Communicating leadership across cultural divides

Jan Ketil Arnulf

There cannot be leadership without communication.The tough task is for global managers to learn to create harmony from the differences they find, writes Jan Ketil Arnulf.

Experiences with leadership communication are a common topic whenever expatriate managers meet. Where western organizations are characterized by talkativeness and frequent dispute, oriental bosses are being more directive and open contradictions are rare.

This pattern also carries over to higher levels of management. Western managers expect meetings in general to be arenas for problem solving, from board meetings through management teams to staff discussions. Chinese meetings are more of a ceremonial character, where participants are not expected to raise difficult questions. Public statements are more like expressions of good will, and leaders are reluctant to reveal pressing problems in front of others.

The striking differences

Lack of cultural awareness can easily trap expat managers who subsequently feel bewildered or emotionally provoked, sometimes triggering reactions that only make things worse. A few examples:

  • Western managers trying to evoke a free brainstorm among their Chinese colleagues may face a grave and embarrassed silence.
  • Expatriate Chinese managers who try to push their western subordinates to extra efforts may experience the reaction as confusingly stubborn and impolite.
  • Westerners at a Chinese management meeting may hold a well-prepared speech, and finds that an important Chinese counterpart falls asleep during the presentation.
  • Chinese board members may find themselves annoyed by westerners raising issues with everyone present that would have better been raised during the dinner the evening before.

Such situations are the surface symptoms of systematic differences in language and culture affecting modern organizations going global. Just as there cannot be sound in empty space, there cannot be leadership without communication. Cross-cultural leadership is influenced by the way our brains are programmed by speaking habits.

Communication as co-operation

Western and oriental languages have in fact developed two complimentary types of solutions to the same problem: How to make people co-operate through speech acts. To succeed in joint efforts, we need to create an awareness of the situation at hand, decide what to do, and have everyone fill their part or function.

The fewer people involved, the easier it will be to share observations and develop a common understanding of the situation. As more people join in, it will be more time-consuming and bewildering to have everyone talk. Team researchers call this the “process cost” of teamwork. For bigger crowds, a quicker and more convenient way is to create an organization by specializing tasks and centralizing decisions. This reduces process cost, but puts a pressure on individuals to suppress their situational understanding until their contribution is called for.

While most people are capable of both functions to some degree, the Chinese seem to have evolved a culture favoring the latter solution, and the Europeans have taken a liking to the first one. Such cultural capacities are passed on to us through language acquisition. Language consists not only of words and grammar, but also of pragmatic rules concerning when to speak, to whom and how, and this differs greatly between languages.

European languages open for frequent verbal contradiction and strife. The verbal European traditions of knowledge and science assume that logic and contradiction is good, enhancing our knowledge, but this inflicts process costs in the form of conflicts.  Already Homer’s “Iliad” gives examples of how European organized themselves in their weak coalitions threatened by discussions (still evoking a familiar image of the EU).

The Chinese philosopher Lao Zi doubted whether language is a credible source of knowledge at all. The Chinese observed that language is fragile, words are imprecise and may have many meanings, and some truths are difficult to express in language. The mutual harmony of the speakers comes before what is spoken. The ancient Chinese scholar Confucius said: What is a father without a son, or a son without a father? A group only can fulfill its purpose if everyone keeps to their role, and language is secondary to this.

Harmony or contradiction?

In the Confucian tradition, what can be said must always be adapted to the situation. The relationship between the speakers comes first, implying that one must not say things that would not be appropriate to one’s role. A son should support his father, and a worker should support his boss. “Truth” implies the correct thing to say in relationship to the others in the situation.

Being a high-context language, Chinese always offers possibilities of being vague, not offending anyone, but at the expense of sometimes being imprecise. While there are a vast number of words for specific family relationships, it is debatable whether Chinese actually contains unequivocal words for “yes” and “no” as in English. Certainly there is no good word in Chinese for “contradiction”. Words such as 顶嘴 or 矛盾 are either not good or indicate confusion.

In European philosophy, however, contradictions were seen as signs of a good debate, a way of gradually uncovering truth. And “truth” is seen as something “out there”, in the world surrounding the speakers. This makes it easier for a boss and a subordinate to have diverging viewpoints.  Such rules for language pragmatics open for types of dialogues between Western members of families or organizations that would seem rude by Chinese standards.

The different developments of language habits affect the way decisions are made and authority is exercised in the two parts of the world. The Chinese focus on relationships and roles create a type of authority called “relationship-based governance”. Decisions are made by the head of the family, the clan, the organization or the party. Europeans are more prone to believe in abstract rules independent of speakers, thus inclined to believe more in “rule-based” governance of society.

