By INSEAD professor Erin Meyer, from Public Affairs.
Do you prefer an egalitarian or a hierarchical management approach? No matter what your nationality, the answer is probably the same. My research shows that most people throughout the world claim to prefer an egalitarian style, and a large majority of managers say that they use an egalitarian approach themselves.
But evidence from the cross-cultural trenches shows another story. When people begin managing internationally, their day-to-day work reveals quite different preferences—and these unexpected, unconscious differences can make leading across cultures surprisingly difficult, as a Mexican manager named Carlos Gomez discovered when his work for the Heineken brewing company brought him a continent away, to Amsterdam.
Teaching a group of Heineken managers feels at first a little like entering a sports bar. The classroom walls are covered with advertisements for various beer brands and there are life-size cardboard cutouts of cocktail waitresses serving up a cold one as you enter the room. Given the overall spirit of relaxed friendliness, I was half expecting the participants to lurch into a round of the Dutch drinking song “In de Hemel is Geen Bier” (In Heaven There Is No Beer) as I started my session.
Heineken, of course, is a Dutch brewing company with a market presence in seventy countries. If you like beer, it’s likely you know one of the international Heineken brands, not only the eponymous Heineken but also Amstel, Moretti, or Kingfisher. When you visit Heineken’s headquarters in Amsterdam, in addition to finding a beer-tasting museum around the corner, you will find a lot of tall blond Dutch people and also a lot of . . . Mexicans. In 2010, Heineken purchased a big operation in Monterrey, Mexico, and now a large number of Heineken employees come from northeastern Mexico.
One is Carlos Gomez, and as our session began, he described to the class his experiences since moving to Amsterdam a year earlier. “It is absolutely incredible to manage Dutch people and nothing like my experience leading Mexican teams,” Gomez said, “because the Dutch do not care at all who is the boss in the room.”
At this, Gomez’s Dutch colleagues began breaking into knowing laughter. But Gomez protested:
Don’t laugh! It’s not funny. I struggle with this every day. I will schedule a meeting in order to roll out a new process, and during the meeting my team starts challenging the process, taking the meeting in various unexpected directions, ignoring my process altogether, and paying no attention to the fact that they work for me. Sometimes I just watch them astounded. Where is the respect?
You guys know me. You know I am not a tyrant or a dictator, and I believe as deeply in the importance of leveraging creativity from every member of the team as any Dutch person in this room. But in the culture where I was born and raised and have spent my entire life, we give more respect to someone who is senior to us. We show a little more deference to the person in charge.
Yes, you can say we are more hierarchical. And I don’t know how to lead a team if my team does not treat me as their boss, but simply one of them. It is confusing for me, because the way they treat me makes me want to assert my authority more vigorously than I would ever want or need to do in Mexico. But I know that is exactly the wrong approach.
I know this treating everyone as pure equals is the Dutch way, so I keep quiet and try to be patient. But often I just feel like getting down on my knees and pleading with them, “Dear colleagues, in case you have forgotten—I … am … the boss.”