Understanding Power Dynamics in a Time of Global Convergence

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Essential tips to share with Western-based teams to help them meet Asian expectations and standards when working in a global environment.

Asia and the West have converged. This generates huge opportunities and complications—complications that the HR and training community likely will have to manage.

Most CEOs of large companies realize that future business growth will be outside of their home markets. According to The Economist Intelligence Unit, nearly 80 percent expect to have more people in more countries, meaning more international teams, in the next three years. And the biggest blocker to that growth, they believe, will be cross-cultural misunderstanding.

Preventing these misunderstandings among teams will require new resources and skills.

Cultural and Business Differences

Typically, employees from Western countries are direct, and value clear communication and the independence of the individual. They are action-oriented, avoid hierarchy, and focus on the short term. The culture in Asian countries tends to be more holistic, with professionals preferring inferred communication and prioritizing the larger group. In the Asian workplace, people spend more time on consideration, are comfortable with formal hierarchies and process, and look to the long term.

Areas where these differences manifest include “face,” relationships, time, corruption, risk, and gender. But the area that comes up most is power.

Western businesses have flatter power structures. The relationships are more equal, and people of different power and status levels interact more. Asian businesses have hierarchical power structures. It is clear who the bosses are, and they have a disproportionate amount of power versus those under them.

Asian cultures tend to display their power roles overtly and expect them to be acknowledged. The boss will be formally dressed, often with expensive accessories, displaying his or her success and status. Titles are used (Mr., Dr., Director, Sir), and people expect to be treated with the respect due their position. Senior figures are listened to and are rarely contradicted or interrupted. Behavior around the bosses is usually formal, restrained, and measured.

It is clear who is in charge, so decisions and actions are made quickly. People know their roles and what they are expected to do, with little time wasted on discussion, so things can get done. New ideas often are not heard, and suggestions (particularly by juniors) are not encouraged.

On the flip side, people in cultures with flatter power structures (the West) often will try not to look or act like the boss. “Good” leaders encourage the sharing of ideas. Interaction is less formal. People refer to each other by first names, and the relationships and engagements are less structured.

This invites the sharing of ideas and can lead to the development of better solutions together. But it also slows down decision-making. While it may give the appearance of equality, a single decision still needs to be made ultimately. Someone still needs to make the final call.

Asian protocols may be baffling or appear unnecessary to the Westerner, but, in fact, they all have a vital importance in ensuring that businesses with this power dynamic run smoothly.

The rituals and protocols make it clear where the power sits. They also offer the Westerner cues for how to behave as part of a global team.

Tips to Keep in Mind

Here are some essential tips to share with your Western-based teams, to help them meet Asian expectations and standards when working in a global environment:

1. Identify the power structure.

Before meeting an individual or a group, find out where the power lies. Do your research. Check social media and the company’s Website, ask friendly sources. Identify who wields the real power in the organization. For a training exercise, create a short checklist template.

2. Acknowledge senior team members.

On entering a room, acknowledge the most powerful people first. Act with deference and respect. Do not “play it cool.” No one will be impressed by your show of being unimpressed. The powerful will feel disrespected and the others present will perceive you as tone-deaf to the situation. This can be a role-play exercise in training sessions.

3. Opt for formality.

To make a good first impression, err on the side of formality. Use titles. Shake hands and give a formal greeting. Business cards should be passed and received one at a time with both hands, with a pause to look at the card as a mark of respect. Giving, while simultaneously receiving, a business card can be tricky. This could be practiced during training.

4. Wait for the boss.

Always wait for the boss before starting a meeting. Starting without them present is perceived as grievously rude, and you likely will have to repeat everything. While waiting, engage with those present. It’s an invaluable opportunity to build connections.

5. Dress the part.

Professional dress in Asia tends to be more formal than an equivalent Western business situation. “Casual power” is not a style in Asia. If you have—or wish to appear to have—a position of power and influence, you need to dress accordingly. You can be flamboyant, but not scruffy. Without being critical, groups in training sessions could review each other’s dress, or comment on found images.

6. Avoid joking behavior.

If you want to be taken seriously, you need to behave seriously. Joking around undermines authority and likely will backfire.

7. Be careful what you ask for.

If you are in a position of power in Asia, an offhand comment from you likely will be taken as a direct order. Remarks such as “I wonder what that would look like in blue” or “I sometimes get peckish in the afternoon” may mean someone working late on a blue version of whatever you had been looking at, and sandwiches appearing in your office every afternoon from then on.

8. Never, ever be late or the last to arrive.

The most powerful person arrives last. If you arrive last, you are telling everyone you believe that is you! This lesson could help teams be punctual for training sessions, too!

Steve McGinnes is a writer, speaker, trainer, and business leader who has spent 15 years working with Western companies in Asia. His latest book, “Surfing the Asian Wave: How to survive and thrive in the new global reality,” is available as an ebook and paperback from all major retailers. Contact McGinnes at steve@thehummingbirdperspective.com or through stevemcginnes.com