Decision-making across cultures

If you’re thinking about entering the workforce of your host country, in any capacity, you will benefit greatly from understanding how local companies typically make decisions.

Egalitarian yet top-down

Let’s start by imagining a Japanese person going to the US where they find a job in an office that comes across as very egalitarian. Everyone uses the boss’ first name. The interior is open plan. The self-confident staff fire out innovative suggestions at quickly arranged meetings. But no one is phased when the boss makes a key decision contrary to what the staff have suggested. Instead, they quickly align to work on the project.

Together as one

The Japanese employee could well be confused. They may also seem too shy in the eyes of their new colleagues. To illustrate why, let’s picture an American coming in the opposite direction. He or she might be intimidated by the hierarchical appearance of the Japanese corporate world. But they would eventually see decisions are only made after the team (boss included) reaches a consensus. In fact, with nemawashi – the practice of speaking with each individual stakeholder, in order to shape consensus – decisions may have already been made before a meeting is held.

Flexible commitments

A newcomer to other top-down decision-making cultures, such as India, Italy, Mexico, Morocco, and Russia, might observe that decisions are made quickly. But wait… “When people in these cultures say they’ve reached a decision, the decision is not a firm commitment but a placeholder that can later be adjusted,” writes Erin Meyer in the Harvard Business Review.

Everyone’s on board

By contrast, in countries such as Germany, Japan, and Sweden, decision-making takes a long time as group agreement is imperative. But from there, implementation moves quickly as everyone is aligned and changes would be unlikely. Meyer also recalls a stint in Denmark, where her Danish colleagues spent a lot of time on group emails when seeking input, a habit she, as an American, found unnecessarily time-consuming.

Look before you leap

Remember even high-fliers can have crash landings when not familiar with the culture of their host country. To avoid misunderstandings, find a mentor, and try to get a clear sense of the decision-making culture before accepting a job offer. As the outsider, the onus is entirely on you to adapt, so do your due diligence and make sure you know what you’re signing up for.

Stay up to date

Sign up for our newsletter and always stay up-to-date on the latest articles.

Sign up for the newsletter