Cultural Differences In Decision-Making: Cultural Leadership

An Expert's View about Cross-Cultural Communications in Singapore

Last updated: 12 Nov 2012

One of the greatest challenges managers have working with colleagues across cultures is understanding the decision-making process in countries where they operate.  To get a better understanding of the thinking that goes behind a decision you need to be aware of the cultural context in which your colleagues are operating.

I recently delivered a cross cultural coaching session for senior leaders involved in major real estate and construction projects across Asia. This French multinational based out of Hong Kong had leaders from France, Germany, India, China and Singapore attend the session.

When asked about workplace challenges the German had some clear concerns, “In Asia, the culture is very client focused which is good for the customer and results in building strong relationships and loyalty but it is also a drawback. Very often this strong customer focus strays away from our standard operating procedures. Our team members sometimes provide deliverables to clients that are specifically designed to please the customer and end up causing inefficiencies operationally.”

Lee from China spoke up and asked him, ‘Well, since we know this is part of our culture then why not factor it into the operating procedures?”

Yves the French leader joined in and said, “Yes, it will be easier to address concerns and understand the needs of our colleagues if we know the culture of our clients. Consequently, it will also be a struggle if we don’t. Applying our company’s operating procedures globally on this matter might not be beneficial for us especially since culture is part of the equation.”

Raj from India responded, “If we understand our client’s and colleague’s culture, I think it will help us have better communication with them. Decision-making in one country may be different in another country. It will create problems if I decide something which is fine according to my culture but it may mean it’s not allowed in another culture. It may break a good relationship if it irritates the person’s feeling.”

Linda from Singapore then added, “We need to work with people with different cultures but this shouldn’t be a hindrance in working successfully with them. Will having some cultural intelligence on our key countries really help us understand how our colleagues and clients make decisions?”

I responded to Linda and the group saying “Yes, understanding culture gives us a good idea why our clients and colleagues behave in certain ways and can help facilitate a better decision-making process. One benefit of working in such a diverse organization is that you have various inputs from different cultural backgrounds which will help come up with the best decision in the end. The challenge is how to align your corporate interests and cultures in order to make the best decision in this case.

Daniel Kahneman who won his Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences has written the best selling business book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.  Kahneman introduces two mental systems, one that is fast and the other slow. “Together they shape our impressions of the world around us and help us make decisions. System 1 is largely unconscious and it makes snap judgments based upon our memory of similar events and our emotions. System 2 is painfully slow, and is the process by which we consciously check the facts and think carefully and rationally. Problem is, System 2 is easily distracted and hard to engage, and System 1 is wrong as often as it is right. System 1 is easily swayed by our emotions.”

“Listening to our conversation I can see we are engaged in both System 1 and System 2 thinking. We are all a different mix of intentional as well as instinctual thinking.” Raj said.

I agreed with Raj. “In this book the author discusses how “it is hard to take a step back from yourself and try to take an outsiders view of your actions versus just focusing on the natural insider view that comes more naturally. This is often the case also when managing across cultures.”

“Brian, how can we come up with a different and better way to look at our situation?” Yves asked.

“What do you think you should do?” I ask.

“I think we will all need to adjust to the decision-making style of our colleagues in Asia to achieve best results.” Yves said.

“That’s a good place to start. Would you mind if I share some tips?” I said.

“Yes, I’d like to hear them.” said Yves.

“How we think through the challenges we are faced and make decisions in the workplace is greatly influenced by our culture.  Our Western colleagues are more inclined to have a very linear logical approach to decision making. They prefer to go about their work in a systematic fashion following defined guidelines to reach a specific target. Even Linda, Lee and Raj who have been strongly influenced by your company’s western corporate culture may find it a challenge at times to adapt.

Typically, our Asian colleagues tend to process information in a more circular and instinctive way.  It is important for them to take into account a multi-faceted array of factors in order to make decisions.  Decision-making is more of a social process in Asia, which can extend over a longer period of time. Let the decision-making process unfold naturally, and be open to a broad array of perspectives and issues.”

“But Brian, this is the problem. We don’t have the time to go through this lengthy decision-making process with our teams on this issue across Asia!,” said Hans the German leader.

“In fact Hans, it will cost you more time in the end if you don’t let this process unfold because your teams will not have ‘buy-in’ to your procedures. I can see that this could be a cause of frustration for those of you that prefer a more direct, linear approach. But in many Asian countries, if you don’t allow the discussion to move in a number of different directions to let each person give their own perspective while working toward a harmonious consensus you will only slow down the process even further.”

“What do you think you should do?” I asked the group.

“Why don’t we delegate this issue to our country managers? They are the local experts and will provide feedback to us.” said Lee

“That’s a good idea Lee. And be sure to forge strong relationships with your country managers who know the local market best, understand your corporate goals and can best influence the employees in each country. They are the ones that will make it happen for you.”


About Brian McDermott, GTP Senior Consultant

With over 20 years of international business experience, Brian has delivered a variety of global leadership, intercultural and teamwork programs for both senior and first line manager levels. During his career he has worked with Fortune 1000 companies in North America, Europe, South America, and Asia: Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

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Posted: 05 April 2012, last updated 12 November 2012

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