a supervisor’s works.

On the Egalitarian end of the scale, the leader is just a little different from the follower; the organizational structure does not give room for the kind of distance that the hierarchical end of the scale provides and this may be reflected in the relationship between leader and follower and in the style of communication adopted (whether chains of emails and memos or just a simple phone call straight up to the top).

Erin Meyer "The Culture Map"

High Power Distance/Hierarchical Style

In contrast with low power distance, people in high power distance cultures seem to have a hierarchical relationship with others. For instance, subordinates would let their bosses make a decision and decide who is responsible for what. Also, ordinary citizens would let the leaders make decisions and orders are often unquestioned.

For example it seems that in Asian cultures, people tend to accept a higher degree of unequally distributed power than people in American or Western European culture. Basically, every relationship among Asian people has a different status - subordinates will comply with their supervisor rather than challenge him or her. They will not try to come up with their own solutions in dealing with conflict. They will be assigned to do a job and hardly question or criticize their managers.

Everything has to be done through a standard process and the communication style is ordered and multi-layered (it goes from a level of authority to the next; skipping of levels is not allowed).

A leader will have to understand the cultural background each follower is coming from and be open to embracing both extremes without taking offense or treating the less ordered behavior as a form of disrespect (where none is intended).

Tools & conclusions

It is important to understand that cultural dimensions are relative and the best way to look at them is by comparing a few countries with each other. You can do it in two ways right now:

To conclude, let’s sum up a few traits of egalitarian leadership cultures and hierarchical leadership cultures

So now you know a little more about the two different leadership styles and even some characteristics. Working in cross-cultural cultures is not easy and hopefully, this will provide you with some basic tools to become a global leader! Want to know more about cross-cultural communication? Check our workshop here.