Decision-Making Across Cultures: Top-Down vs Consensus-Based

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 fifth in an eight-part series and will focus on the Decision Making scale in the Culture Map (top-down vs. consensus-based).

The Deciding Scale: Top-down vs. Consensus-Based

  • Top-Down Decision-Making: Decisions are made by individuals (usually the boss).
  • Consensus-Based Decision-Making: Decisions are made in groups through unanimous agreement.

It will likely come as no surprise that this scale is closely related to the leadership scale

SPS Offices on the Decision-Making Scale

Consensus-Based <———————-> Top-Down

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

Americans: Consensus-Seekers or Top-Down Decision Makers?

Disclaimer: If you’re an American reading this, and you are prone to thinking that American decisions are largely consensus-based, hold on a minute, we’re likely more Top-down/individualistic than you might first think (at least that was true for me as I understood the scale more).

  • United We Stand, Divided We Fall: This common American sentiment is also a powerful, and often deeply held, American value, which can be manifested in the belief that making a decision quickly, and getting behind that decision as quickly as possible leads to efficiency, which in turns leads to success. While there is often room for consensus-based decisions, this maxim can tend to lead to an individualistic model of decision-making. This doesn’t mean that Americans are hierarchical (in terms of leadership style). Americans are still egalitarian in terms of leadership, but they tend to be more top-down in terms of how they make decisions.

“Big D” Decisions vs. “Little d” decisions

This is another way to think about how different people and different cultures make decisions. I’m including this framework as it resonated well with me and my work experience.

“Big D Decisions” (Consensus-Based)

  • Much time and effort is put into making a decision. Once a decision is made, that is the final word on the subject, plan, course of action, etc.
  • It can take a lot longer to make the decision (since there is so much consensus sought), but once the decision is made, implementation is often very quick (since everyone is already on board with the decision).

“Little d decisions” (Top-Down)

  • “Decisions” are made quickly, and are seen as an agreement to move forward with the “decision” while also being willing to change the decision down the road if new/better information presents itself.
  • The emphasis is on rapid individual decision making, accompanied by the sense that decisions can always be changed, if/as needed.
  • Each decision is flexible.

How Confusion Arises & How to Deal With It

Little d → Big D Deciders

  • Decisions: A Moving Target: Since Americans (and other “little d deciders”) tend to seek to make decisions quickly in order to speedily move forward with their plan of action, their “decisions” are often in flux. This means that new decisions can be made to override prior decisions as plans progress.
    • “Big D Deciders”: This can be confusing to “Big D” decision culture team members, as it can seem to them like the American is flippantly making decisions & is contrary to what Decisions mean for “Big D” cultures (When a decision is made, a commitment is made & the team sticks with it → there is no changing of decisions).
    • “Little d deciders”: Be careful what you call a “decision” (smile) If confusion arises as plans change,
  • Beware of mistakes: For Americans, mistakes can be viewed as an inevitable and ultimately insignificant side effect of speed; “It’s not a huge deal.”
    • This can be off-putting to colleagues from other cultures who have differing views of mistakes (serious, to be avoided, etc). Be aware of how you view mistakes and what your team members think about them → If unclear, have a discussion so they know where you’re coming from.

Big D → Little d Deciders

  • Decisions: A Lengthy Process: “Little d deciders” may find it confusing when it seems to take countless meetings & discussions before a decision can be made & the team can move to action.
    • “Little d deciders”: Remember, the decision-making process is longer, but the time to implement any plan is exponentially quicker, since all team members agree to and adhere to the decision/plan → No deviations are made, the team moves forward “full steam ahead” after they reach a consensus.
    • “Big D Deciders”: If it seems like your American colleague (or other “little d deciders”) have become disengaged in the process, remind them of your consensus-based decision-making approach. Keep soliciting their feedback throughout the process. It might also help to set a timeline for the decision to be made (this will give your “little d deciding” colleague an “end in sight”, so that they won’t have to wonder if a decision will ever be made).

Strategies for Success

Working with More Consensus-Based Decision Makers:

  • Expect the decision-making process to take longer and to involve more meetings and communications.
  • Do your best to demonstrate patience and commitment throughout the process (trust the process)… even when diverging opinions lead to seemingly endless discussions and indecision.
  • Check in with your colleagues regularly to show your commitment and be available to answer questions.
  • Cultivate informal contacts within the team to help you monitor where the group is in the decision-making process. Otherwise, you may find that a consensus is forming without your awareness or participation.
  • Resist the temptation to push for a quick decision. Instead, focus on the quality and completeness of the information gathered and the soundness of the reasoning process. Remember, once a decision is made, it will be difficult to try to change it.

Working with More Top-Down Based Decision Makers:

  • Expect decisions to be made by the boss with less discussion & less soliciting of opinions than you are accustomed to. The decision may be made before, during, or after a meeting, depending on the organizational culture and the individual involved.
  • Be ready to follow a decision even if you input was not solicited or was overruled. It’s possible for a project to produce success even if the initial plan was not the best one that could have been devised.
  • When you are in charge, solicit input & listen carefully to differing viewpoints, but strive to make decisions quickly. Otherwise you may find that you are viewed as an indecisive or ineffective leader.
  • When the group is divided about how to move forward and no obvious leader is present, suggest a vote. All members are expected to follow the decision supported by the majority, even if they disagree.
  • Remain flexible throughout the process. Decisions are rarely set in stone; most can later be adjusted, revisited, or discussed again if necessary.

Working on a Global Team with a Mix of Decision-Making Cultures:

  • Explicitly discuss & agree upon a decision-making method during the early stages of collaboration.
  • Define whether the decision will be made by vote or by the boss after a team discussion.
  • Determine whether 100% agreement is needed, whether a deadline for making the decision is necessary & how much flexibility there will be for changing a decision after the deadline.

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 5 of The Culture Map, with my own examples and perspective added for clarity.

Want to Read More?

Curious to read more? Check out my other articles:

I’ll also be authoring articles on the remaining three scales of the Culture Map in the coming months, so keep your eyes out for those too!

Jon Beattie

SPS Technology @spstech