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  • Author Jim Morris

Building commitment (Friendly vegetables by Jim Morris - part 3)

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The best way to get a mushroom to grow and develop is to keep it in the dark. Imagine if this were how we led our teams! Leading and managing across cultures demands awareness. If we keep ourselves and others in the dark we will never grow. Different leadership styles and the behavior of leaders and subordinates differ quite considerably and can be a cause for a mismatch of expectations and clash of certain values and norms, especially when a leader and employee from two different cultures work together.

Perception of hierarchy

Power distance is the degree to which a community maintains inequality among its members by stratification of individuals and groups with respect to power, authority, prestige, status, wealth, and material possessions. The critical aspects are the establishment and maintenance of dominance and control of the less powerful by the more powerful (House et al, 2004).

About the author: Jim Morris is a senior facilitator and project manager for Schouten Global. He lives and breathes culture: English by nationality, he lives in the Netherlands and works all over the world facilitating professional learning and development. His latest book The Eight Great Beacons of Cultural Awareness (is a practical guide and will strengthen your cultural awareness) is available as e-book here.

As a child I remember hearing a popular story about a king and his wazir, or prime minister. The king was tired of eating aubergine. Once he mentioned to his wazir that the aubergine was an absolutely useless vege-table. The wazir agree wholeheartedly with the king, and went on to decry the poor vegetable so emphatically that the king was left in no doubt as to how right he was. A few days later the raj vaid, the king’s personal physician, met the king and spoke about the excellent health benefits of eating aubergines. Now the king recommended the vegetable to his wazir. The wazir could not agree more. The aubergine was truly the king of vegetables, he said, and even as he continued to speak eloquently about its main qualities, the king suddenly remembered how on a previous occasion this very man had so roundly condemned it. With anger he asked how the wazir could maintain two absolutely contradictory points of view. The wazir’s answer came form generations of distilled wisdom. He said: “My Lord, I work for you, not for the aubergine. What good would it do me if I disagree with you and agree with the aubergine?”

In high-power-distance cultures there will be a bias towards power being held and executed by a few people at the top. There will often be a pyramid structure to business with many layers of power. In low-power-distance cultures there will be a bias towards decisions being made by consensus. Business will be conducted in relatively flat organisa-tional management structures. Below are some examples of the scores which the Globe study indicates for the level of power distance in a country. The first examples are those of cul-tures with a high power distance.

If you are working in a culture with high power distance then you should re-member to do the following:

  • Show great respect for leader
  • Cultivate relationships with colleagues who will tell you what others really think
  • Follow instructions
  • Do not worry too much about understanding the bigger picture. Next are some examples of countries scoring low on power distance.

Next are some examples of countries scoring low on power distance.

If you are working in a culture with low power distance then you should re-member to do the following:

  • Consult widely before taking important decisions
  • Engage in active debate as this is likely to lead to better decision making
  • Take initiatives, as taking individual responsibility is regarded highly 
  • Understand the bigger picture

Tip from Carl the Carrot: When managing people from a different culture than your own, think about power distance. Do you grab the stick or follow the carrot?

Multicultural teams

It is important to remember that cultural norms and values determine accepted and effective team and leadership behavior.

An Indian programmer remarked upon his experience with a Dutch boss “It took me some time to get used to it, but I now feel very valued and consider it very polite that I am always asked my opinion. In India sometimes the boss forces an idea upon you.” Other Indi-ans experience this Dutch leadership style as ‘soft’ and have experienced that they need to ask many questions in order to clarify what is exactly required of them. Source E.Jordans 2000

Cultural difference can be very positive within a team. It can create richness and the need for change, as well as promote communication across much wider sets of resources and people. It can also cause difficulties, especially in communication and understand-ing. Clearly defined communication agreements and decision- and problem-solving processes help channel differences constructively. But the real challenge presented by differences is the need to focus on establishing collaborative norms early on by focusing as much on the interpersonal relation-ships as on the task. Then teams can experience their positive power. Culturally diverse and distributed teams need to identify relevant differences and the clashes that could arise early on, and negotiate strategies to avoid them. Otherwise letting them emerge later in the team’s life can be difficult to put right.

Tip from Carl the Carrot: Working in a multicultural team is challenging but also affords enormous opportunities. Embrace the diversity; explore the different opinions and ways of looking at things. A multi cultural team will by its very nature be a source for new ideas, fresh perspectives, and complementing strengths where another may be weak. Support each other with an open mind and mutual respect.

This is chapter 3 from the book With friendly vegetables by Jim Morris. Read the next chapter here or download the book here.  

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