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Approaches to managing people

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For the United States, Japan and China evaluate how approaches to managing people differ and how these differences can be explained by cultural context.

Date authored: 26 th May, 2014


In this international age of business where firms operate in many different parts of the globe, it is important to note that approaches to management may differ across cultures. In setting up a new office in, for example, China or Japan, potential managers should seek to adapt to the different cultural practices of the host country in order to better manage their workforce and achieve productivity.

In this essay, we shall, firstly, discuss methods of measuring key dimensions of culture, and then using said dimensions, look at the different management styles between three countries; China, Japan and the US, currently the three largest economies in terms of GDP, and seek to determine how each approach is shaped by the unique cultural contexts of each country.

Measuring Key Dimensions of Culture

In order to measure the potential effects of culture on the behaviour of said culture’s firms and managers, Geert Hofstede (2001), while working for IBM in the late 70s and early 80s, identified six key dimensions of culture that could be measured through use of survey data and indexed values, namely;

Time Orientation (Long Term vs Short Term); a measure of the extent to which each society values history, heritage and tradition – whether it prefers to uphold traditional values and is more resistant to new ideas and technology (Long Term Orientation) or whether it is more fluid, less focussed on the past and more open to change (Short Term Orientation);

Power Distance (High vs Low), which measures how well the society in question handles uneven distributions of power; whether it is generally accepted and understood as a fact of life (high power distance) or whether it is held to be deeply unfair, unnatural, and something to be railed against (low power distance);

Individualism vs Collectivism; a measure of the extent to which a sense of community and collective responsibility exists, and whether it is thought to be more important than individualist beliefs and desires. Individualist societies tend to value independence, privacy and personal fulfilment, while collectivist societies tend to value group interdependence and a repression of personal ambition when it is misaligned with communal values;

Uncertainty Avoidance (Weak vs Strong), which measures the extent to which each society is comfortable dealing with risk, uncertainty and ambiguity –societies with high degrees of uncertainty avoidance tend to be highly regulated and value careful planning and structure, while societies with low degrees of uncertainty avoidance tend to be more pragmatic, and accept change and risk as factors of life;

Masculinity vs Femininity; a measure of societal gender differentiation – in ‘masculine’ cultures, gender roles are highly differentiated and society as a whole places higher values on competition, ambition, and personal achievement whereas in ‘feminine’ societies gender roles are less starkly defined and more equal, and society tends to place higher values on relationship building, modesty and group harmony (Hofstede and Minkov, 2010).

The US

American society traditionally has a tendency to value individualism and personal freedoms – indeed, such ideals can be seen in the idea of ‘The American Dream’, which postulates that anyone can achieve great wealth and success through individual hard work and determination. With regard to the Hofstede (2001) dimensions of cultural influence;


Source: Gallant (2013)

The United States scores low on the measure of Power Distance, suggesting that American culture is generally intolerant of uneven distributions of power and prefers to see all men as equal (as is laid out in the American Declaration of Independence). It also scores low on Time Orientation, suggesting US society prefers to embrace change and adapt to new ideas rather than sticking to more traditional approaches. It scores quite highly on Masculinity vs Femininity, which is perhaps a reflection of the traditional American respect for competition and ambition. Unsurprisingly, it scores very highly in the measure of Individualism vs Collectivism, a reflection of the deeply held belief in individual freedoms and independence which has been a mainstay of American culture since the war of independence.

This strong sense of individualism is reflected in the American approach to management. Generally, American managers are expected to deal with employees as individuals, rather than as a collective – the ‘open door’ approach to management, where employees are free to approach and discuss issues, suggestions and ideas with upper management, is a uniquely American approach to management that has gained traction in other parts of the world (Laurent, 2006) as it allows employees to feel that their ideas and opinions are valued by those higher up the corporate ladder. American managers are often viewed as facilitators, helping employees to develop personal talents and understanding the individual strengths and weaknesses of those they oversee (Lewis, 2000). Indeed, many American employers use psychometric tests in their hiring process, to determine an applicant’s individual skill level and expected role within the team (Jenkins, 2001). Indeed, skill-based human resource management theories and practices have quickly gained traction in many American firms (Lawler, 1992), reflecting the US cultural practice of embracing new ideas and valuing individual contributions.

