How to manage cultures

Would you be surprised to hear that up to 40% of all expatriate managers fail to succeed abroad due to the lack of language abilities, the effects of culture shock and familiar work practices? All of these make it very challenging to adjust to the new work environment. Therefore comprehensive training is essential for all employees prior to their going abroad.


A sizeable element of the cultural dynamic is the knowledge of

  • the way you manage people
  • negotiate and
  • make decisions.

I am going to use a British-Japanese comparison to illustrate cultural difference in the above areas.


What about Great Britain?

British management style can be characterised by strong leadership within a predominantly hierarchical structure. Good leadership is valued when it displays a pragmatic yet rational approach to decision-making, strong negotiating skills and a firm yet fair control over junior employees. Maintaining good relations with both peers and senior staff is also valued where the use of humour, especially irony, is a peculiarly British trait.


Other elements of British management that are often commented on include punctuality, patience with lengthy meetings and the long working hours.

In recent years there has been a tendency to adapt American management customs to British business; in particular, greater openness to become familiar with the work of junior employees. The idea of mentoring less experienced employees has become more common as has the concept of ‘Continuing Professional Development’ to enhance the skills of managers. Nevertheless, managers are still predominantly assessed on their ability to rise above the detail of tasks in favour of grasping the broader strategic picture.  


British-Japanese Comparisons

Many Japanese corporations have explicit statements of the organisational values they espouse. Unlike the ‘Mission Statements’ found in some British businesses, which are solely business-related, the Japanese equivalent says much more about its cultural values of honesty, service to the public, humility etc.  

This can result in a paternalistic style of leadership in Japanese business, a style designed to enhance the organic harmony of the organisation. Corresponding to this are the pressures on more junior employees to keep the top executives abreast of developments; in this practice originating in the Toyota company, this is realised as hands-on management by senior employees (genchi genbutsu), something generally avoided by British managers.


As in the British long working hours’ culture,  the Japanese value of gambari leads to employees proving their worth by their determination and stamina. Paradoxically this has resulted in a focus on the number of hours spent at work as opposed to the actual work output.


In the past, this has resulted in Japanese employees not taking even their minimum holiday allowance, because of the heavy workload as much as not wishing to inconvenience their colleagues. The phenomenon has become  such a problem that a law has now been passed to make it illegal to take fewer than five days’ leave a year.  By comparison, the British take an average of 20 days per year while the French take 25 days.


It is recommended that British managers who will be managing employees abroad are given the opportunity both to observe alternative management styles and to attain familiarity with cultural expectations at variance with their own. This will give them a much needed new perspective that will contribute to the success of your company outside of Great Britain.

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