How Leadership Differs Around The World

British linguist Richard D. Lewis has explored in depth how leadership style differs across cultures and countries. His diagrams of Leadership Styles, published in When Cultures Collide, offer wonderful insight into why so many multinational efforts run into problems. Anyone doing business across borders needs to understand these differences and adapt their own style accordingly.

Different Culture, Different Leadership

Leadership Styles
Leadership Styles

The variation of styles — from structured individualism of America, to consensus rule of Asia — fit  preconceptions about foreign culture. Even so, it’s important to understand the meaning behind each model, and also be aware of individual variation. The models are not unilaterally true across a country. Every individual will have their own blended style of leadership.

See Lewis’ Leadership Styles diagrams, inset, but also be aware that stereotyping is risky, as Lewis himself warns: “Determining national characteristics is treading a minefield of inaccurate assessment and surprising exception. There is, however, such a thing as a national norm.”

Lewis also argues that these cultural characteristics won’t change anytime soon. He writes, “Deeply rooted attitudes and beliefs will resist a sudden transformation of values when pressured by reformists, governments or multinational conglomerates.” While the “Westernization” of many Eastern countries gets a lot of press, most of these changes are superficial. Cultural preferences are deeply rooted. We learn about our culture from birth. Especially in countries with thousands-years-old history and culture, changes are slow to emerge. Stated more directly: Individuals may jump at the chance to adopt foreign practices, such as capital investment, but this doesn’t mean they are also adopting Western culture.

Management gurus have time and again tried to quantify and distill the secret of successful management into an easily followed formula. Peter Drucker, James Champy, Frederick Taylor, Henri Foyal, Frederick Brooks, and Mike Hammer have all put down their thoughts on the topic. But each has placed a Western emphasis on their particular management magic (and, except for Foyal, a very American emphasis).

As I’ve pointed out many times, cultural conflict is common across multinational organizations. Learning how to avoid the conflict — misunderstandings, misinterpretation, and direct cultural incompatibility — is the first step.

Multinational Leadership Success

There is no single management tool that can work in the global landscape. The cultural intricacies that define how people interact, both in a business setting and a social setting, run far too deep. And, just as management styles depend on environment, so do our relationship-building tools. Creating a successful International business relationship depends so strongly on cross-cultural awareness, in fact, that without extensive exposure to foreign culture most efforts are rife with failure.

Check out this short six-part series that talks about how business cultural preferences affect 27 project management disciplines.

What Is “Saving Face” In Other Cultures?

What does “saving face” really mean? Westerners tend to think “face” means preserving one’s reputation… but that’s not right. It’s particularly important in high-context cultures, including most of Asia and the Middle East, where tradition is highly valued and the interests of the group outweigh the interests of the individual.

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International and I wanted to speak briefly about “what is saving face.” Face is a collectivist notion. It’s something that applies in many Eastern cultures and as such it’s an extremely foreign idea to Western culture.

Misunderstanding “Saving Face”

So, here’s an example of how not understanding face can go wrong with Western and Eastern interaction. Let’s say you are a Western Manager, applying western management theory. So, if one person does a particularly good job, the natural thing to do is to reward that person, to call them out and tell them they did a better job, possibly give them a raise or some kind of a reward within the firm.

But, in Asian society, this actually sends the wrong message. What you’re doing is saying that the individual failed in their responsibility, to their group, to their fellow employees, because that person did not show those individuals how to perform well. So, the net result is you tell one person that they didn’t do a good job, and you tell the entire group that they also failed to do a good job, in this respect. It backfires terribly when Western managers do that with Eastern cultures. And this is a great example on why it is so important to really understand what face is whenever you are doing business with the East or the Middle East.

What is Face?

It was first defined by David Ho, a social scientist working in Hong Kong. He basically defines saving face as saying that face is lost when an individual, or someone who is closely related or connected to that individual, act in a way that fails to meet the social obligations that are set up for that person. In other words, if they don’t meet their social responsibility with family, with work, with their friends, then they loose face.

In Asia and the Middle East, having face is a very bankable notion. It is a literal translation, or a literal representation, of your status in society, of your reputation and your abilities to fulfill your obligation within that social network. Because collectivist societies are so tightly integrated and tightly social, there is only one face. Social, work, family, it’s all integrated into a single representation of who that person is. That means that your face at work and your face at home can be damaged in the same way.

