Challenge Assumptions (Communication II)

Marcus Guest
3 min readSep 12, 2023

No matter how often the business media likes to portray some leaders as all-seeing, all-knowing strategic geniuses modern business is too complex for any single leader to be on top of everything. To truly lead their organisations modern leaders must free themselves from the impossible burden of thinking they have to be on top of everything at all times. Instead they should bring more people into the decision-making process so the organisation benefits from tapping into greater collective intelligence. But this creates another problem that today’s leaders also have to overcome: Challenging ideas, especially of those in authority, comes easier to some than others.

Hofstede’s cultural dimensions is a famous framework showing how a society’s culture influences the behaviour of people in organisations in that country. The first of these dimensions is ‘power distance’, which explores how far people in a given culture accept that not all individuals are equal. This shapes how far members of a given society accept that power is distributed unequally. In the chart attached we see all of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions (although we’re mainly interested in the first one here) in a comparison of four countries: China (as an example of an Asian culture), Russia (as an example of a Eurasian culture), the UK (as a western European example and representative of the “anglo world”) and Spain (as a southern European example and representative of latin cultures).

https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison-tool

The higher the score for ‘power distance’ the more that culture embodies strong subordinate-superior relationships and the more they expect direction to come from the top-down. This means it’s harder for people in Asian and Eurasian cultures to challenge the opinions of those in authority. But, without challenge — the free and open sharing of perspectives by multiple people with diverse skill set sets and unique experiences who seek to arrive at better informed positions — organisational leaders in these societies are forced to rely on their own judgment. But, overwhelmed with the complexity and uncertainty of the modern world many of these leaders turn to outsiders (like expensive management consultants) to seek out the different perspectives they need to discover better options. These businesses therefore remain less than the sum of their parts.

However, the incredible success of many Asian businesses, from Toyota and Samsung to Huawei and Haier (to name but a few) suggests that the ‘power distance’ barrier can be overcome, even in the face of cultural norms. This requires organisations to ‘de-personalise challenge’ — in other words, create conditions in which employees feel comfortable challenging ideas without worrying that they might be challenging other people (especially those in more senior positions). Just as importantly, leaders need to overcome any fear (exacerbated by hagiographic biographies of so called ‘strategic geniuses’ in the business world) that they might appear weak by asking their people for feedback rather than just giving orders. This problem is trickier.

Wise leaders recognise that the complex and uncertain state of our changing world means that competitive advantage comes from collective action, not individual decisions. Successful organisations are more than the sum of their parts — their entire collective intelligence has been brought online and this enables the organisation to develop 360 degree awareness of what’s really happening around it, why and what they can do about it. Ironically, cultures with high ‘power distance’ also score low on ‘individualism’ (see second column on the chart). Organisations in these cultures tend to show more loyalty to the organisation they belong to and that takes care of them. Wise leaders therefore will cultivate this feeling of “we” and unlock the collective intelligence.

This principle — challenge assumptions — is part of the Wardley Mapping method for helping organisations communicate more clearly, develop effective teams, improve operations, accelerate learning, lead more decisively and structure themselves to deliver better results. To learn more get in touch with me at marcus@powermaps.net or visit powermaps.net.

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Marcus Guest

Govern the state by being straightforward; And wage war by being crafty. — Laozi, Tao Te Ching marcus@powermaps.net PowerMaps.net