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What Do You Do When You Disagree with Your Boss? Seen from a Danish, Chinese, Russian, and American Perspective

Picture yourself in this situation:

You work in a private company and you’re at an internal meeting in your workplace. Your boss suggests a solution to a technical problem. You know that the solution your boss is suggesting will probably not work. You have a great deal of respect for your boss, and you want to handle the situation in the best possible way for everyone. What do you do?

What you personally would choose to do is something that only you can know. But you are probably influenced by your cultural background.

In this blog post, we will investigate what would be your typical behavior in a Danish, Chinese, Russian, and American workplace.

Danish perspective

By Annette Dahl, Country Specialist on China and Denmark (read more about Annette here).

In a typical Danish workplace, it is "common sense" that if you have some input about the boss’ suggestion, you’ll say it out loud at the meeting.

Most Danish companies have a flat organizational structure with a low power distance and a relaxed conversational tone between managers and employees.

Often a Danish manager will not be a subject expert. So when a technical decision is made, the manager will expect that an employee with technical expertise will contribute with knowledge and opinions.

At internal meetings in Danish companies both managers and employees will often be present. The meeting participants will go through the points on the agenda together. Everyone will offer input and decide together what will happen next.

The Danish cultural self-understanding is that we discover the best solutions via an open discussion, where everyone can contribute and we say what we mean directly and without padding.

So when you as an employee can see at a meeting that your boss’ suggestion will not work, you say that.

You say that on your own initiative, even if your boss hasn’t asked for input from you.

And you speak out even if you haven’t heard the suggestion before the meeting and haven’t had time to think through all of the details. You might say something like "This is a decision we can’t make at this meeting – from a professional point of view, I don’t have enough information to do so. We’ll need to do some research and look into it again."

Of course, bosses and their preferences and personalities are different. This is true for Danish bosses, too.

But the ideal in Danish working culture is clearly that if you as an employee have relevant information to contribute, you do it. And better now than later.

It’s not a lack of respect to question a suggestion made by your boss.

In fact, it would be seen as disrespectful and unprofessional if you had knowledge you didn’t offer. That way the team might spend time on a solution that they’d later realize would not work.

Chinese perspective

By Annette Dahl, Country Specialist on China and Denmark (read more about Annette here).

In a typical Chinese company, hierarchy plays a much bigger role than it does in a Danish company.

Managers are usually subject experts in their area. And the manager is the person who both makes decisions and has responsibility for collecting the relevant knowledge before he or she decides.

This means that if you as an employee have technical knowledge in a field, it’s usually not your responsibility to take the initiative to approach your boss with input. It is the boss’ responsibility to contact you for input.

If we zoom in on an internal meeting at a Chinese workplace, the relevant manager would typically have already made decisions before the meeting about the topics the meeting focuses on.

At the meeting the manager will inform the employees about the decisions and clearly announce what will happen next. Who should do what? Why? How? When? Which process should they use? How should things be delivered? Etc.

So what do you do if your boss hasn’t consulted you before the meeting, and during the meeting you can see that the boss’ approach will not work?

Again: it is of course impossible to see what the individual Chinese employee would do.

But as a Chinese employee, you would probably not offer your input at the meeting.

When we at C3 do cultural training for employees with various cultural backgrounds and chat about cultural self-knowledge, the Chinese participants often say, "We Chinese are quite shy, so we are quieter during meetings than our Danish and other international colleagues."

In a typical Chinese company, it would simply be too risky for you to openly contradict your boss at a meeting. This can easily be seen as disrespectful and can damage your relationship with the boss. And you wouldn’t want to say anything without the time to prepare and carefully think things through in advance. 

If you and your boss have already built up a strong and trusting relationship, you might be able to approach the boss after the meeting and point out the problems you have discovered.

Perhaps you will send a polite email suggesting that there are a couple of things we failed to consider.

Or you could write a message via WeChat (an extremely widespread Chinese app that is used both professionally and personally). WeChat is much more informal than a face-to-face meeting, so you can speak more openly about things on WeChat without challenging the boss’ authority.

It would also be common for your boss to follow up with you a short time after the meeting, at which point you’ll have a chance to offer your input.

Russian perspective

By Helena Drewes, Country Specialist on Russia (read more about Helena here).

In Russia, the boss is usually the person who decides everything, and it is important for the respect he or she enjoys that the employees see him or her as a strong, decisive person who takes responsibility for processes and decisions.

A good boss seeks out the relevant information before a meeting, so the right decision can be made. This will often take place in 1-to-1 meetings where the individual employee can feel comfortable.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always how it works out. And if you are a Russian employee sitting at a meeting where it is clear that a wrong decision is being made, the critical aspect is how secure you feel with your boss.

