Here's Why The Boss Can't Ride A Bike To Work In China

Chinese workers ride bicyles chinaLAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI/AFP/Getty ImagesBikes are for workers in China.

If you are the boss, your behaviour may be speaking volumes without your even recognising it, and it says different things around the world.

Take a simple action like riding a bike to work. In countries like Denmark, when the boss rides a bike to work (which is common), it may symbolise to the egalitarian Danes a strong leadership voice: “Look, I’m one of you.” Something similar applies in Australia, as explained by Steve Henning, an executive in the textile industry:

One of my most proud lifestyle choices back in Australia was the fact that I was a near-full-time bicycle commuter. My Surly Long Haul Trucker bike wasn’t just a toy; it was a fully equipped work-horse that was used for shopping, getting around, travelling to and from work, weekend leisure rides, and anything else I needed.

I’m a senior vice president in our company, and my Australian staff thought it was great that I rode a bike to work. If anything, they liked that their boss showed up to work in a bike helmet. So I decided to bring my bicycle with me when I was assigned to a new job in China.

Henning had been using his bike during his daily commute in Shanghai for a while when he discovered that the tactic had certainly attracted attention from his team members. “Just not the type of attention I was hoping for,” Henning sighs. While sharing a dinner and drinks with a Chinese colleague and friend, Henning learned what his staff was saying about him:

My team was humiliated that their boss rode a bike to work like a common person. While Chinese bike to work infinitely more than Australians, among the wealthier Chinese, bikes are not an option. There are plenty of bikes on the road, but biking is for the lower classes only.

So my team felt it was an embarrassment that their boss rode a bike to the office. They felt it suggested to the entire company that their boss was unimportant, and that by association, they were unimportant, too.

Well, I love my bike, but I was in China to get my team motivated and on track. I certainly didn’t want to sabotage my success just to arrive sweaty at the office every morning. I gave up the bike and started taking public transportation, just like every other Chinese boss.

Once you understand the power distance messages your actions are sending, you can make an informed choice about what behaviours to change. But if you don’t know what your behaviours signify, you’ll have no control over the signals you send — and the results can be disastrous.

This excerpt was posted with permission from “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business” (2014) by INSEAD professor Erin Meyer, from PublicAffairs.

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