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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.

How people adapt to national cultures

In my last article I wrote about the four elements that, according to the Adizes Institute, make a fully functional manager or, more likely, a functional management team: Producer, Administrator, Entrepreneur and Integrator (PAEI).

Today I follow up with an article I was sent by Rufat Jahangirov, a senior member of the Adizes Institute team, in which he reflected on the influence of national cultures in designing and delivering their programmes on organisational transformation in ways that are compatible with countries’ national values.

It led me to think about how and to what extent I adapt the way I engage with organisations depending on where I am doing so.

I am privileged to have been exposed to a wide variety of cultures, from my Jewish Romanian background to my upbringing in London, with time in France and the US, to my life here in Kenya since 1977. Plus my travels to many other countries around the world, usually as a tourist but sometimes also as a consultant.

Jahangirov refers to the work of Geert Hofstede on the interactions between national and organisational cultures. Hofstede first examines Vertical Power Distance, the extent to which the less powerful members of organisations expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.

He then looks at Horizontal Distance, the degree to which people in a society have an independent versus interdependent concept of self.

In societies with high Horizontal Distance – individualistic societies – people’s goals are generally independent from their ingroups; their social behaviours are driven by attitudes, values and beliefs; and they emphasise rationality in evaluating and choosing their social relationships.

On the other hand, in low Horizontal Distance – collectivistic – societies, people are born into extended families or kinship systems that protect them in exchange for giving them loyalty.

Hofstede also studies Uncertainty Avoidance, which defines the degree to which people in society feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations.

Not to be confused with risk avoidance, members of an Uncertainty Avoiding culture take risks as long as they believe they know them. People in Uncertainty Avoidance societies usually prefer clear rules as to how one should behave.

Next Hofstede examines Masculinity versus Femininity. Masculine cultures are ones where men should be assertive, competitive, tough and focused on material success, while women should be focused on the quality of life, maintaining warm personal relationships, offering service, and caring for the weak. Feminine cultures are ones in which emotional gender roles overlap.

Finally, he contrasts Long-term versus Short-term orientation.

Jahangirov notes that it is easier to generate “energy for change” in countries with low vertical distance, high horizontal distance, low uncertainty avoidance and high long-term orientation. He also correlates Hofstede’s culture differentiators with the values and characteristics of the PAEI Adizes management roles and styles.

P and A are short-term oriented roles, whereas E and I are long-term oriented, they have found. Additionally, P and A are the attributes of autocratic management, displaying high Vertical Distance, while E and I preferences lead to more egalitarian decision-making, which suggests low Vertical Distance.

P and E are both independent and individualistic styles, typified by high Horizontal Distance, whereas A is mechanically collectivistic and I is organically collectivistic, reflected in low Horizontal Distance. The A style is characterised as Uncertainty Avoiding, while E is its opposite: Uncertainty Accepting… actually, seeking.

There appears to be no correlation of Uncertainty Avoidance with either P or I management styles. And finally, P is a predominant characteristic of a Masculine culture, while I is the one of a Feminine culture. Both E and A can be either Masculine or Feminine.

It’s hard enough to change cultures even in one’s own back yard, Jahangirov has found, and reflecting on his wonderfully thought-provoking article has filled me with further ways of describing cultures and helping them develop to better places.

What is my experience with how different cultures have led me to adapt my interactions with others? Like Jahangirov, I am at least as aware of sub-cultures, within both countries and organisations, requiring yet more sensitivity on the part of consultants. But you’ll have to wait for another fortnight before reading more about that.

Before closing, let me mention that this is my 400th Business Daily column, and that next month will mark the 15th anniversary of my first one. More later on that too.

Passage through Palestine in eyes of my grandfather

In my last article I explained why it’s a good idea to keep a journal. I’ve been doing so for quite some years, at least hoping that my grandchildren will find something of interest in what I have written about.

I say this aware that in the 1940s my grandfather Robert Bischoff kept a meticulously written record of how he and his wife, plus their two children – one of them my mother Gaby – left their lovely home in Bucharest, Romania, in January 1941.

They decided to depart as anti-Semitic Fascist dictator Ion Antonescu had seized power there, and German troops were already present in significant number.