Building up personal relationships is an important part of Russian working culture, and a good relationship is fundamental for whether you as an employee feel trust in your boss.

If you feel very secure, you can politely, carefully, and with many words point out the problem at a meeting. You would never say directly that your boss’ suggestion will not work but will let the message emerge "between the lines."

But sometimes you won’t offer input at the meeting at all.

A typical Russian employee doesn’t feel responsible for poor decisions by a manager. The idea that you as an employee should offer a unique point of view because it adds value to a meeting is not a part of Russian working culture.

As a Russian employee you would typically be more focused on where responsibility for the incorrect decision lies. And if there is a risk that you will be the one held responsible, you will look for informal ways to solve the problem after the meeting.

Alternatively you will find ways to avoid the assignment. And if you as an employee suspect that there are "less professional" reasons behind a decision (for example, corruption is still a widespread problem in Russian society), you will instinctively try to stay far away from the decision.

American perspective

By Kay Xander Mellish, Country Specialist on USA and Denmark (read more about Kay here).

American individualism is no secret. This is a culture that has its mythical roots in an isolated, self-reliant little house on the prairie. The modern-day equivalent is a freestanding suburban home with a large lawn and separate cars for each adult who lives there.

The same is true for the workplace. Although Americans certainly care about their team, their product and their company, the US business culture requires them to put their own interests first, since they can be dumped at any time by the company and have very little government safety net.

So if a boss comes up with a terrible idea, the employee’s first reaction will probably be: what does this mean for me? If this idea sinks like a rock, is the entire team going to be blamed? What will that mean for my career, my job security or, in the shorter term, my bonus?

At the same time, bosses have a more inspirational role in US corporate culture than they do in Danish culture, for example. A boss is a guide, a motivator, sometimes a cheerleader, and sets the tone for their team.

Acknowledging that role – and being careful not to threaten the boss’ authority, which is usually hard-won and fragile – is crucial to disagreeing with the boss in a US business environment.

In fact, the US employee will probably start by acknowledging the boss’ authority. "Look, Chuck, I know you’re in charge here, and I know you’ve been doing this for years. You’re an inspiration to all of us."

Then she’ll repeat back the boss’ terrible idea, to show that she has listened to it and understands it. "So, what you’re saying is that you want to put the meat on the outside of the hamburger, and the bread on the inside?"

Having shown the appropriate deference, she can then offer a dissenting point of view. "Here’s what I’m thinking. That could be messy, particularly the ketchup and mustard."

Now it’s time to contextualize the bad idea within the company’s goals and take a hard look at how it might affect the current KPIs – the KPIs that will determine the boss’ bonus, although no one will say that quiet part out loud.

"We’re supposed to double sales this year. Are we going to be able to sell enough of those inside-out burgers to meet that growth expectation? Because if we don’t, it’s going to be our butts."

If the boss cannot be dissuaded from pursuing the idea, the American employee’s CYA (cover your ass) mode kicks in. She’ll surreptitiously make it known around the organization that the idea was not her idea, that she had doubts from the start.

But not too openly, in case it is a success, in which case she can still get some of the credit.

How does the situation look from your own and from your global colleague’s perspective?

We’ve used the word typical many times in this blog post. We do that because we cannot guarantee that the situation will always play out in precisely the way we describe it in the various country perspectives.

In addition to national working cultures there are numerous other factors that can be at play.

There can be major regional cultural differences. There can be various professional cultures and company cultures at play. And in some countries, it is highly significant if it is a private or public/publicly-owned company being discussed.

Finally, every manager and employee arrives at the workplace with his or her unique personality and preferences.

So even with the deepest knowledge about a specific country’s working culture, you cannot predict an individual person’s actions.

But you can be aware of how different things can be from country to country. For example, you can be conscious of…

  • What we as managers and employees expect of each other
  • How we show each other respect
  • Which values lie behind our actions
  • What we use internal meetings for
  • How we make decisions and divide responsibility

With all of that in the back of your head, look again at the situation described at the top of this blog entry and consider:

What would I do in this situation? What about my global colleagues – how does the situation look from their perspective? And which consequences does it have for the way we work together?

At C3 we have a lot of sharp tools that you can use to discover your own and your global colleagues’ various perspectives and adapt your own working style to achieve the best results in cross-cultural collaboration.

See our most important cultural tools here.

Would you like more perspectives on your global collaboration culture?

Read more about our country-specific cultural training programmes and workshops here

Contact us for a chat about how Annette, Helena, Kay, and our other talented trainers can help your company

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