When you’re working overseas as an expat, or in your native country under a foreign-born manager, it’s tempting to blame friction between you and your boss on cultural differences.
Management theory has supported this perception. A statistic often cited in business school textbooks claims that 50% of the differences in employees’ characteristics can be explained by cultural differences. That idea, which originated with Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, author of the classic text, Culture’s Consequences, has hung on since the 1980s.
Intuitively, the idea can feel true. As humans, we’re wired to be susceptible to theories that reinforce our separate social identities and beliefs about in-group versus out-group traits and behaviors. We’re also fascinated by cultural differences, the way executives in one country bow to each other, for instance, while others smile and shake hands.
However, a University of Missouri business professor, Arthur Jago, has demonstrated that we make way too much of culture as a force behind an employee’s— and by extension, a leader’s— behavior. In his recent paper, published in European Management Journal, Jago revisits data gathered from 14 countries in the 1980s and 1990s, and measures the levels of “participative management” — a democratic management style in which leaders invites regular input from their subordinates —between nations.
Jago studied 1,400 questionnaires previously completed by managers and weighted them for things like how important it was that a manager had buy-in from employees, or the likelihood that an autocratic decision would be made. His calculations showed that culture accounted for 1.4% of variance in the levels of participative management between countries, not 50%.
The data Jago used were derived mostly from European countries, but included the U.S., Singapore, Japan, and South Korea. For each business leader in the study, he calculated a “Mean Level of Participation Score” (MLP). The higher the MLP score, the more likely an employer will listen to employees.
Culture does play a role in management styles in a few meaningful ways. For instance, in some cultures, companies are more likely to be “conflict approaching,” they prefer to air out complaints in the open, whereas others avoid potential tension and clashes. Jago says that American managers hate conflict.
What’s more, Jago did find three general clusters of countries: The Czech Republic, Singapore, Japan, and Poland were found to be relatively autocratic, while Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Austria, South Korea, and India were relatively participative. The rest of the countries —the U.S., France, Finland, Turkey—fell somewhere in the middle.
Still, the ways in which managers were similar from country to country greatly outweighed the ways in which they differed. For the purposes of this research, a “country” represented a culture. Although the data that Jago studied is 20 to 30 years old, he suspects that little has changed.
One other myth feeding our false sense that culture informs an employer’s way of behaving is called the “leadership paradox” in management speak. It is the misconception that CEOs make decisions that are driven by their personalities and their individual style which, again, would be somewhat shaped by culture. In reality, it’s more often external circumstances that influence the way a leader operates—and whether your lowly opinion matters or not.