How to Lead Effectively Across Cultures

As the title suggests, today's topic has to do with leadership across cultures and to truly get into the granular details of how to do this effectively, one has to understand Power Distance Index (PDI). PDI is the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.  Basically it is the degree of respect we show to authority. In the workplace, power is about how we deal with hierarchy at work: bosses, senior colleagues, people who report to you or other junior personnel. 

It is the brainchild of Geert Hofsteade. He came up with six cultural dimensions that organizations and groups can use to view the world and Power Distance Index is one of those dimensions. I talk a little bit about it here. His research has framed a lot of the work that that is done in the cross cultural field today. 

Countries that rank high on the power distance index have a very hierarchical leadership structure while countries that rank lower on the power distance index have a flatter leadership structure.

I grew up in cultures embedded on both ends of the PDI spectrum. I was born in Nigeria where the power distance is high but I came across both Swedish and the American cultures before I was 19 years old. The United States and Sweden rank lower on the power distance index. Growing up in Nigeria where there are more than 250 ethnic groups, I saw that status came from age, traditional or tribal rank (chief, elder and so on), family connections, honor and religious goodness.

Wealth also brings power in Nigeria, but not necessarily status in the eyes of the community. Power differences between people are clear and are reinforced by status symbols of various kinds (title, servants and assistants, quality of office accommodation, clothes, cars and so on).

Rebellions against authority figures are rare. Senior people are typically not easy for juniors to approach. When junior staff get access, they must show great respect. Decisions will be taken by a single leader or a group of high-ranking people, usually without much participation by junior staff or by the people whom the decision affects.

As someone who was initially raised that way, my initial experiences with American culture was interesting to say the least especially as I started to gain leadership roles in these two cultures. Here are some of the lessons I have learned while leading across both cultures.

If you are dealing with people who prefer bigger differences in power than you

  • show respect for people with higher status

  • make sure that you understand the chain of authority and its implications

  • accept that employees may like strong supervision and feel comfortable with a directive, persuasive supervisor

  • do not put employees in a position where they have to disagree with their manager

If you are dealing with people who prefer smaller differences in power than you

  • make sure your staff feel empowered, if you want to get the best performance out of them

  • avoid close supervision – it is likely to be counterproductive and seen as offensive

  • focus on encouraging or inspiring your staff, not controlling or instructing them

  • make yourself available to your staff more often and share some informal occasions with them

As the world starts to shrink with each digital platform that pops off everyday and with constant migration, chances are that you will either work with or work for people from different cultural backgrounds. If you don't work with them on a professional level, you will most certainly go to school with them or come across some form of different culture in your day to day life. 

You can't lead across cultures without understanding it.

Once you know your place on a dimension, you can start to build strategies for working with people who are different from you. For example, with Argonaut's CultureConnector tool, you get strategies like the top 4 strategies for dealing with people who prefer bigger power distance than you above.

Remember you can use your difference to make a difference to your personal success across cultures in very practical ways. 

Till next week use your DIFFERENCE to make a DIFFERENCE.

Tayo Rockson

Tayo Rockson is an avid lover of sports, marketing and non profit who loves helping and meeting new people. This blog is a refection of all he has learned. You can reach him at tayorockson@yahoo.co.uk or on Twitter at @TayoRockson.

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