There is also a strong sense of competition prevalent in the American approach to management, with promotions tending to go to those who have been seen to ‘rise above the rest’, rather than merely to those who have had the longest tenure (Morris and Pinnington, 2012). The study by Morris and Pinnington (2012) shows that many US manufacturing firms (around a third of those studied, including several of the largest) have an “up-or-out” approach to employee promotion, whereby if an employee has not risen to the next level of the career ladder by a specified time, they are asked to leave the firm. A study by Gibbons and Waldman (1999) shows that workers in US firms who receive promotions early in their career tend to then be promoted quickly to the next level again, suggesting that individual achievement and ambition is both recognised and rewarded.


Chinese society is highly influenced by the teachings of Confucius, where all relationships are seen as inherently unequal; both elders and superiors are to be automatically given the utmost respect, and where the group is held to be far more important than the individual (Yum, 2009). This emphasis on group cohesion over individual freedoms was further influenced by the advent of Chinese communism in 1949, and the formation of the People’s Republic of China. While China has become decidedly less socialist economically over the past two decades, owing mainly to Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of 1978 and 1992, it still remains a communist country, and its socialist ideology is still highly prevalent in everyday life (Yum, 2009)

With regard to the Hofstede (2001) dimensions of cultural influence;


Source: Gallant (2013)

China scores highly on the measure of Power Distance, reflecting the fact that Chinese society inherently accepts uneven power distribution and inequality as a fact of life. Unsurprisingly, China scores very low on the measure of Individualism vs Collectivism, given both the Confucianist and the ruling Communist Party’s emphasis on obedience to the state and group cohesion. It scores relatively highly on the measure of Masculinity vs Femininity, suggesting that gender roles are fairly strictly defined, and that ambition and assertiveness are valued, although mainly when they are used for the benefit of the group/state. China scores very highly on Time Orientation, suggesting that Chinese culture is very traditional and conservative, placing great emphasis on traditional values and methods. They also score very low on Uncertainty Avoidance, suggesting that Chinese society generally does not tolerate uncertainty, and prefers rules and strict structures to be in place.

This can be seen in the fact that Chinese organisations tend to be highly structured and hierarchical, with each individual having a strict distinct role within the organisation (Lewis, 2000). Chinese managers tend to be very autocratic, and most decision-making is made from the top-down with little consultation (Gallant, 2013). Chinese decision making tends to be highly directive, task-oriented and low in cognitive complexity, with little room for interpretation (Martinson and Davison, 2005). Senior managers often have close ties to the Communist Party, and often important business decisions – especially those related to international trade – are scrutinised by party officials before being made (Osland, 1990).

Chinese society emphasises the need for social cohesion, and the avoidance of conflict. Lockett (1988) suggests that the Chinese approach to management is much more people and relationship-oriented, and less performance-driven than in the West. When it comes to promotion, managers tend to promote those who are seen to be trustworthy and reliable rather than those who have sought to ‘rise above the rest’ at the expense of others (which is seen to be harmful to group cohesion), and length of tenure is also a highly important factor in determining promotion prospects (Ding et al, 1997).


Japanese society in general emphasises politeness and modesty as key virtues to be upheld – in a country with one of the highest urban population densities in the world, such virtues are important in maintaining social cohesion (Clammer, 2011). Japan was essentially closed to the outside world, apart from occasional contact with Dutch traders, until 1854, when the US Navy forced it to open its borders to trade (Totman, 2005). Since then, it has established itself as the third largest economy in the world in terms of GDP, behind the US and China at first and second place, respectively.

With regard to the Hofstede dimensions of cultural influence;


Source: Gallant (2013)

Japan scores low on the measure of Individualism vs Collectivism, suggesting that Japanese society values group cohesion and social relationships over individual desires and accomplishments. Japan scores very highly on the measure of Masculinity vs Femininity, suggesting a high emphasis on fixed gender roles and on competition. It also scores very highly on Uncertainty Avoidance suggesting a high importance placed on the value of structure and rule formation, which can be interpreted as a holdover of its imperial past and its emphasis on a strict social hierarchy (Benedict, 1967). This is unsurprising given the high score for the measure of Time Orientation, which demonstrates Japanese culture is generally rather traditionalist and conservative.

