“Empowerment” can have the opposite effect on workers from Asian cultures

The word “empowerment” is a popular business buzzword today. Empowering customers, empowering clients, empowering employees — it’s always a good thing, right? Well, when it comes to nuances among cultures, especially Asian cultures, the answer is a bit more complicated.

As a business coach and educator with clients around the globe, I often see these differences firsthand. Take the example of one of my clients, a Shanghai-based IT manager, Xu Wei.

Recently, Wei was promoted to a global role, and began reporting to an American manager in Houston. After two months in the new position, he asked to talk to me. He looked puzzled and uneasy.

“Maya, I have a big problem,” he said. “It has been very difficult to work for my new American boss. He would tell me the business result he wants, and then leave it up to me to get it done. How can I make decisions without his approval?”

Wei elaborated, describing his new boss’ efforts to collaborate with Wei.

“Sometimes he wants to ‘brainstorm’ ideas with me. I don’t know what to say,” Wei said. “I don’t know what to do! He is the boss. I wish he could just give me instructions, step by step. I will do exactly what he says.”

Why does Wei feel like this? To an American, he’s describing an ideal employee-boss relationship, one of trust, independence, and increased responsibility.

In the US, employees are empowered with the freedom to make their own decisions. Employees consider it a “right” to be able to decide for themselves how to achieve tasks without being micromanaged. Micromanaging, or dealing with a hierarchy, can demotivate employees. Sometimes it can even lead a company to lose good workers.

But how do Asian employees, like Wei, feel about being independent and empowered?

It depends on the country of origin. In Japan, the individual has very limited control over tasks. Decisions are often made by group consensus.

China, on the other hand, is different. Chinese employees will not make decisions without their boss’ approval, so they can minimize risk. They “follow the leader,” not speaking up when the boss is present, and usually deferring questions to the boss.

Chinese employees execute decisions that are made by the boss. They are expected to “guess” the boss’ wants and likes. Their job is to prove the boss is right.

So, how can American managers effectively manage Asian employees? Here are some tips to help navigate these cultural differences.

Communicate clear objectives.

Ask open-ended questions to ensure the desired outcome and expectations are clearly understood.

Follow up regularly to provide support and feedback.

Asian employees may not feel comfortable asking for help or support directly. Have regular check-ins to build rapport and trust.

Seek input from employees in one-on-one meetings.

Create a safe space for employees to think and act independently. In Asia, a good boss should be both authoritative and parental/caring.

Encourage employees to speak up and share their ideas.

When they do, give positive feedback, which can encourage others to follow. Avoid criticizing their ideas in public.

Provide final decisions and specific directions.

And remember to give credit to employees for their contributions.

Don’t assume all Asians are the same, because they are not.

Generational differences can also play a role. For example, millennials are more easily adaptable to the idea of empowerment. It is not one size fits all!

Remember, hierarchy is a highly valued and respected element of Asian culture. If you are a leader, everything you say — even just a casual comment — will be taken seriously and even treated like an order.

Being knowledgeable of your employees’ unique communication styles and cultural differences can help you be the most effective leader possible.

And that is empowering.