Today, almost all business is global business. Cultural awareness is core for successful business people today. This post is part in an ongoing series to help readers leverage insights into the eight dimensions of culturally based work style differences, so you can raise your own global business productivity.

Let me introduce myself. I’m an American who lived in Japan for two years. Why should that interest you? Because there are only a few other cultures where cross-cultural differences are as stark when it comes to the important and influential “Hierarchy” Dimension of intercultural communication.

My American work style, as in most American workplaces, is far to the “Egalitarian” side of the Hierarchy spectrum. We never use titles, have no discernible status differences when it comes to seating in a meeting, and we expect people to know they can move through corporate ranks based primarily on merit.

You can guess how much I had to learn when I first moved to Japan, where cultural work styles are at the extreme “Hierarchical” end of the Hierarchy spectrum. In Japan, people give great deference to their team leader, expect their boss to have most of the answers, and use titles and honorifics quite frequently. Even the language conveys your status – it changes in relation to the person with whom you’re conversing.

These cross-cultural differences can be challenging. For example, I had been working in Japan for several months when two Dutch colleagues (from an even more Egalitarian culture than the U.S.!) came for a business meeting. When we entered the room several of our Japanese colleagues were already seated next to each other on one side of the table. There were several empty seats for us, so my companions and I sat down. Imagine our surprise when our Japanese colleagues stood up and changed seats. We hadn’t anticipated that they needed to be seated across from colleagues of the same rank!

Cross-Cultural Awareness and the Hierarchy Dimension

Typically, Hierarchy refers to how power is earned, the amount of deference people give to those in authority, how society is structured, and the amount of responsibility people expect to take. It also has implications for the amount of initiative people will take without being “granted” authority.

Hierarchy is a powerful Dimension because it both influences the structure of a society and has a dramatic impact on how the workplace operates. In an Egalitarian culture, responsibilities fall to the person who is most obviously qualified. In a Hierarchical society, someone who is qualified also requires authorization from someone in higher authority before exercising their skills. In other words, people function in clearly defined parameters – and need those structures to operate efficiently.

Hierarchy in a Multi-Cultural Workplace

In addition to shaping an individual’s perception about their place in society, Hierarchy also describes the amount of autonomy and responsibility people are given and feel comfortable taking.

For example, do you expect to take the initiative if you think something needs attention? Or, do you think that is out-of-line and inappropriate? Do you believe your boss should give you clear instructions about your work? Or do you expect your boss to be a coach who helps you accomplish your business goals but may not have all the answers?

If you consider that culture is – as Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede points out – the “software of the mind,” you can see how challenging it is for people from a Hierarchical society to take action for which they have not been given authorization. On the other hand, in an Egalitarian society, people will often take steps for which they’re not authorized and seek permission – or “forgiveness,” as the Egalitarian joke goes – later. If a multi-cultural work environment requires people to act in opposition to their cultural hard-wiring, they need a lot of time to adjust. It takes people time to reprogram their brain and “install new software.”

How Respect and Giving ‘Face’ Affects Intercultural Communication

Hierarchy has another very powerful interpersonal implication. Not only do people in Hierarchical cultures use honorifics and visibly show signs of respect, they also expect that their status will be recognized in social and professional conversation. While in Egalitarian societies, introductions are typically brief and credentials limited to core items, a Hierarchical society’s introductions may be extensive, complimentary and elaborate. Failing to follow that protocol could cause offense.

Early in my career, I accompanied a senior manager of an American company on a business trip to a newly acquired Mexican manufacturing facility. The Mexican manager introduced his American colleague with significant fanfare, citing all his credentials, and calling him Mr. Gordon.

When my client stood up and started to share his presentation, he said, “Thanks for that introduction, Jose,” and continued to deliver an excellent, upbeat presentation. He was completely unaware that his opening statement had offended his Mexican colleague by not according him the respect of his office and standing. Further, he had upset the audience, who held the manager in high esteem and expected a more elaborate and respectful acknowledgement.

Unfortunately, as he did this, I could see that a great opportunity for a positive, collaborative relationship was drifting away.

Introductions are simply the most visible manifestation of the value and esteem in which you hold a colleague or business partner. It’s a matter of giving “face,” i.e., showing the respect you accord that individual. The simplest way of observing this is the business card exchange. By accepting a card with two hands and studying it, you’re showing that you value the role of the person and giving them respect.

Diverse Attitudes Towards Hierarchy and Egalitarianism

The Hierarchy Dimension is quite consequential. It may be displayed as overt signs of respect, but its essence is much more than that: Hierarchy lies at the core of contemporary management systems in both Hierarchical and Egalitarian workplaces.

In Egalitarian workplaces, business depends largely on intellectual contribution and productivity. Egalitarian systems are built on the notion that a “good manager” inspires employees to be self-motivated, function autonomously, and to take initiative when opportunities arise. The role of the business manager is that of a coach, providing resources and motivation to encourage individuals to realize their potential. Managers empower employees to make decisions and facilitate access to people at all levels of the organization

The ability for an employee to function in an Egalitarian workplace is based on a perception of feeling entitled to express themselves. In other words, the idea that “My thoughts and ideas are as good as anyone else’s.” In fact, people in Egalitarian workplaces believe that if they know their job, they may actually be a more authoritative source than someone in a higher position. This sense of empowerment is instilled in earliest childhood. In most Egalitarian societies, children are encouraged to think independently and express their ideas with confidence.

But such beliefs are experienced as counter-cultural in many societies. In more Hierarchical cultures, children are often taught to learn by rote so they can master the fundamentals, first. They’re taught not to question the teacher and to simply follow what the teacher says. Their questions are not valued in the educational process. This translates directly into the workplace, because the respect accorded to the manager may inhibit an individual from taking initiative without being authorized to do so.

On the other hand, a Hierarchical manager might find a business meeting in an Egalitarian country too collegial and undisciplined, and attempt to impose more structure – much to the frustration of the employees.

Yet, even in Hierarchical societies, contemporary organizations like to think of themselves as meritocracies. This may be aspirational because deeply ingrained hierarchical systems are difficult to overcome. So, when working in a Hierarchical environment, be alert to what might be inconsistencies between what is aspirational and what is reality.

The sense of empowerment, which is a desirable trait in today’s global business workplace, cannot be assumed: it’s a cultural phenomenon that is part of the Dimension of Hierarchy. 

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