Although Japan scores low on the measure of individualism, Japanese managers tend to invest a great deal in their employees’ skills and development – in many Japanese firms, new employees spend around six to twelve months in training in each division of the company, so they can understand the different aspects of the firm’s organisation (Gallant, 2013). This ties in to the Japanese emphasis on structure and collectivism – each employee knows their role, and understands the role others play in the firm’s activities. Japanese decision making tends to be very collaborative – the Japanese concept of ‘hourenshou’ captures this perfectly. It refers to the necessity of reporting on both your own work and that of others, in ensuring everyone involved in the process is kept informed on how each piece of work is progressing (Clammer, 2011). Often, decisions are made at the middle management level, after consulting with subordinates, and are then passed up the chain to upper-level management to implement. Top management is seen as more of a facilitator than as a strictly authoritarian body. This idea of group responsibility is also upheld in the Japanese concept of ‘genchi genbutsu’ which translates roughly as the need to get one’s hands dirty when one spots a problem, regardless of role or level. Thus, top-level management are often willing to pitch in on a project to help it succeed, even if said project is many levels below (Clammer, 2011).

The Japanese approach to promotion emphasises both seniority, maintenance of group cohesion, and modesty – the higher a manager rises, the more modest and unassuming he needs to appear (Suzuki, 1986). In Japan, it is generally expected for an employee to spend his working life at one company, slowly developing their individual skills and moving up the ranks, reflecting both the Japanese cultural preference for strong structure and organisation and avoidance of ambiguity, and in Japanese society’s preferred long-term approach to Time Orientation.


While links can be drawn between each country’s unique cultural dimensions and its approach to management, care should be taken when applying such knowledge. As with any sweeping generalisations, there are many exceptions to the rule. However, such generalisations can still be useful – as Lewis (2000) notes, “Determining national characteristics is treading a minefield of inaccurate assessment and surprising exception…there is, however, such a thing as a national norm” (Lewis, 2000, p3). So while not every Japanese manager will be modest, self-effacing and open to collaborative decision making; or every Chinese manager autocratic and avoiding of conflict; or every American manager highly competitive and performance-focused; such archetypes are generally successful in each area of cultural context, and the conscientiousness manager would do well to keep these national differences in mind while dealing with one of the aforementioned nations.


Benedict, R (1967), The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture,Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston

Clammer, J (2011), Contemporary Urban Japan, John Wiley and Sons, Oxford

Ding, D, Fields, D and Akhtar, S (1997), ‘An empirical study of human resource management policies and practices in foreign-invested enterprises in China: the case of Shenzen Special Economic Zone’, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, Volume 8, Issue 5, pg 595-613

Gallant, M (2013), The Business of Culture: How Culture Affects Management Around the World [Online], Available; // [Accessed 21st May 2014]

Gibbons, R and Waldman, M (1999), ‘A Theory of Wage and Promotion Dynamics Inside Firms’, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Volume 144, Issue 4, pg 1321-1358

Hofstede, G (2001), Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviours, Institutions and Organisations across Nations, SAGE Publications, New York

Hofstede, G and Minkov, M (2010), Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, McGraw-Hill, New York

Jenkins, A (2001), Companies’ Use of Psychometric Testing and the Changing Demand for Skills: A Review of the Literature, [Online], Available;// [Accessed 21st May 2014]

Laurent, A (2006), ‘The Cross-Cultural Puzzle of International Human Resource Management’, Human Resource Management, Volume 25, Issue 1, pg 91-102

Lawler, E (1992), ‘A Skill-Based Approach to Human Resource Management’, European Management Journal, Volume 10, Issue 4, pg 383-391

Lewis, R (2000), When Cultures Collide: Managing Successfully Across Cultures, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, London

Lockett, M (1988), ‘Culture and the Problems of Chinese Management’, Organisation Studies,Volume 914, pg 475 – 496

Martinson, M and Davison, R (2005), ‘Strategic decision making and support systems: Comparing American, Japanese and Chinese management’, Decision Support Systems, Volume 43, pg 284 – 300

Morris, T and Pinnington, A (2012), ‘Promotion to Partner in Professional Service Firms’, Human Relations, Volume 51, January, pg 3-24

Osland, G (1990), ‘Doing Business in China: A Framework for Cross-cultural Understanding’, Marketing Intelligence and Planning, Volume 8, Issue 4, pg 4-14

Suzuki, N (1986), ‘Mid-Career Crisis in Japanese Business Organisations’, Journal of Management Development, Volume 5, issue 5, pg 23-32

Totman, C (2005), A History of Japan, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford

Yum, J (2009), The impact of Confucianism on interpersonal relationships and communication patterns in east Asia, [Online], Available; // [Accessed 21st May 2014]

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