4 Tips For Avoiding Problems With Your Overseas Partner

Have you ever set a goal with your overseas partner, just to watch that goal go whooshing past with no apparent warning? I hear this far too often from Western companies doing business with Eastern partners. It’s become commonplace. What companies in the West don’t realize is that there’s a very different approach to doing business in the East. Most of the time, the problem gets put down to “poor communication,” but that’s a mistaken assumption. In the East, what they’re thinking is “why haven’t we been given the right information to act?” Looking deeper, the root of the problem is actually power distance.

Understanding Power Distance

Power distance is the strength of social hierarchy, or simply the imposed psychological distance between a boss and employee.

You can think of power distance as the distance separating a boss from an employee socially.

In the East, high power distance cultures rely on structure and employees stay within their defined role and authority. Western management relies on low power distance and empowered communication, neither of which apply in the East. These two management approaches, the Eastern high power distance and Western low power distance, are directly at odds with each other.

The Eastern Perspective (High Power Distance)

Most Eastern (or “BRIC”) cultures are very hierarchical and structured. Direction comes from the top, and employees expect management to make decisions. Employees expect to work within their role in the organization. Stepping outside of one’s role or job function is rare, because it implies that someone else doesn’t know how to do their job. Directly telling your boss that you have a differing opinion, or that he or she is wrong, is unacceptable and would be a terrible loss of face. Instead, subtle and appropriate cues are often exchanged to communicate information to the boss, so that ultimately a new decision is handed down.

Kevin, the project manager at one of our clients, continually complained that his India-based team was “blindly doing what they were told, without thinking about it first.” He expected his team to look critically at their instructions, think about whether it made sense, and make creative improvements to the product. But at the same time, the criticism we heard in India was very different. “We keep telling Kevin we need more information, but we don’t get an answer. If we stop working, the project will be late, so we just do the best we can,” the team lead in India told us. He added, “Once they see it, we’ll get better direction.”

The culturally rich, high-context communication of the East is lost on Western partners, who are so focused on direct, simple communication. From a Western perspective, all this formality can seem to slow things down and is therefore by-passed or disregarded. Remember that the rich, high-context communication channel your partner normally relies on is missing. In its place is a vacuum, and quite often you’ll feel like your Eastern partner isn’t communicating with you. That’s probably not the case, so you need to compensate. Here are a few tips to get you started.

  1. If you are in a management role, understand the differences in power distance. Employees of your partner’s firm will rarely, if ever, disagree with you or offer their own opinion. “Over confirmation” is a possible sign that something isn’t right. (This is one reason that India has a reputation for superb execution of detailed tasks, but a poor reputation when it comes to creativity and autonomy.)
  2. Slow down communication. Your partner may need more time to socialize a problem and come up with a solution. Employees will act to inform the boss, and the boss will circle back with you.
  3. Don’t interrupt silence. Silence is a form of communication, and many Eastern cultures will use that silence. Pushing forward with an agenda too quickly will just rush your partner.
  4. Make sure that decisions are made at the right level. Just because you talk about something with your partner, don’t assume that person has the authority, or even the role, to make a decision.

The Western Perspective (Low Power Distance)

In stark contrast to high power distance cultures prevalent in the East, the West’s low power distance culture fosters flat organizations. Individuals are empowered to make decisions on their own. Pointing out problems is expected and rewarded — even when that means telling a supervisor they made a mistake. Western management style relies on this in order to work correctly. For example, Scrum and Management By Objective (MBO) both challenge employees to find creative solutions, be vocal, and be direct about problems. Individuals are expected to take charge and make things happen on their own; they are rewarded for discovering problems, and even more so for discovering solutions.

For many Easterners, this almost feels like everyone is the boss. It can be very disconcerting. Here are a few strategies to keep in mind when working with your Western partner.

  1. Westerner’s will value you “at your word,” which means it’s important to do exactly what you say you will do. Remember that you are empowered to make decisions, but that also means you must actually do what you say. They probably won’t pick up on subtle cues, so be sure to say exactly what you mean.
  2. Remember that most Western cultures tend to be strongly agenda driven. It’s best to prepare for meetings ahead of time, and don’t expect to socialize or build relationships during meetings. This is usually done after business hours.
  3. If you feel rushed or out of time, it’s acceptable to ask for more time. Tell your partner you are still discussing the topic and require more time to reach a decision.
  4. Don’t forget that you are expected to question what you and your team are doing. Your Western boss will value opinions, especially if you catch a problem or mistake before it turns into a bigger one.

Probably the toughest change for someone from a high power distance culture to understand is that everyone is expected to provide critical feedback, challenge assumptions, and question what is going on. In business cultures such as America, Germany, and the United Kingdom, these are distinguishing characteristics.

The Best Strategy

Western businesses assume they should put their latest management theory into practice, not realizing that Management By Objective, Agile, Scrum, and other Western “best practices” don’t work in Asia. Managing a global team only works if everyone understands business cultural preferences. Management style needs to be appropriate within the team’s own culture. Also, make sure your project manager has ample experience in the culture at hand. Managing a team in China doesn’t qualify someone to manage a team in India.

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