My grandfather wrote his journal in Romanian, and many years ago I took it upon myself to translate it into English. His text filled 38 typed foolscap pages, with very long sentences strung together in paragraphs that were also unusually long.

While Romanian was the first language I spoke after I was born, I never studied it formally and from when I arrived in Britain at the age of three I switched to English.

But I was fluent enough to take on the task, even with no dictionary and no Internet to consult at the time. What a labour of love it was.

For long, my grandfather – like many others at the time – was hesitating over whether the Romanian scene would increasingly make life unbearable for Jewish families like theirs.

At first he was more with the optimists, but eventually the situation deteriorated to such an extent that the decision to emigrate was made.

He worked under great stress over many weeks to obtain the necessary paperwork for the departure, not least the transit visa for Turkey and the entry visa to their final destination Palestine (before it became Israel), and finally they were ready to leave.

They travelled by train from Bucharest to the Black Sea port of Constanta; by boat from there to Istanbul; then on trains across Turkey and Syria; and next through Lebanon – by bus from Tripoli to Beirut and from there by car into Palestine, to Haifa and on to Tel Aviv, arriving on 19th January, eight days after leaving Bucharest.

The last entry in the journal is from November 1946, by which time Robert’s daughter Gaby had met and married my father Bruno, who had left Romania a few months after the Bischoff family, to rejoin Shell – for whom he had been working in Romania.

His journey was infinitely more precarious, in a small and flimsy yacht that for over 52 days took him and his fellow crew members to Cyprus and from where he managed to transfer to Palestine. (My father, as captain of the boat, kept its log – also in Romanian – so I have the full details of his adventure too… a story for another day.)

Robert found my father to be “a courageous young man and sure of himself”, and he was happy to see him marry his daughter. Now let me jump to March 1945, when I was born.

“I had the feeling that this would be an exceptional child, from all points of view,” my grandfather enthused.

“This feeling, and our exaggerated sentimentalism, make us see in him all that can be most beautiful in life. I could speak in detail about him, and there would be many pages to fill. If I were to do it I would have to devote a chapter separate from all the others, though sincerely speaking, I don’t even know if I would be able to put in writing what I feel in reality.”

He wrote about so much else in his journal, about the threat of a German invasion following the arrival of its army in Alexandria and the withdrawal of the British from Egypt – making him wonder if they should perhaps have remained in Romania; about the fragmented nature of local politics, with so many political parties – as is the case in Israel today; and about the poor state of education and nutrition.

Reading the journals again – thanks to my grandchildren having developed an interest in the holocaust – makes me wish I would have engaged more with both my parents and grandparents about their earlier lives. So you know how this is going to end: do so while yours are still around.

How to bring pastoralists into modern economy

Kenya’s 15 million pastoralists in the northern arid and semi-arid part of the country own 75 percent of our country’s livestock herd, which is valued at around $1 billion and contributes significantly to our GDP.

But we all know what a hard time these pastoralists endure, in areas that suffer from a serious water deficit and are disproportionately affected by below-average rains. Droughts occur there every few years, and climate change is exacerbating the problem.

2021 has been a year of below-average rains in Northern and North Eastern Kenya, but this follows good rains in the previous three years — which had led to a rapid increase in livestock numbers and hence now to massive overstocking. The downturn in tourism precipitated by Covid caused further distress, resulting in serious loss of income to many pastoralist communities and leading to them selling livestock for food.

By the end of this year, drought will begin killing off many more livestock, their prime asset base. And as we build up to the 2022 elections, all the ingredients are in place for a repeat of the 2017 politically-induced mayhem in Laikipia. Even now, so much of the violent conflict in northern Kenya is a result of clashes over water supply, with politicians still playing a far from innocent role.

Efforts by the government, development partners, NGOs and others are too often focused on costly last-minute humanitarian assistance. Not enough has been directed at building sustainability. Where it has, the dilemma between retaining cultures and traditions and integrating these into new economic models has not been adequately conceptualised.

In Turkana, the County Integrated Development Plan, supported by development partners, provides for initiatives aimed at improving the livelihoods of its pastoralists, including by engaging them in agriculture. It’s hard though, requiring a mindset transformation, as their culture is so fundamentally built around pastoralism.

