24 Mar 2018

Who’s the Boss? Bob or Mr Robert Brown?

Cross Culture and its challenges

One of the most important differences across cultures is that of hierarchy. Cross culture understanding or misunderstanding can stem simply from this one dimension* of culture. Hierarchical societies have a clear ranking of authority in the society. It’s the ascribing of power to the higher authorities by the lower. This hierarchy exists in the society – as in the familial structure as well as in the workplace – where the head of the business is, well… the Boss.

6 Dimensions of Culture

Renowned culturologist, Geert Hofstede propounds the 6 dimensions of culture. And one of the most important dimensions is as defined by him the Power Distance (PDI). With comparative scores for over a 100 countries around the world, Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions help us understand not only where each society stands in terms of hierarchy but also the difference in each country’s view of hierarchy. For instance the PDI score for India is as high as 77 while that of the United States is just 40! What does that mean?

Power Distance Index – Dimension of Culture

It means that in India the Boss’s word is the last word, the boss-employee relationship is maintained with a distance and respect. In the US however the Boss while being in a superior administrative position, can still be treated as a peer or equal. First name terms are common and an open disagreement with the boss is not only acceptable but also considered healthy. Not so in India. Which means, Bob in the US is definitely Mr Robert Brown in India, and most likely to be address as “Sir”!

Hierarchy in the workplace

So what does this mean in the workplace. When people from such different hierarchical structures work together, there is bound to be a conflict. Those from a higher power distance culture may find those of an egalitarian culture a bit too friendly and sometimes disrespectful of seniority. On the flip side, people used to equality may find the distance difficult to fathom. The workaround is to establish a peer relationship – something that’s acceptable in both cultures.

The Solution? Cross Culture Understanding

It takes understanding of the other culture to figure out how one can best work with teams from that country. The best way is to come halfway, to compromise and have a clear understanding of how the matrix works in any cross-cultural team. Only then can Bob can come down from the US and continue being Bob in India, a good friend, a peer with just as much authority and an equal amount of respect.

Of course, a well thought out cross culture workshop can help build this understanding better. And eventually benefit your global business.