Understanding Asian Business Culture – Chapter 3

Intercultural Relationships

Now that we have covered the four dimensions on Cross-Cultural Communication in chapter two, we will round up the article series looking at the eight dimensions of Erin Meyer’s Cultural Map (2014). Our third and last chapter on Asian business culture covers insights around intercultural relationships – leading, deciding, scheduling and trusting.

Source: based on Meyer E. (2014), The Cultural Map, Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, p. 17

5. Leading

This scale describes the degree of respect and deference shown to authority figures. This is one of the areas where Germans and Singaporeans are closest in their preference for hierarchical structures.

Egalitarian

  • Distance between boss and subordinate is low.
  • Flat organizational structures, where communication often skips the hierarchical chain.

Hierarchical

  • Distance between boss and subordinate is high, thus communication follows the hierarchical chain.
  • Status and titles are important.

Till today, Asian cultures tend to have a paternalistic view of leadership, most probably due to their Confucian heritage. This heritage of ‘reciprocal obligations’ makes an appreciation of this cultural difference all the more important. For example, Asian teams in a hierarchical context will follow a leader’s instructions to the letter, but they will also expect the leader to care, teach and protect his/her team. The situation of protecting the team might arise when, for example, the CEO is giving feedback to a team project. If the feedback is unreasonably negative, the leader would jump in to defend his/her team.

6. Deciding

We often assume that the most egalitarian cultures will also be the most democratic, while the most hierarchical ones will allow the boss to make unilateral decisions. This isn’t always the case.

Interestingly, Germans and Vietnamese are aligned on their way of decision-making, though the rest of Southeast Asia are on the more top-down end of the spectrum.

  • Germans make consensual decisions in groups through unanimous agreement.
  • Asians make top-down decisions which ultimately means the boss decides.

While Asians have a top-down culture, it is important to note that although decisions tend to be made quickly (by the boss), each decision is also flexible. This means plans could be constantly revised once new information becomes available, which may be frustrating for Germans who prefer a consensual decision that – once made – is adhered to.

7. Scheduling

One of the most common observations for anyone who has ever worked abroad is how different cultures treat time. This is related to how strictly cultures adhere to a schedule and set meeting times, which are – needless to say – a huge part of any startup’s everyday life.

Both Germans and Singaporeans prefer to adhere to linear time frames:

  • Punctuality and adherence to time are appreciated.
  • Projects are approached sequentially, focusing on deadlines and sticking to the schedule.

Other Southeast Asian cultures would rather work with flexible time frames:

  • Time is often a suggestion and less strictly followed.
  • Projects are approached in a fluid manner, focusing on adaptability and flexibility.

In most Southeast Asian cities, flexible time could be the result of the city’s poor transportation and road infrastructure. As such, it is less unacceptable to show up late for an event or meeting in Asia than it is in Germany, where trains are reliable and traffic is manageable.

Flexible time can also be a strength in Asia, where adaptability to an ever-changing situation is valued over impeccable organization. For example, being able to work on last-minute changes to your pitch deck up until a few minutes before the pitch is definitely a plus point in the Asian context, if you can accept it. In global teams, it is useful for leaders to leverage each team member’s scheduling inclinations to their strengths

Attitude Towards Punctuality

Source: based on Armbrecht, A. (2015), German vs Chinese: what are the cultural differences?

Trust is complicated; we all know that, but it gets even more complicated when we try to navigate trust in a business context. Cultures tend to establish trust either through cognitive or affective means. This means we either choose to trust others based on what our head or our heart tells us.

Germany breeds a culture of task-based trust:

  • Trust is built cognitively through working together, good collaboration, reliability and respect.

Asians rely on relationship-based trust, even in business:

  • Trust is based on strong affective connection, achieved through socializing or sharing of personal issues, for example.

In Germany, if you collaborate well on a team or a project and demonstrate you are reliable and worthy of respect, over time, others will grow to trust you. This is cognitive trust.

In Asia, trust tends to start from social situations, often in the form of post-work drinks, lengthy meals, and the occasional karaoke session. While getting to know you at a personal level, if someone can hang out and laugh with you, and feel a mutual admiration, they will then grow to trust you and feel it from the heart rather than the head. This is affective trust. And while social situations can sometimes get carried away, make sure never to do anything you’re not comfortable with and can still face your boss in the morning!

“If you want to start a business anywhere in Asia, whether that is Singapore or anywhere in SEA – you really have to understand the culture. There is no one market – you have to tackle those markets individually.” – Toby Ruckert (CEO, Unified Inbox)

This sums up our take on Erin Meyer’s eight dimensions of behavior gaps between Germany and Southeast Asia. Check out the executive summary or follow-up on Chapter 2 around cross-cultural communication.

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