01/06/19. 20:49. P8
/Leadership Culture: Authority & Decision-Making/
/Guide Question: How does teamwork or collaboration differ in your host country from the US?/
In my international management class, we read Being the Boss in Brussels, Boston, and Beijing, by Erin Meyer published in the Harvard Business Review (July-August 2017). I highly recommend this article to not just people who plan to work in international business, but to anybody at all who work with people from different cultures – and that’s quickly becoming the norm nowadays. As global markets continue to interlink, businesses find themselves expanding and competing internationally for survival, at the same time tapping into international resources in search of ways to obtain better competitive advantage. A significant obstacle of this outward pursuit is encountering other cultures who may clash with how the pioneer does things. To avoid clashes, we need understanding and this article is a good guide.
When I read it, I started to reflect and observe my own actions and my experiences. It opened up a whole new thought process because to be able to bring the most value for a company, I must be fluid when needed, and if I want to bring about change, I must know how to win others’ support. This is most critical when others speak another language – both literally and figuratively. I will summarize the main points a bit but here is a link to the article for further reading:
The article explains, “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. […] 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.” Meyer proposes four cultures of leadership depending on the location between two spectrums: attitudes toward authority, and attitudes toward decision-making. Authority means the rank or status of a person and how much respect and deference is given to that status (Hierarchical v. Egalitarian). Decision-making refers to whether the boss alone makes the decision or whether decisions are made collectively (Top-down v. Consensual). Thus, with cited examples of countries, the four cultures are:
- Consensual and egalitarian – Denmark, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden
Decisions take longer and take more meetings
The boss is a facilitator, not the decider
Take the time to make the best decision because decisions are difficult to change
- Consensual and hierarchical – Japan, Belgium, Germany
Team will defer to boss’ decision but will be expected to be part of the decision-making process
Boss must take special care to gather complete information, including dissenting opinions
- Top-down and hierarchical – Brazil, China, France, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia
Boss is a director, not facilitator
Boss must be clear on expectations and commands to avoid misunderstood orders
- Top-down and egalitarian – Australia, United Kingdom, United States
Employees are encouraged to speak-up and show initiative
Showing disagreement even after the boss decides is potential to be viewed as difficult to work with
Decisions are usually flexible and can be revisited or adjusted later
The article did not contain South Korea, but it definitely belongs in the hierarchical type of authority as social hierarchy and status is taken very seriously within the culture. In class, my professor surmises that Korea is similar to Japan’s consensual decision-making. I’ve had some group projects with Korean members this semester and was personally able to observe team dynamics.
The biggest difference I observed was that everyone’s opinions were – as much as possible – sought out during our meetings. Not that this didn’t happen in America, but I was surprised at the extent of attention given to each person. In the US, it was more of a whoever-has-an-idea-can-speak-up-if-not-that’s-fine type of environment. Also, as the article mentions, it seems true that for Americans, the leader usually makes the big decisions because having been a team leader numerous times, I am used to having the freedom to decide for the group. From my experiences in the US, it also seems true that in America, any decision is better than no decision, and decisions can be easily altered later on.
Here, my team members really made sure that everyone was on board before moving on to delegating tasks. For instance, at one project, the team decided that we all research on our own and present our findings and then we choose the topic. I didn’t bother to do my own research because it was time-consuming and a waste of effort if my topic wasn’t chosen. I simply didn’t care and told them I’ll just go with whatever they decide. There was even a point where I felt irritated because my groupmates were taking such a long time to decide. Then we read this article and I felt a little pensive. I think I failed to understand the team culture and wondered whether I was looked at as lazy because I didn’t contribute even though my original intention was to seem that I was easy to work with and very flexible with the topic.
I also noticed that Koreans have a really strong work ethic as all my team members were very active and really put in a lot of effort in our project. Surprisingly, they also deliver excellent work product. In my group projects in America, I usually have a lot of editing and follow-ups to do with individual members but over here, I barely found anything lacking. Perhaps I was lucky to have worked with excellent people, and perhaps it’s not that surprising because Yonsei is a top school and education is highly valued in Korean culture.
Here is a blog I have found regarding education in South Korea:
When I ask Korean friends who actually work, they disagree with the consensual culture and surmise that Korean companies (especially the large conglomerate companies) have top-down decision-making as upper management decides everything while they are expected to follow. In addition, Korean workers are too shy to say anything. This might have some truth to it since this is what I expected of Korean culture with their social hierarchy. I have no way of verifying this other than with friends’ proclamations as I didn’t get into the winter internship program I applied for :(
Sometimes conflicts are really just cultural misunderstandings. How we solve them is through the knowledge that these cultures exist and communicating how to overcome these differences and rise together towards the goal. The findings of Meyer is just another learning manual of the many colors of different cultures. As I’ve started to consider my professional career, I feel a little more ready with this knowledge as I find myself worried on how I can get along with my coworkers, let alone become a team leader who others can look up to. I probably will always be worried, but at least now, with this knowledge in my head, I can better observe and adapt when necessary, and bring about change if needed by having the right approach – in America, in South Korea, or wherever my career takes me.
While I’m talking about company culture, here’s some pictures of a tour of Amore Pacific, one of the South Korean leading global beauty corporations. We were not allowed to take photos inside but the tour was great and we got free customized lipstick! I really hope I can fulfill my dream of working in Korea in the future.