What Makes a Boss too Formal?

Answer the following questions quickly without giving them much thought. Do you expect a boss to wear an Armani suit or khaki trousers with jogging shoes? Should she travel to work on a mountain bike or in a limousine? Do you call him “Mr. Director,” or are you more likely to address him as “Sam”? How you respond to these questions depends on your individual personality. It also may reflect the country you come from.

For Steve Henning, raised in egalitarian Australia, the answer was clear. The best boss is just one of the guys:

At home I was a near-full-time bicycle commuter. I’m a senior vice president and my Australian staff thought it was great that I rode a bike to work like many of them did. So I decided to bring my bicycle with me when I was assigned to a new job in China.

Unfortunately, Henning’s decision backfired:

My team was humiliated that their boss rode a bike to work like a common person. There are plenty of bikes on the road here but they are not carrying vice presidents. The team felt my actions suggested to the company that their boss was unimportant, and that they, by association, were also unimportant.

In today’s global economy you might be an Australian leading a team in China, a Russian courting clients in Brazil, or a German acquiring a company in India. The ideal “power distance” between the boss and his staff is deeply woven into the education system and family structure of each society. If you’re the boss it’s particularly important to understand what to expect from the culture you are working with.

When Joseph Alabi moved from Nigeria to Denmark, he was taken aback by the way his Danish staff spoke to him. Everyone — from the secretary to guys on the shop floor — used his first name and didn’t hesitate to contradict him in meetings. As he pointed out:

In the part of Nigeria I come from, we are taught to show the utmost respect to anyone above us in the hierarchy. When an older brother asks his little brother to fetch him water, the little brother does as told or suffers the wrath of his mother. When a grandparent arrives, he gets down on his knees in order to greet him. At work, you wouldn’t dare call your boss by his first name, let alone challenge him in public or in some other way insult his position in society.

At first he took things personally, but gradually Joseph realized that the Danes simply show their respect very differently from Nigerians:

The Danes have something called “the Law Of Jante”, which is a set of extremely egalitarian principles. Do not think you are better than others. Do not think you are smarter than others. Do not think you are more important than others. These and the other Jante rules are part of the way the Danes live. Hierarchy is almost entirely absent in this society. Children call the teacher by his first name. Young children challenge elders without hesitation. And the boss really is treated like he is just one of the team — a sort of facilitator among equals.

For anyone working globally, the nuances of hierarchy can be complicated. It is no longer enough to know how to lead the Australian, Chinese, Nigerian, or Danish way. You have to know how to manage up and down the cultural spectrum, and be flexible enough to adapt your style to the culture at hand. Here are a few pointers to get you started.

In an egalitarian culture:
It’s okay to disagree with the boss openly, even in front of others.
People are more likely to move to action without getting the boss’s approval.
In a meeting with a client or supplier, it is not important to match hierarchical levels.
It’s acceptable to e-mail or call people several levels below or above you.
With clients or partners, expect to be seated and spoken to in no specific order.
In a hierarchical culture:

People will defer to the boss’s opinion, especially in public.
People are likely to get the boss’s approval before acting.
If your boss plans to attend a meeting, your suppliers or clients will send their boss. If your boss cancels, their boss will likely not come.
Expect communication to follow the hierarchical chain; people correspond with others on their own level.
With clients or partners, you are likely to be seated and spoken to in order of position.
After several years in China, Steve Henning reflected on his experience:

I soon got rid of the bike, and stopped asking everyone to call me by my first name (Mr. Steve was our compromise!). I abandoned early strategies to make their culture more like my own, like implementing an open-floor seating plan. My team no more wanted me seated in a cubicle [than] riding a bike.

He came to not only adapt to this new culture, but to also see that it had its advantages:

When I was managing in Australia, every idea had to be hashed out at each level. Hours and hours were lost trying to create buy-in. When I first started working in China, I felt frustrated that my staff wouldn’t challenge my ideas. But I have developed a very close relationship with them over the past six years — almost a father-son connection. And I have come to love managing in China. There is great beauty in giving a clear instruction and watching your competent and enthusiastic team jump right in and attack the project at hand without pushback.

It’s natural for us to experience our own way of doing things as normal. But as we gain cross-cultural experience, we begin to see that every style has its advantages and disadvantages. And over time, a leader can start to smooth over the cultural gaps in team interactions, while capitalizing on the assets each cultural group brings. The more global the team, the greater the potential for misunderstanding… but also the greater the opportunity for the experienced leader to achieve success. This is the true value of leading in the global economy — getting the best of all worlds.

2 thoughts on “What Makes a Boss too Formal?”

  1. I’m also an expat director in China who rides a bike to work, but I haven’t had the same experience. So, I’m wondering how industry and company culture come into play. Our company is in IT, so we’re a laid back and fairly young team.

    1. Of course industry and corporate culture can have a huge impact and IT tends to be the lowest power distance or most egalitarian industry. Your comment surprised me until I saw your industry. thanks for the comment! Erin

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