Leading Across Cultures (Hierarchical vs. Egalitarian Leadership)

Today, I’m going to continue my Growing Your Cultural Awareness in Business series, drawing on learnings from Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map. This post is the fourth in an eight-part series and will focus on the Leadership scale in the Culture Map (egalitarian vs. hierarchical).

Power Distance & Leading

In the 1970s Geert Hofstede coined the term “power distance”, which refers to the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. The Leading Scale takes the idea of power distance and applies it specifically to business, with the two ends of the spectrum being egalitarian leadership & hierarchical leadership, respectively.

Power distance relates to questions like the following:

  • How much respect or deference is shown to an authority figure (and their opinion)?
  • Is it acceptable to skip layers at your org? → i.e. If you want to communicate to someone two levels above or below you, should you go through the hierarchical chain?
  • When you are the boss, what gives you an aura of authority?

The Leading Scale: Hierarchical vs. Egalitarian

Hierarchical Leadership (High Power-distance):

  • The ideal distance between a boss & subordinate is high
  • The best boss is a strong director who leads from the front
  • Status is important
  • Organizational structures are multilayered and fixed
  • Communication follows set hierarchical lines
  • Leaders display their leadership/authority by setting themselves apart from those at lower levels of the organizational ladder

Egalitarian Leadership (Low Power-distance):

  • The ideal distance between a boss & subordinate is low
  • The best boss is a facilitator among equals
  • Organizational structures are flat
  • Communication often skips hierarchical lines.
  • Leadership looks more like “acting like one of the team” (and not separating yourself from your subordinates)

SPS’s Offices on the Leading Scale:

Egalitarian <———————-> Hierarchical

Note: Countries represented: UA = Ukraine, AU = Australia, CA = Canada, US = United States. These are the locations that I work most closely with, though we have team members in other global locations as well.

General Traits of these Cultures

Hierarchical Cultures

  • Disagreements with the boss: An effort is made to defer to the boss’s opinion, especially in public
  • Need for boss’s approval: People are more likely to get the boss’s approval before moving to action
  • Need to match hierarchical levels: If you send your boss, they will send their boss. If your boss cancels, their boss may also cancel
  • “Level Skipping”: Communication must follow the hierarchical chain

Egalitarian Cultures:

  • Disagreements with the boss: It’s okay to disagree with the boss openly, even in front of others
  • Need for boss’s approval: People are more likely to move to action without getting the boss’s approval
  • Need to match hierarchical levels: If meeting with a client or supplier, there is less focus on matching hierarchical levels
  • “Level Skipping”: It’s okay to email or call people several levels above/below you

Avoiding Confusion

Hierarchical → Egalitarian Teams

  • Confusion or hard feelings can occur if you don’t include your team members in decision-making. If you’re working with egalitarian team members, seek their input (you can do this while still holding the final say, see the ‘strategies for success’ section below).
  • If team members disagree, it’s not a sign of disrespect - this is part of how egalitarian cultures come to consensus.
  • If a hierarchical team member gives you a plan without asking for your opinion/ideas, it’s not a sign of disrespect → This is just more common for their culture.

NOTE ALSO: In hierarchical cultures, the leader’s responsibility for caring for and teaching his subordinates is just as strong as the follower’s responsibility to defer and follow instructions. It’s a system based on reciprocated obligations, not just the obligations of “the underlings”.

Egalitarian → Hierarchical Teams

  • Confusion or hard feelings can occur if you are “skipping levels” in the org. chart. If you’re a manager, discuss issues or ideas with your peers. At a minimum, ask your peer if it’s OK to discuss issues/ideas with their team members.
  • If an egalitarian skips hierarchical levels, it’s not a sign of disrespect → This is just common for their culture.

Strategies for Success

Working with Hierarchical Cultures

Strategies for Working with Hierarchical Cultures

  • Communicating with ‘the source’ or the boss: Communicate with the person at your level. If you are the boss, go through the boss of the equivalent status, or get explicit permission to hop from one level to another (otherwise, you run the risk of offending your peer).
  • Including bosses in emails: If you email someone at a lower hierarchical level than your own, copy their boss.
  • “Level Skipping”: If you need to approach your boss’s boss or your subordinate’s subordinate, get permission from the person at the level in between first.

Strategies for Working with Egalitarian Cultures

  • Communicating with ‘the source’ or the boss: Go directly to the source; No need to bother the boss.
  • Including bosses in emails: Think twice before copying the boss on emails. Doing so could suggest to the recipient that you don’t trust them or are trying to get them in trouble.
  • “Level Skipping”: Skipping hierarchical levels is generally fine.

Tips for managing teams in different cultures

Managing Hierarchical Cultures

If you are managing a group that defers to your authority/opinion but you want them to provide input so you can make informed decisions, try the following:

  • Ask the team to meet without you to brainstorm as a group & then bring ideas back to you (removing “the boss” from their team meeting allows them to feel more comfortable sharing ideas & then they can share these ideas as coming from “the group” rather than any one individual).
  • When you have a meeting coming up, give clear instructions to the team in advance as to what kinds of questions/issues will be discussed and let them know that you will be asking for their input (this allows them to organize thoughts & check-in with one another prior to the meeting → see above)
  • Don’t expect people to jump in randomly without invitation; instead invite people to speak up and share ideas → Even if team members have ideas prepared, they might not volunteer unless you call on them to share.

Managing Egalitarian Cultures

If you are managing a group that is more egalitarian in nature than you are used to, try the following:

  • Introduce management by objectives, starting by speaking with each employee about the team’s vision for the coming year and then asking them to propose their best personal annual objectives, subject to negotiation and final agreement with you. This allows you to become a facilitator rather than a supervisor while still keeping a handle on what is being accomplished. Make sure the objectives are concrete & specific and consider how to link them to rewards/recognition.
  • Check on progress periodically (for a year-long project, maybe once a month so as to not be seen as micro-managing). If progress is satisfactory, you can give your team member more space for self-management; if progress is lagging, you can get more involved. It always helps to set goals & expectations for how this will work up-front too, so don’t hesitate to do that.

NOTE: When working on multi-cultural teams, it is always OK and appropriate to define ‘what is normal’ for your team up-front so that there is no misunderstanding across offices.

Some of this content is either directly taken from, or is a summary of, Chapter 4 of The Culture Map, with my own examples and perspective added for clarity.

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Jon Beattie

SPS Technology @spstech