Practical consequences

The results of these historical developments are very real today as organizations strive to create business across the cultural divides. Let us look at a few common topics that affect global companies:

  • Contracts: Writing and enforcing clear contracts is central to Western businesses. In China, contracts, rules and regulations are not necessarily seen as fixed and are often re-negotiated. Westerners perceive rules as fixed, so that once agreed or issued, laws, contracts, rules and regulations will be enforced. I personally remember an instance filling out paper during an unusually bureaucratic process in China. Asked if I planned to pay taxes, I diligently answered “yes”, upon which my Chinese accounting consultant tore me aside, whispering: “This is China, remember, you don’t HAVE do ANYTHING!” Exaggerated as it may be, it is still a reminder of a mentality where rules are more a guideline than something cast in iron.
  • Loyalty: The question of contracts and spoken agreements also apply to the participants inside an organization. Westerners assume that once the working contract is fixed, they can go on working and need not invest a lot in superior/subordinate relationships. Not so in China - Chinese employees may do a lot to stay in favor with their bosses, and also vice versa. A famous saying in Chinese goes “上有政策,下有对策”, meaning that a boss who has a policy will find that his subordinates have counter-policies. The right to issue orders does by no means a guarantee results. A Chinese boss (or a Westerner trying to succeed in China) will benefit from looking after the well-being of his in-group. Western managers sometimes feel intrusive when adopting this Chinese “paternalistic” style towards employees.
  • Execution speed: When it works, the paternalistic leadership style results in a marvelously expedient execution, surprising to westerners. The whole modern development of China is an example. Shanghai built a subway system in just 15 years exceeds that of London during 150 years. Giant projects of all kinds abound in China and could be called the core competence of Chinese leadership communication style. A cost in European leadership communication is the need for time-consuming deliberations that can bog down execution at any point in the process.
  • Empowerment: Learning not only how, but when and to whom to speak, Chinese speakers traditionally learn to keep quiet until clearly requested to communicate.  The average Chinese personality counts as introvert on a global scale. Classrooms with Chinese management students are far less talkative than western classes, even when they have learnt English. Consequently, Chinese are sometimes less proactive and stick more to their restricted roles in organizations, compared to westerners. Westerners may have a more extrovert or “agentic” approach to work, more actively soliciting information as they move around.
  • Headcount: Chinese companies are still much more labor-demanding than western ones and may remain so for a while. This is not due to cheap labor, as this cost is rising in China as well. Several factors may explain why Chinese companies easily put on some weight: The historical labor division and access to masters of many crafts has made Chinese favor specialists in many trades. This is clearly visible to any Westerner visiting a good Chinese restaurant. Paternalistic leadership and sometimes lack of empowerment may build spare capacity because some hands go idle while others work. Relationship-oriented communication is also labor intensive. Managers employ assistants of all kinds since they are otherwise unable to keep in contact with important people around them. If you want to have time to meet and go eating with important connections, you need someone to take care of the practical details.  Western companies minding their headcount generally assign fewer people to the same tasks. Their expat managers in China may quickly find themselves bogged down by assistants of their business partners if they are left to work as they do at home. Chinese managers going to Europe (particularly Scandinavia) may wonder why their employees do not have drivers, assistants, nannies and others that help them when they travel or come out for dinners.
  • Creativity and innovation: This question keeps coming back when people discuss different leadership communication styles. Westerners believe that creativity and innovation comes from clash of ideas and an open exchange of information.  There is management research that indicates how heterogeneity of management teams may be beneficial to long-term market adaptation in companies. Both Chinese and Westerners have expressed concern about the impact of Chinese leadership communication styles on creativity, but we know now that there is more than one way to reach this goal. Chinese leaders may not use open meetings in the same way as Westerners do, but they definitely value collecting information and ideas. Instead of using meetings for these purposes, Chinese managers are more likely to let this happen in personal, one-on-one conversations. Ancient Chinese leadership philosophy also contains advice on combining diverse ideas: “the former Kings took their consorts from other clans, required as tributes those products which distinguished each region, and selected ministers and counselors who would express a variety of opinions on issues, and made every effort to bring things into harmony… There is no music in a single note, no relish in a single taste” (Discourses of the State or 国语). The ways to do this may not be similar, but the results are certainly desirable in East as in West.

The tough task

Leadership is an art and a tough skill to learn everywhere, which means that inefficient or downright destructive leadership is expected to be found everywhere in the world. Common to all successful leaders is that they can play the cultural benefits of their local customs like delicate instruments, releasing the full potential of the culture they have at their hands.

The tough task is for expatriate and global managers to put the advice above into practice: Learn to create harmony from the differences you find, and not want the differences to go away. It starts with taking notice and learning to appreciate the wisdom that created different languages and cultures in the first place.


This article is published in HELM Magazine Issue #02/2013. HELM Magazine is a customer magazine published by Wilhelmsen Ships Service.


Published 2. September 2014

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