The Ethiopian Management Style

The cultural intelligence below is for managers who want to learn more about the management style and business culture of Ethiopia.

This guide provides some useful information for managers who are relocating to the country for employment as well as those who may have Ethiopian employees in their global or multicultural teams.

Topics include:

  • Hierarchy
  • Leadership style
  • Time and scheduling
  • Communication style
  • Negotiation

Being a Manager in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is an increasingly popular country for expats working overseas.  It has ancient roots and is proudly one of the few countries in Africa to have resisted European colonisation. You will find that the business culture in Ethiopia is formal and management will be more successful if you adopt a formal demeanour and demonstrate deference to position, age, and rank. Other considerations are outlined below:

  • It is almost a cultural imperative to develop a personal relationship prior to conducting business.
  • Any attempt to bypass or rush what can be a time-consuming process could severely limit business success.
  • Patience is a necessary attribute of successful management.
  • Never appear irritated by the time it takes to get things done.
  • Things generally take much longer than expected.
  • It often requires several meetings to accomplish what could be handled by a telephone call at home.
  • The government exerts great influence in the business sector, particularly in matters pertaining to contracts and non-Ethiopian companies.
  • Therefore, it is crucial to maintain cordial contact with government officials and agencies.

The Role of a Manager

Newcomers to the Ethiopian management style should carefully study the corporate culture of specific companies because they may vary from being hierarchical to rather egalitarian. As a result, you may find that:

  • Employees range from feeling empowered to speak out in the management process, to those who believe it is most important to simply execute the instructions by their leadership.

Approach to Change

Ethiopia’s cultural appetite for risk is low. Essentially the country is a low-risk and low-change-tolerant culture. What might this mean for you when working in Ethiopia?

  • New projects will be carefully analyzed to assure that whatever risk they represent is thoroughly understood and addressed.
  • Your counterparts will be keen to assess all elements of the proposed changes to ensure their introduction is for the greater group and that it doesn’t unnecessarily impact business stability. 
  • In order for change to take hold, the idea needs to be perceived as good for the group and be accepted by the group.
  • Using group benefits is a clear must if you hope to have your proposed change accepted. 
  • Highlighting financial or individual benefits is likely to gain a poorer reception. 
  • Cultural sensitivity is important with Ethiopia’s attitude toward risk dramatically impacted by the negative ramifications of failure on both the individual and the group.

Approach to Time and Priorities

Ethiopia is a moderate time culture and typically and there may be some flexibility to strict adherence to schedules and deadlines.

  • Although timescales are generally considered important, you may find that this is a business culture where timescales are treated flexibly if more important needs arise – such as a need from within one’s business network. 
  • When working with people from Ethiopia, it’s advisable to reinforce the importance of the agreed-upon deadlines and how that may affect the rest of the organization.
  • Delivery dates and deadlines are considered estimates rather than firm commitments since only God knows what the future holds.
  • Global working means that some managers may have a greater appreciation of the need to enforce timescales and as such, agreed deadlines are more likely to be met.

Decision Making

The business culture in Ethiopia tends to be hierarchical and employees are expected to show proper deference and respect towards those in superior positions. A consequence of this is that:

  • Managers do not typically seek consensus from subordinate team members before making decisions.
  • As in many other relationship-driven cultures, Ethiopians do not strictly separate their personal and work lives.
  • Managers often adopt a paternalistic role with their subordinates.
  • They provide advice, listen to problems, and mediate disputes, both personal and business.

Boss or Team Player?

If you are working in Ethiopia, it is important to remember that honour and reputation play an important role. As such, the following considerations are important:

  • The risk becomes amplified in a team or collaborative setting. I
  • f you would like to encourage participation it is important first to clearly establish a non-threatening work environment and communicate fully that their participation is desired. 
  • It’s important that you don’t say, or do, anything that could be construed as criticising somebody in public.
  • Equally, don’t challenge them in such a way that they feel embarrassed if they don’t know the answer.
  • When meeting together and moderating ideas, cultural sensitivity is required.
  • It is important to qualify ideas that are raised in a gentle manner, protecting the reputation of those bringing up ideas, so no one is shamed.
  • If someone is exposed and embarrassed, they may likely not participate again, and it will stem the flow of ideas and the participation of the entire group.
  • Praise should be given to the entire group, and not to individuals.

Communication and Negotiation Styles

Relationships and trust are an important part of business culture in Ethiopia.  People are very unlikely to work with you if they do not have a relationship with you, or, if they do not trust you.  You may find that you are asked to meet informally for lunch prior to enabling your counterpart to assess whether you are someone they would like to work with.  It might only be after an offsite informal meeting that your counterpart is willing to invite you to an onsite business meeting.  Once you establish a relationship or begin working with your Ethiopian counterparts, then you are likely to experience the following:

  • Due to the value placed on honour and relationships, the communication culture tends to be very indirect. 
  • This approach to communication protects relationships and avoids conflict or bad feelings. 
  • You may, as such, find that your counterparts are not willing to give you a negative answer for fear of offending you. 
  • If you are not given a direct ‘yes’, then you should perceive this as a rejection. 
  • It’s important that you appreciate that this style is not intended to be underhand. 
  • Instead, it is driven by a concern for maintaining a positive relationship with you. 
  • The social side of business is very important.
  • Many companies are family-owned and therefore, extremely hierarchical.
  • In most companies the highest-ranking person makes decisions.
  • Although negotiations may be conducted with lower-level staff, they are seldom granted full authority to make commitments for the company.
  • Most business dealings involve the government in some fashion, which further lengthens the decision-making since the ministers of several departments must often give approval.
  • Do not criticize anyone publicly.
  • It is important that you do not cause your Ethiopian business associates to lose dignity and respect.
  • When negotiating with your Ethiopian counterparts, ensure that you make every effort to build a positive relationship in advance as this will certainly aid your efforts. 
  • Decisions are likely to be taken outside of the negotiation meetings. 
  • As such, be patient and don’t expect any spontaneous outcomes. 
  • When granting a concession, do so with great reluctance and make it conditional on a concession from your Ethiopian counterparts.

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