Cultural Agility | Eastern versus Western attitudes on hierarchy

Cultural Agility | Eastern versus Western attitudes on hierarchy

Questions getting asked is a different experience depending on where you are, in the world. This is a post excerpt from the site GoAbroad.com on the way things are perceived in Eastern and Western geographies. Generalizing, of course, but I thought it was curious. The author Dickon Stone writes about this topic. The full article, which was apparently updated 2019, at this link, is at: https://www.goabroad.com/articles/intern-abroad/east-vs-west-corporate-cultural-differences-for-interns-abroad

Here is part of it:

‘In the West… Asking questions is regarded as standard practice, in fact it’s expected that lower-ranking employees show their initiative by seeking to expand their understanding of key topics by asking about them. Employees are encouraged to ask questions, even if these may be challenging to the ideas and actions of their superiors. It’s not that, as an employee, you are necessarily challenging ideas, but rather simply trying to get your head around them and understand motives and processes better. Employers value this sort of thing, as it shows that the individual asking the questions is eager to learn more in order to become a bigger asset to the company. Leaders in the West, after all, are just another member of the team… Hierarchies tend to be relatively flat. You should feel comfortable talking to your manager, and even the CEO of a company, without issue. Chances are you can even call them by their first name. People in higher positions will generally try to help their subordinates feel that there is a sense of equality amongst the team (on the surface, at least). Each person’s opinion is valid, and all ideas are welcome. Final decisions are based on the team’s input, and nobody agrees with anything simply for the sake of it – there is a shared belief that that’s not how problems get solved. Potential issues should be flagged as early as possible and reconsidered, regardless of the status of the person raising the point. Furthermore, criticism of employees in front of each other is commonplace. You’re just hashing out ideas, so it’s probably fine to shut down un-constructive input. 

In the East… Things work differently. Employees would likely feel intimidated by the idea of asking questions. There is a fear that superiors might see questions as threatening, since they would have to clarify their position on a given subject. Far more emphasis is given to the importance of politeness and not openly discussing opinions, disagreements, or pointing out flaws. Leadership in the East is just that, and should not be questioned. We will discuss this further in the final section, below. Asian workplace culture varies significantly from country to country… The hierarchical system has many more levels, and each level really means something. Those at the top have the final word, and the system of order and governance is considered to be extremely important. Seniority genuinely matters. For example, interns in Singapore often note that Chinese values of guanxi (relationships) and hierarchies are common—people seldom violate chains of command or openly question decisions by their superiors.