Can people from different cultures actually make decisions together?

Sep 27, 2023 | 0 comments

It had been a long, people-heavy week. The final ministry activity of the week was an “open-mic night” at the cafe in our youth community center and it was a packed house. Music played while the crowd consumed coffee, cakes, and snacks. Our staff was slammed. And I noticed the dishes piling up. The idea of taking a “people break” and just doing the dishes in the back of house appealed to me, so I grabbed the tub of dirty plates and cups, went to the kitchen and started scrubbing.  

This felt like a win-win to me. I could spend a few minutes doing a task that others probably didn’t want to do anyway, while also getting some down time for my over-stimulated brain. Servant leadership and all that. 

My moment of quiet with soapsuds in the kitchen didn’t last long. 

One of our staff members came into the kitchen, saw me washing dishes, and audibly gasped. She was appalled. The manager of the community center should not be washing dishes. She flat out told me I could not do this, forcibly shooing me out of the kitchen. 

So much for my quiet moment of servant leadership. 

One of the first things we learn when leading across cultures is the concept of “power distance.” It is perhaps one of the most important issues to have clarity on when working cross-culturally. Like so many other aspects of culture, it’s easiest to think about these issues on a spectrum.  

Direct and Dictate Leaders

Some cultures have hierarchal leadership structures where the top leaders direct and dictate, and the rest fall in line. We often refer to this as “high power distance”. The community center I mentioned above is in a Central Asian country where direct and dictate leadership is culturally normative. Certainly further to that side of the leadership spectrum than me. Many Asian and Eastern European cultures tend toward a hierarchical, direct and dictate sort of leadership. Many Central and South American cultures lean this way, as well. 

Discuss and Delegate Leaders

On the other side of this spectrum is egalitarian leadership. In these cultures, leadership is a role to be filled, rather than an authoritative position. Leadership is less about authority and more about collaboration. In these “low power distance” cultures, good leaders discuss and delegate. Most of the Scandinavian countries practice discuss and delegate leadership, along with places like Canada and the Netherlands. 

The idea of power distance is a common conversation for many cross-cultural workers. 

But there is a twist. 

People also have a culturally influenced inclination for how they decide. 

Some cultures leave the decision making to the individual (the leader, or someone designated by the leader). Others decide as a group, or by consensus. You would think decision-making would simply match up with the leadership: 

Direct and dictate leadership leave decisions to an individual leader
Discuss and delegate leaders decide by consensus.  

Like so much in cross-cultural work, this is not always the case.

Erin Meyer discusses the Japanese system of Ringi in her book The Culture Map. Japan is a culturally hierarchal society. Yet, many business decisions are made from the bottom up, instead of top down. Ringi is a process where mid-level managers arrive at a consensus on an issue, before presenting to upper management. By the time a decision gets to the top, the group has unified. 

While Americans practice discuss and delegate leadership, decision-making typically falls on a single leader. 

How does your team decide? 

Understanding leadership and decision-making dynamic on your multi-cultural team is crucial. The expectations of a team member from Japan will differ from those of your Dutch colleague. The first step is awareness of the differences. 

If you are on a team with multiple leadership styles, here are three strategies that might help overcome potential conflict and develop your unique team culture. 

1. Recognize – Decide How to Decide

If you find yourself on a cross-cultural team, a team conversation should be “How does our team make decisions?”

Have each person answer the question: 

What is your preference: deciding together as a group, or empowering an individual to decide for the group?

There is no right or wrong here. If you are on a team with a wide range of power distances, there will be diverse answers to this question. Let everyone talk and listen well. Then talk about the process for group decision making for this group. Again, there is no right or wrong — the key is for everyone to have the same expectations. Decisions may take a little longer than usual for some. Others may not have the opportunity to give the amount of input they’re used to. But this conversation with your team will provide clarity for the future. 

2. Respect – Power Deference

Look for ways to show respect and deference, while also recognizing the differences in your team members. 

My team at the community center in Central Asia was brainstorming about a project. I realized, part way into the conversation, my ideas were the only ones anyone was latching onto. (This was a culture of direct and dictate, high power distance leadership.) I genuinely needed ideas from my team. Instead of pushing for input to the point of discomfort, I suggested they meet without me. (I may have made some excuse about having to run an errand so they could meet right then!) With “the boss” out of the picture, they had a beautiful and brilliant brainstorm. It was much easier for them to creatively ideate if I came to the table later. 

Understand the power distance of every team member. It’s then much easier to show respect and deference, while still getting the job done. 

3. Resolve – Know Your Destination and Enjoy the Journey

If the entire team has clarity and agreement on where they’re heading — the path by which you arrive doesn’t matter so much. My wife is a “get there as quickly as possible” kind of girl. I prefer to stop for coffee and avoid interstates. In the end, we both want to arrive safely to our destination. That’s most important. 

In my consulting and coaching work, I help my clients use a tool called “The Mission Map”. This is a way for your team to get clear on where you are, and where you need to be. We begin with an assessment of your current location, determine your long-term vision or hope—the destination!—, then work on three-year and one-year milestones. This tool is a GPS and a map so teams can know where they’re going and how to get there! If you know the destination, it’s much easier to enjoy the journey — no matter how your team decides on the path for getting there. 

I’d love to give you, my Global Trellis friends, a free copy of the Growability® Mission Map tool mentioned above. If you want a printable version delivered to your inbox, just go here and follow the prompts

Is it worth the time to get clarity on how power distance shows up on your particular team? With a resounding yes, I lift my coffee cup and smile at you over the din of the open-mic night.

It will take time, but going slow to go far together is worth it my friend. When it comes to how power distance shows up, build a team culture that’s unique to your team by

—Listening for understanding.

—Recognizing the differences on your team.

—Finding ways to respect and show deference. 

—Agreeing on the destination together – and stay flexible along the way! 

Photo by One zone Studio on Unsplash

Bernie Anderson

Empowering next-generation leaders, business and non-profit consultant, writer, and speaker.




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