If you’d like to see another take on saving face, check out this short video (the bit on saving face is in the latter half of the video).

Should I Translate My Business Card?

Exchanging business cards (or “name cards” as they are called in China) is an important ritual throughout the business world. The business card is part of your introduction and, in many cultures, it’s unforgivable if you don’t have a professional card. But in an increasingly Global business world, there are linguistic and cultural considerations too… So should you translate your card, and if so, how many times?

Hi, I am Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International. I recently had a client ask me if they should translate their business card into another language, for the clients they are working with around the world. This really depends on what kind of a business you are in, for one thing. Let’s say, for example, you are a U.S. based importer bringing products into the U.S. from around the world. You probably wouldn’t need to translate your card in this case because for one thing, your suppliers are going to expect to doing business with you in English. But, on the other hand, translating your card into many different languages, for every country you do business with, would probably be impractical.

Now, another possibility is, let’s say you are a language translation company and it’s important that you demonstrate competence and ability in certain languages. In this case you probably would want to translate your card, or at least some part of your card, to indicate that you support all these different languages in your translation service.

Reputation also matters. Having a U.S. based business does bring a certain degree of credibility to you. So, translating in English card into other languages isn’t always necessary. Sometimes leaving it in English is actually the right choice. We actually have had our clients tell us that we should just leave our card in English, because it provides a certain amount of credibility.

But probably the most important deciding factor is going to be whether or not language is a barrier. For example, if you’re doing a lot of business in China, with people who predominantly speak Mandarin, you should definitely translate the back side of your card into Mandarin. On the other hand, if you’re working in India, this strategy is unnecessary. Almost every professional is going to speak English and they are probably going to give you an English card, anyhow. Different countries have different rules. In Africa, for instance, you’ll be fine with English cards. But, if you’re going into South America, most likely you should have a Spanish translation because Spanish is widely used in business throughout South America.

Whatever you decide, be practical. I recently met somebody who had not less than five different business cards stuffed into his wallet, and it took him about thirty seconds to find the right one to give me. And it was a very awkward moment. If you work predominantly with one country, then consider translating your card so that you have your native language on the front and a foreign language at the back and leave it at that. On the other hand, if you work with many different countries, then you might want to consider translating your tagline or perhaps your company slogan, and you can do that with a couple of different languages. That will indicate your support of different languages without having five different cards stuffed into your wallet.

How To Negotiate Across Cultures

Understanding how to negotiate in any business setting, around the world, is a fantastic skill. It takes a depth of perception about the people you are working with as well as the business culture you are immersed in.

Communication is the most obvious global communication gap. It’s the first thing we usually encounter, one aspect of personal interaction that poses a clear barrier. Throughout the world, different cultures take a very different approach to negotiations — and a lot of it comes down to how they communicate. British linguist Richard D. Lewis, whose book “When Cultures Collide,” charts these different styles. Lewis himself is an accomplished linguist and speaks 10 languages.

How To Negotiate Culturally

Communication Patterns (Richard Lewis)
Communication Patterns (Richard Lewis)

His diagrams provide a visual model of how people from different cultures negotiate in meetings and other business dealings. The inset chart includes a number of his cultural models, where potential obstacles are grey, wide shapes imply greater conversational range, and annotations offer other hints and clues to negotiation style.

So, for example, Americans are notoriously straightforward, direct, and even confrontational. They tackle problems head on, launching into negotiations immediate (before building a strong relationship). In contrast, nearly all Asian cultures are much less direct. Meetings tend to be focused more on building relationships and gathering information, especially with Japanese and Chinese cultures. Indian culture, on the other hand, tends to engage in long, verbose, sociable dialogue but eventually leads to fierce negotiation and elaborate postulating, ultimately seeking a mutually agreeable compromise. Of Indian culture, Lewis writes, “Determination of price must come last, after all the benefits of the purchase or deal have been elaborated. Indians use all their communicative skills to get to the price indirectly.”

Lewis’ diagrams on cross cultural communication style and negotiation are an invaluable aid to the multinational manager. They serve to remind us that different cultures approach negotiation differently. Each has unique expectations. Where one culture may push quickly for closure, another may want to create a deep, long-term relationship. Understanding what your partner expects is key to success.

The Five Business Cultural Practices

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that communication style is but one of many cultural preferences. Knowing how your partner will communicate is like having one number for a five combination lock.

