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Samurai & Cowboys: Cultural Perspective on Management Styles

Posted about 1 year ago by David Sweet

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Whether you support or detest change, it is happening. But how much impact do management styles in different cultures have on change?

 Do you have a Smartphone? Do you use Google? Do you use global internet sites to get information on clothes, food, travel, music, research, work opportunities? These sites influence people and bring countries closer together, especially countries that share a lot of trade and commercial contact.

These factors influence what you and your colleagues may see as the norm. You are open to influence whether you know it or not, to leading thoughts, persuasions, technologies, arguments, speeches, TV adverts, products. Nothing stands still.

Management Styles – East and West

Could all of this affect management styles? If you compare Japan and the USA there are, of course, differences. However, countries will find it difficult to maintain existing management cultures in the face of fast-paced change, and as technology makes the world smaller.

There is a belief that you can group countries with similar management styles – the USA, UK and Australasia in one group, and Japan and other East-Asian countries in another. Traditions, national roots and leadership are different, and this difference should be cherished. But could this have a negative effect on business?

When a multi-national company starts operating in Japan, Directors “back home” will see differences in culture. A Japanese firm, starting operations in the USA, is going to experience a culture shock when they hire local staff. Because of this, management styles cannot stay the same.

So which culture is better and will things change?

Values, Norms and Variances

There is a widely held belief that traditions and leadership styles in each country lead to the development of styles. National values, norms and education are instilled from an early age. These can lead to national variances such as:

  • Power of leaders to influence citizens
  • Pressure on a corporate employee if an error is made, and the outcome
  • Time scale to make decisions in a company, and by whom, a person or a group

Most will agree that management styles in some counties have changed over the years. People believe if you treat your staff well, they will perform better and go the extra mile. This is seen by customers, who tell others, and the company prospers. The ability to complete work to ‘best endeavours’ is initiated or halted by management – despite their wish to ensure good company performance.

But what or who influences the Directors and the Managers?

In a ‘Top Down’ style, the manner of the CEO is reflected across the organisation. But the leadership of a country can be influential too. Comparing Japan and the USA again, both have similar approaches and beliefs when it comes to market share, commerce and winning business. But there are variances that have evolved, which are more effective in their own regions.

Japan and the USA have traditionally strong trading links. Is there an argument for finding a cultural ‘middle ground’, where the best of both cultures are adopted by both parties in order to prosper? Is it a case of change and adapt, or fail commercially?

Power Distance

Current legal systems and education in each country lead to different responses by managers. Let’s take the concept of leadership and ‘power distance’ – the level of acceptance by society to the distribution of power. In some countries, an order might be met with “You must be joking!”, whereas in others the response will be “Yes, sir”.

It is said that ‘power distance’ and the process of decision making are inversely proportional. So, the more a person is deferential, the more that person looks for consensus before any decision is made.

If the citizen feels less influenced by their country or company leader, or traditions, they can make decisions faster, are able and prepared to take risk, and feel empowered to innovate and adapt rapidly to market forces.

In these countries when the economy thrives, the countries’ leaders tend to take the credit themselves, while, where there is a consensus or group response, leaders congratulate the group and see this as a mutual success.

Risk Avoidance

There are further differences when looking at risk taking or uncertainty avoidance in the USA and Japan. In Japan, the concept of a ‘job for life’ means there is traditionally high uncertainty avoidance.

In the USA, people will generally take these decisions, so when the company thrives, the employee receives the praise. Even if it turns out to be a bad decision, and the employee loses their job, a new employer may look favourably on the courage and innovation in the decision.

People don’t get it right every time – Thomas Watson, former Head of IBM, said in 1943 that there was a “world market for maybe five computers”. But if we don’t try, we will never succeed. The key is balancing the risk.

Long-term vs. Short-term

Gadget makers take ideas and concepts from multiple sources in order to make a better product, so too can management style benefit from taking the best from other models.

In any industry, there are people who are in for the long-term, and others who are in only for the short-term. In Japan, companies look at the long-term picture, and employees at the long-term ‘loyalty’ to a company, while in the USA, there is more focus on the short-term and individual careers.

However, this is changing in Japan, with candidates publishing Portfolio Career CVs showing skill sets, and not necessarily their list of corporate positions.

To take a simplistic view, we have one culture where short-term planning, individual confidence and easier movement between jobs, while the other focuses on long-term planning and thinking, collective confidence and the job for life.

But in 2016, the tide is changing, and a global perspective is required. Where the prevailing culture will end up is open to discussion but change is constant and more important, the pace of change is exponential – the rate of change is getting faster.