Indeed, when a few young Turkanas sold off some livestock to buy boda bodas and earn a living that way in the Kakuma Refugee Camp their elders were not amused. “Who will look after our herds?” they posed, but more fundamentally they saw that the activity would not result in any asset growth. (We also know that the overwhelming number of all farmers in Kenya are deeply conservative and slow to adopt new approaches.)

Pastoralists are largely of an oral rather than a literate culture. But this does not mean they are at all uneducated in the context of their harsh environment. Quite the contrary. They are of course infinitely better suited to survive there than any outsider, however learned. Not being able to write does not preclude remarkable memory and numeracy skills. And improved memory skills are an essential trait of survival in oral cultures.

It’s good that we who live in a literate economic world should offer suggestions on how to stimulate the cultural change needed to bring pastoralism into the mainstream modern economy. But we must do more open listening to the pastoralists’ knowledge and experience, to their hopes and fears. And we must not do so patronisingly or otherwise insensitively, for this will inevitably lead us to fail.

We must practice the art of “humble inquiry” (to quote the title of Prof Ed Schein’s book – one of my favourites) and so build mutual respect and trusting relationships. Then we’ll be better placed to learn of each community’s true pain points, those beyond the obvious ones such as finances, health and education, corruption and bureaucracy, and youth unemployment.

The challenge for all of us together is to enable pastoralists to grow steadily as economic communities, while being buffered from the effects of drought on their livelihoods.

There is no simple or unique solution to the pastoralists’ plight. Rather, we must pool our ideas and develop an array of approaches, ones that are compatible with existing cultures and that may well vary by community.

The initiatives should also enable not just the pastoralists but the whole country to benefit from the opportunities thus created, now and into the future.

It’s time these marginalised communities — in which one finds plenty of great leadership — are engaged with more actively, innovatively and practically, so their livelihoods can stabilise. If this comes about, the vulnerability to droughts, the aggressive competition for water, and the vulnerability to manipulative politicians, will be transformed.

How to lead people in embracing change

Even as many organisations continue asking for help with teambuilding, more recently change management has also gone mainstream. While the massive Covid disruption has brought change yet further front and centre, even before the pandemic spread around the world, the 21st century VUCA phenomenon of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity had confirmed constant change as the new normal.

Let us also acknowledge though that this century is certainly not when change first confronted humanity. It was back in 500 BC when the Greek philosopher Heraclitus pointed out that “change is the only constant” – and so it has been, both before and since. Those who assume that changes will be but temporary, or that they will happen without having to manage their consequences sensitively and positively, will surely come to regret behaving like the proverbial ostrich with its head buried in the sand.

So in this article I’ll share something of what I have learned through my work in helping organisations of all kinds with their change management initiatives – including in these last months through some online engagements.

First, we must “start with the end in mind”. Why is change needed? To enable what vision to be actualised, what purpose to be fulfilled? What is it about the present strategy and way of doing things that will prevent the actualisation of the vision and purpose?

“The way we doing things here” is as good a definition of culture as any… and, as Peter Drucker pointed out, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. So what is that culture, what are those values, attitudes and behaviours which would overcome dysfunctionalities in the present culture? And given the gaps between the actual and the aspirational way of doing things, what will it take for people to migrate from the one to the other, in the context of the needed strategy?

I say migrate because change management – like teambuilding – is not something that can be achieved simply by going away to one of those nice lodges in Naivasha for a couple of days. Those who take the subject seriously accept that it involves a journey. Yes, the journey can be launched at such an event. Indeed it’s a good way to do so. And crucial to such a launch is spending time towards its end defining specific follow ups as to who must do what and by when.

To take the process from the necessary to the sufficient – which many stop short of doing – the participants must agree on how progress towards living that new needed way is to be assessed. What periodic feedback will be obtained regarding progress, for instance as in: none / a little / a lot / transformational? How will those involved celebrate what will have changed for the better while continuing to work on remaining challenges? And how will the expectation of ongoing continuous improvement feature?

To my surprise, I have come across clients who were planning to undergo a change management initiative separate from their teambuilding one. But discussing the need for teamwork as a critical change enabler with them, they agreed to merge the two into one. They readily accepted that to build a high performance team in this VUCA environment requires the agility to deal with change; and that where change must be handled, building trust between team members is more critical than ever. Yes, team qualities like agility and trust are essential for supporting change.

