Different cultures challenge authority in different ways

Those who work globally are aware that the cultural freedom to express even minor disagreement with people in authority is not universally accepted and disagreements between with superiors are thus manifested very differently.

Here are a few examples.

Explicit hardball challenging: Gilad (m, Israel) argues with his Israeli boss all the time. Gilad challenges the boss’s assumptions and directives in challenging emails as well as  by speaking out against the boss’ policy  in meetings. US based colleagues who have observed Gilad believe that Gilad shows no respect for his boss. However, once a directive is given, Gilad will carry it out to a T, never trying to stand by passively as things go bad.Gilad and his boss play on the same soccer team and socialize together at the beach.

Behavioural loyalty despite deep hinted differences : Hermann (m Germany) is very critical of his German boss, with whom he has been working for 5 years. In meetings, Hermann asks challenging yet legitimate technical questions and provides in depth risk analysis for his bosses’ proposed suggestions. Hermann will refrain from any other expression of disagreement. In private, Hermann will state that to anyone who will listen that the boss is an idiot. Hermann will loyally carry out the directives of his boss even if they are causing failure. Hermann and his boss move in two different social circles.

Pragmatic Controlled  Disagreement: Karen (f USA) believes that her American boss has made several critical errors over the last month. Karen is very pragmatic; she asks some mildly  “challenging” questions after adding “well, let me play the devil’s advocate”. Privately, Karen assures her boss that, I am with you”, yet Karen adds her “concerns”. When one of her boss’s directives goes bad, Karen will be remain composed, and not go out of her way to help, allowing things “to take their course”.  Karen needs her boss’s recommendations after she leaves to “further her career”. Karen and her boss socialize only at the Christmas party.

Indirect Backdoor-ism: Tree (m Thai) thinks that his Singaporean boss overplays relationships with sales people in the selling process and underplays schmoozing up to the clients’ technical staff,  resulting in problems during initial deployment. Tree is very polite to his boss. He never expresses any disagreement, either in meetings or emails. Tree gossips all the time to his boss’s other subordinates about the boss’s errors. Both Tree and his boss know about the disagreement, yet  never talk about them, in order to maintain harmony. When a bad decision causes failure, Tree will be very passive and smile. Tree and his boss socialize in the Chinese New Year Party and have lunch twice a week to  chat.

So-do not assume that agreement with what you say is real; do not assume that those who challenge you are against you; and don’t ignore gossip but factor it in in societies where harmony is more valued than “truth”.

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11 thoughts on “Different cultures challenge authority in different ways

  1. OK. So these people all have ways of expressing differences of opinion to outright disagreement. What is the conclusion of doing so? Are they in environments where they cannot be fired or retaliated against by the boss? Does their boss (in foreign countries) really have no power to do anything?

  2. Really interesting post. Now I wonder what is your perspective of this kind of issues in work environments with employees from different cultures. I’ve found that is really enriching but sometimes very hard to keep the ‘harmony’ but also engage everyone in group discussions about the company. I’d love to know what people working and handling this kind of atmosphere have done.

  3. I find these case studies instructive – I was told recently of a story about an Israeli company where such behavior was not understood and there was a cost involved. There are no absolutes (or at least few) in human behavior but having some insight into the mindsets and values of how others communicate improves your own communication.

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