American Managers and Their Asian Counterparts

By Aviel, David | Industrial Management, March/April 1996 | Go to article overview

American Managers and Their Asian Counterparts


Aviel, David, Industrial Management


The following article raises some important issues regarding the impact of socially motivated constraints on management, differences between management styles, and the scope of authority for managers in US. and Asian companies. Mr. Aviel's views are not necessarily the views held by Industrial Management editors or IIE.

Being a manager in America is not what it used to be. If you want to know how it used to be, go to Asia, where they still practice no-nonsense management-focused, single minded. Contrary to common perception that Asian management is based on consensus, a manager there is the boss, charged with the responsibility of producing and granted the authority to carry out this mandate. He or she can hire and fire employees, reward the diligent, and punish the lazy. A manager can select subordinates that best suit the job without having to worry about what he could or could not ask during the interview. When asked for a mission statement, he looks perplexed and replies: "our mission is profit, and it does not need to be stated." ADA (Asians With Disability Act) is not a problem. "We hire people who can work. If the government is concerned with the disabled, it should hire them." Unions? They exist but are not a hindrance. They provide benefits to members who care to join, but membership is not mandatory. There are no union shops and no strikes. Hence, Asian managers do not have to deal with shop stewards, labor relations experts, staff specialists, or industrial relations department.

American managers are more jugglers than bosses. Often, they find themselves in the awkward position of bearing an ever-increasing burden of responsibilities with a constantly diminishing measure of authority to carry them out. Union halls, the human resources departments, equal opportunity coordinators, and affirmative action specialists tell them whom to hire. Planning departments tell them what to do when, and industrial engineering departments and hosts of staff experts tell them how to run their shops. Legal departments have overall vetoes of every word or deed. Instead of leading, they are being led. Instead of being in charge, they are charged with rectifying past ills, correcting social problems, helping the community, and improving the world, all in addition to their regular duties. Little is left from the original manager's tasks of planning, organizing, staffing, leading, and controlling.

Subordinates are different as well. Asian subordinates grow up in an environment that emphasizes authority, discipline, respect, and reverence for family, age, and status. American workers are raised in an egalitarian, permissive society that emphasizes the importance of the individual. Neither the American father nor the American mother commands the respect given by past generations and still given in Asia today. American teachers resemble group coordinators and not the authority figures of earlier years. They do not enjoy the status and respect their Asian counterparts receive from students, parents, and the community at large. When landing a job in an office or factory floor, American workers are not about to undergo a radical transformation. Programmed to believe that they, as individuals, are the most important beings in the universe, other things like the firm, the customer, and the peer group are, by definition, second best. Selfishness and egocentric behavior are only a short distance away. So, while an Asian manager can fire orders in rapid succession, his American counterpart has to walk on eggs, tread gingerly, and be cautious with his words, poise, demeanor, tone of voice, and body language. He or she can ask nicely ("if you don't mind, Bill, when you are not too busy, would you please take care of"), solicit, or try to persuade. …

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