The most vital dependency for any change programme is positive, authentic leadership at board and senior management levels. Such leaders must visibly own the process and its purpose, and they must be role models for the target behaviour.

Then, given the fear and anxiety the term “change management” often provokes – however justified or otherwise – the question arises as to whether it’s good to call such initiatives by that name.

How can we nudge mindsets from negative emotions to more uplifting ones, as we encourage those involved to learn and to grow, expanding their competencies and their confidence, helping them become more empowered, recognised and motivated?

Such people will see change not as a threat but rather an opportunity, something to be looked forward to with joy and excitement… while accepting that life comes with its challenges and its ups and downs.

Now wonder Heraclitus concluded over two millennia ago that “since the very nature of life is change, to resist this natural flow is to resist the very essence of our existence”.

New world and cultures beckon after pandemic

Much is being written about how the world will look after it has recovered from the coronavirus crisis. We have no idea about so many aspects of our social, economic and political futures, but one thing’s for sure: We won’t simply be going back to the way things were before the virus hit.

The sudden closing down of normal life has forced a dramatic transformation in how individuals, communities and nations conduct themselves. Inevitably, some have adapted much better than others. Not surprisingly, those who are suffering least are disproportionately the ones who were already ahead of the game, thanks to more visionary and agile leadership and more robust cultures. These are the ones who will emerge into the post-Corona era even better positioned.

Almost all of us have been forced to stay away from our normal workplaces and to work from home, relying exclusively on our laptops and phones to communicate. (I have been home-based for several years, so much less has changed for me.) We are using Zoom, Teams, GoToMeeting and other tools through which to hold meetings, deliver presentations, share lessons and so forth; we have rushed to engage more with online shopping and cashless payments; and we have disciplined ourselves to remain adequately structured and productive despite being exposed to far less intimate supervision. Good that employers aren’t fitting CCTV in the homes of their staff!

Which brings me to my point: organisations where there was already a culture of trust – where people have been trustworthy and hence trusted – are the ones for whom remote working is less of an issue. For the natural micromanagers, the ones who feel they need to stand eagle-eyed over their people, this is a really frustrating time as they imagine – rightly or wrongly – that just about everyone will be neglecting their work and enjoying the distractions of life at home.

Some people will indeed disappoint with their performance, abusing the normalisation of flexitime, but there will also be pleasant surprises, with new stars emerging. Look out for such people. Recognise and celebrate them.

Even as many leaders and frontline staff are busier than ever with their crisis management, for others who are less busy now is the time to place more emphasis on the learning they may have been too stretched to undertake before. This is the time to adopt a coaching approach to leadership, encouraging and reassuring one’s people, stretching and empowering them.

It is also the time to flatten the organisational pyramid. I very much related to a recent presentation on “The Future of Work – Lessons from the Pandemic” by the China Europe International Business School, in which they foresee the emergence of more empowered teams, with the ability to be autonomous and agile, and where hierarchies give way “wire-archies.” It is a time when “companies must restructure around people,” they conclude, in a culture where boldness and innovation are encouraged and mistakes expected and allowed.

Another article that caught my eye was by my friend Jayanth Murthy of the Kaizen Institute. He cautions leaders against being ostriches, birds that bury their heads in the sand when frightened and “remember they are big, but can’t fly.” The focus of ostrich-like leaders in times of crisis is purely on cost cutting, by reducing headcount, R&D budgets, marketing spend and suchlike. This can deliver quick results, he acknowledges, but inhibits post-crisis rebound.

Murthy contrasts the ostrich with the albatross. This bird “flies high, but with minimal effort.” It focuses on cutting waste, raising productivity and maximising impact (so very Kaizen). Albatross companies, he writes, expand their ability to find and fix problems, develop their people, improve processes and seek new opportunities to find and fix waste, broken processes and leakages. They get closer to their partners, and build long-lasting relationships with their own team members, customers, within the trade and with suppliers.

So what is the level of trust in your organisation? How do you make a virtue out of the necessity of our present predicament by challenging those around you to be more responsible and reliable, more collaborative and supportive, and of higher integrity?

Be sufficiently optimistic. Be bold. While of course keeping a tight grip on controls and on performance management. You may be pleasantly surprised.