The unexperienced think immediately of language and communication skill as the essential core of International negotiations. But there are many more dimensions that deeply influence business practices — not just what language we speak, or how we communicate. For example, every cultureperceives time differently. Some cultures prize time highly, running business activities to a tight schedule. Others feel less driven by the agenda, instead taking time to get to know each other, valuing carefully thought out actions and relationships as more important than “meeting the schedule.”

I’ve periodically posted videos on other cultural preferences, too, including power distance and individualism. Developing a deep awareness of each one is absolutely necessary to truly understand and be successful in Global business.

10 Tips For International Business Success

I’m very pleased to announce our 10 Tips For International Business Success booklet is now available for free download. This first book in the series is a concise companion for International executives and managers. It provides 10 absolutely critical lessons when working abroad or with overseas partners and teams.

Tip #1: Time After Time

10 Tips For International Business Success (Zacharias Beckman)
10 Tips For International Business Success (Zacharias Beckman)

Americans associate being late with being unreliable. But in many cultures, timeliness is not expected and can be construed as being rigid and uncompromising.

Unlike some Western cultures, many Asian and Latin cultures have higher cultural priorities than timeliness. For example, in some cultures it would be unthinkable to end a meeting because the allotted time had run out. This would be taken as a direct insult, essentially sending the message that your host is less important than your own time. It’s understood that if someone is late, it’s because they are invest- ing time with another person. In time, your turn will come as well. This difference leads to cultural conflict and misunderstanding…

Read the rest of this tip, including which countries and regions it applies to, strategies for working successfully with these cultures, and how to adjust to different business practices by downloading your copy today!

Get 10 More Tips, Free!

We wanted to make sure you get a fantastic value here, so there are actually 10 more tips in the book, along with quotes from business leaders and luminaries throughout the Global business industry:

Relationships are built between individuals, not between companies. Thus it’s important to keep the same people coming to India so the process doesn’t have to be repeated for each neophyte. When Western companies reassign resources too quickly and put someone new in charge of an India initiative, they program themselves for failure. — Gunjan Bagla, Doing Business in 21st-Century India

Look For More Tips…

Look for our other International guides, as soon as they go to press! Our other guides will be posted here, just like this one… Look for:

  • 10 Tips For International Travel
  • 10 Tips For Managing International Teams
  • 10 Tips For Communicating Globally

We’re delighted to offer them to you completely free, and hope you will enjoy reading them as much as we have enjoyed creating them.

Genuine Relationships Need Context

People are likely to back away from relationships that don’t seem honest or straightforward. But cultural differences can easily skew perceptions. What is perfectly acceptable in one culture is completely unacceptable in another.

Deeply relationship-driven people (for example, from India and China) have extensive networks from which to draw context. They know the abilities, skills, and idiosyncrasies of people they meet because of the network. Connections almost invariably come through their “in group,” their family or close business contacts. As a result, relationships extend beyond the individual, to other group members and even their family. This strong, deeply rooted network helps minimize misunderstandings.

But cross cultural attempts to build relationships often get into trouble. This is especially true today, with so many business reaching out globally.

The Collectivist-Individualist Relationship Gap

Individualist cultures can thrive on transient relationships. In America, Canada, or England, deep, introspective relationships often evolve after business has been established. This is completely opposite most Eastern and Middle Eastern cultures, where a strong relationship is needed before considering business.

Easterners are accustomed to dealing with a complex in-group relationship. They expect the support of their network, of their connections, and of the extended connections between groups, to foster reliable introductions. Where information is lacking, the network will likely provide it. Where context is lacking, the network can fill it in.

When the network is missing, missteps are made. Both parties end up wondering about curious behaviors, unintelligible rituals, and questionable practices of their newfound contact.

First Impressions Are Everything

Take the story of Sameer Kshirsagar Reddy, an Indian business development manager based in Bangalore. To try to appeal to his new American clients, Sameer adopts what he thinks will be a friendly, Americanized version of his name, “Sam K.” Following the Indian tradition of using his last name first, his new LinkedIn profile is under the name “Reddy S. K.,” while his Indian friends know him on Facebook as “Sameer S. K.,” and his Skype name is “sam_kr” (mostly because that’s what was available). Armed with his new (and old) online identities, Sameer begins marketing.

Unfortunately, Sameer always runs into the same problem: After getting to know a new American prospect and exchanging a few emails, the prospects stop corresponding.

