Management Consultant Mike Eldon

Navigating national cultural differences for best outcomes

In my last article, I promised I would write further about the influence of cultures on how consultants like myself must adapt so as to engage effectively with our clients. I mentioned that beyond national cultures, sub-cultures within countries are equally diverse.

Anyone who has visited the United States will quickly see how different people are in New York (frantically energetic and brutally straightforward) from the “Deep South” (much more measured and formal) and the Mid-West (so friendly and appreciative). And that’s just three examples.

In much smaller countries like England – never mind the overall United Kingdom – regional differences in attitudes and behaviour are equally pronounced, and if one is not sensitive to such contrasting cultures one risks offending people and diminishing one’s ability to relate to them.

Another dimension of diverse cultures is revealed in multinational organisations, whether corporates, NGOs or multilateral agencies such as the UN and the World Bank. Let me tell you about an experience in Ethiopia, where in 2012 I facilitated a culture integration retreat for the staff of a multilateral development agency, a mix of over a hundred local and international staff.

The local staff felt disrespected by their expatriate colleagues, but their culture held them back from expressing such feelings. Meanwhile, the international staff felt frustrated that if they criticised an Ethiopian colleague the reaction would be negative, thanks to their pride being hurt. So they just held back too.

On the second morning of the workshop by Lake Awasa I felt the participants were sufficiently relaxed to engage in an open conversation about the subject and to launch the session I read them a pair of poems I had written the night before which laid out the feelings of each group – one from the perspective of an Ethiopian and one from that of an expatriate.

I’m happy to report that as a result of the two-hour conversation I facilitated, those in the room not only obtained a good sense of the nature of the problem and its root cause of differing cultures, but that it enabled the issue to fade away – indeed for people to laugh about it. Here are my two poems…

An Ethiopian reflection

I am a proud Ethiopian.

I respect others, and I respect myself.

I respect quiet too, for we are told that it is gold.

But quietness and respect need a little time,

time for elegance, politeness and refinement,

time not everyone feels they need to make.

Some rush through life in different ways,

ways I find uncomfortable.

So to protect my feelings I withdraw somewhat,

not wishing confrontation, not wanting stress.

How can we make life better for us all?

What if you invest a little time, just a little,

to honour how we Ethiopians expect to interact?

And in return I’ll try to be less sensitive

to your more Western style of frantic rush.

Reflections of a visitor

It’s sometimes very hard for me, frustrating actually.

I’ve never felt like this before,

never thought of me as harsh or disrespectful.

I see myself as just a straightforward kind of character,

demanding yes, but not unreasonable.

Yet here in Ethiopia I often find myself in trouble.

I wish I could be freer with what is on my mind,

but I know I must be really careful with how I speak

for fear of giving grave offence.

I often anguish over how to make things better,

wish my work to help, improve and strengthen others

would be received in better spirit.

But as I’ve observed reactions to my initiatives

I’ve learned to be unusually restrained,

holding back from offering what otherwise I could.

Please, therefore, my Ethiopian friends,

help me to engage more easily with you.

I certainly don’t seek to give offence,

but know I sometimes end up doing so.

I love my life in this most gracious place of yours;

I love your culture and its oh-so noble traditions;

I want to love my interactions with you just as much.

There are so many other factors that define an organisational culture: ah, those PhD dominated ones, where complexity is the order of the day; those government ones, where smiling is prohibited and protocol rules the roost; those family businesses, where the founder’s every wish must be indulged. These are the territories into which we consultants enter and seek to influence.