Managing across cultures

Differences in communication style are not the only distinction

Opinions were divided on the new US boss of an international team. The Americans and British liked the fact that he communicated with them a lot. Some of the German team members felt that his frequent questions like ‘How are you getting on?’, ‘Do you need any help?’ suggested that he didn’t really think they were competent. When the US manager was replaced by a German the British missed the communication and felt that he wasn’t interested in their work and that they weren’t kept informed about developments in the department; the German colleagues explained that for them not hearing from the boss was a good sign and quoted the saying ‘nothing said is praise enough.’
Differences in communication style are not the only intercultural differences which have to be taken into account when managing across cultures. Dutchman Geert Hofstede, who carried out groundbreaking research into cultural differences, identified the cultural dimension of ‘power distance’. Cultures with low power distance are characterized by narrow salary ranges, a high degree of consultation of subordinates and few status symbols; high power distance means wide salary ranges, subordinates being told what to do and managers expecting privileges. Hofstede’s research put Russia, Arab countries and India high up the scale of power distance and Finland, Norway and Sweden at the other end of the scale. This doesn’t, of course, mean that all managers in a particular country are the same; corporate cultures, age and educational background of managers as well as individual preferences also have to be taken into account.
Alongside hierarchies it is important for international managers to be aware of approaches to decision making in different cultures. Some cultures expect the manager to be assertive and tough and give clear directions, others favor consensus building with more group decisions. How you motivate your staff varies widely, as does whether you prefer to celebrate individual or group success. Many of these differences can be traced back to differences in educational systems. In Britain, for example, it is quite common to find managers who studied non-business related topics; they see themselves as generalists as opposed to many of their German colleagues who may have taken business studies or a technical subject.
How can Siemens cope with all these differences? It has, of course, definedĀ  a Leadership Framework and has a standard Performance Management Process. Ultimately though whether these processes live will be dependent on the ability of individual managers to respect possible cultural differences while not losing sight of the framework provided by the company.