Misunderstanding the rules and norms surrounding the issue of authority is probably the most common problem in newly formed multicultural groups. The high degree of formality that is associated with diplomacy can be understood as a defense against making mistakes in this cultural arena. But formality itself can lead to problems if there is insufficient understanding. For example, in a formal classroom setting, I observed the following variations in response to the same lecture material if I asked “Are there any questions or comments?” In the United States, American managers were quick to raise their hands and invariably asked questions about how the content that had been discusses would be useful. The same material taught in the United Kingdom elicited from British managers a spirited theoretical discussion of the material with the wonderfully masked disagreement that would always be preceded by “but one would have thought… .” The French and Italians always zeroed in on the details and got especially involved if they perceived some logical inconsistency in what had been presented. The Asian students, even managers, typically did not raise their hands at all for one of two reasons. In China there was a norm of deference to the professor that inhibited individuals from raising questions, but I learned that if I gave them a chance to discuss the material among themselves for a few minutes they could then raise questions through one of their representatives. With Japanese managers I discovered that they were very conscious of their status hierarchy and it was not appropriate to speak before one of the higher-status persons had spoken.
Creating a climate of open communications sometimes requires special events in which status boundaries are deliberately blurred. For example, in the very formal Ciba-Geigy, at each annual three-day meeting of senior executives one afternoon was always devoted to everyone playing at some sport that would reduce everyone to the same level of incompetence, for example, shooting crossbows or hitting a ball with a club head that was attached to a two-foot leather thong at the end of a three-foot rigid club. Following this common humiliation, we all went to an informal dinner at which everyone was randomly seated to mix up the various ranks represented. Conversation flowed freely and one could see that subordinates found ways in this setting to get messages across to their superiors. The Japanese ritual of going out drinking with the boss so that things can be said under the influence that could never be said at the workplace has a similar function.