The Western executives he is trying to reach out to aren’t very interested in working with “Sam K.,” an individual trying to mass-market IT services by email. To make matters worse, his prospects are confused by all his different names, such as “Sameer S. K.” and “Reddy S. K.” Are these the same people? Or is there some misunderstanding? Or worse, is this some sort of a scam? At the very least, it’s a nightmare to keep straight and frankly, probably not worth the effort — at least, so goes the American customer’s thinking.

Sam’s attempts to emulate the American culture instead alienates his clients, and raises questions in their mind about Sam’s sincerity.

Consistency Versus Context

Americans in particular want to see consistency. It helps to compensate for the lack of information from a strong in-group network, but it’s also part of the business culture. They expect a professional profile and a consistent representation of who the individual is. Americans almost unerringly use the same name for all professional contacts. Business history, whether on LinkedIn or Facebook, supports this same consistency, and most often business networks and personal networks are kept strictly separate. The idea of creating a new LinkedIn profile to start marketing is counter-intuitive. A new profile means erasing the past and starting fresh, as an inexperienced first-time employee. Why would someone want to do that?

Cultures that have extensive contextual networks to support their efforts need to adapt when transitioning to individualist cultures. At the same time, Western, individualist cultures will benefit from understanding the intricacies of relationship-oriented cultures. Both cultures will benefit by taking the time to learn the other’s business cultural preferences and practices.

7 Ways Western and Eastern Business Relationships Differ

Something that always surprises Westerners about Asian, South American, and Middle-Eastern (or “BRIC”) business culture is how deeply relationship driven it is. Westerners tend to think business in the East is much like business in the West, and that a good sales pitch makes a good sale. After they try this approach, we hear those same business people saying, “We’ve made so many trips to India, and it seems like there’s a lot of interest but nobody is closing the deal!” Sometimes we hear, “They don’t seem to want to spend any money, but they keep meeting with us and nobody commits to anything. We should pull out, there’s no market here.”

Eastern Business Relationships

The fact is, BRIC culture will not engage in business until a strong personal relationship has been built. It takes months, if not years, to build these relationships. In China, for instance, it is assumed about half a dozen dinners, over many months, is about right to get to know each other. During these largely social experiences, conversation is about life, children, philosophy, the arts, and a host of other topics that have nothing to do with business (a few things that should be avoided include politics, and anything related to business). Only after a potential partner gets to know you, and trust you, will the door be opened to discuss business.

Relationships are so close in many Asian cultures that the distinction between “business” and “personal” becomes blurred. For instance, Indians are welcome to drop by the home of a potential partner to get to know them better, and it would be rude not to invite them to stay for dinner or even to spend the night if they have travelled far. This holds true in many countries across Asia and the Middle-East.

Years ago I hadn’t done my research before making my first Indian business trip (there wasn’t much information available at the time). That first trip was difficult, not only for me but also for my Indian business partner. My brusque American nature and “let’s get it done” approach didn’t fit well with local culture. Twenty years later my trips around Asia are far more successful. I know the importance of slowing down my “American clock,” and of building those strong relationships. I focus on building strong business connections that are much more resilient than Western ones. On my last trip, I spent every evening having dinner with different groups of people, or spending some time at their homes. It was during these social periods that I learned important things about our project: Who we could trust implicitly, what problems we might run into, and where the political lines lay. These things aren’t discussed in the office because it’s too formal a setting — so if you don’t build the personal connections, you miss out. By the end of the trip, we knew each other better — and that means today we know how to do business together.

Eastern cultures, at least in comparison to Western norms, place higher value on strong relationships, saving face, and long term planning. Of course, ascribing the same attributes to all of the BRIC and all of Asia would be misguided. Keep in mind that the following is a list of core cultural traits that Easterners will generally value more highly than Westerners.

  1. Relationships are emphasized more than the “letter of the law”
  2. Aspiration and intentions matter strongly, not just measurable performance
  3. The good of the group outweighs the needs of the individual
  4. Face-saving tact is absolute (I’ll post an article on this complex topic soon)
  5. Long past history and achievement matters, often more than recent history
  6. Rewards should be consistent with effort, not just results
  7. Long-term thinking (years ahead, not just this year) versus short-term gains

Of course, jumping in with both feet and no preparation is the worst thing you can do. Take the time to prepare. Something as simple as talking over your plans with someone from the target country can go a long way. And if you really want to know how well your team will do, consider a cross cultural assessment or workshop.