Navigating a complex, globalised world

Vigilant global citizenship;

Navigating nine minefields whilst working and living in a complex world

This briefing is from a new book in process, focusing on the tensions related to polarisation, globalisation and identity that we experience and how to navigate them

Is it true that globalisation is a good thing? Or are we all considering a move to an island to live and work with like-minded others? The world is doing better according to big data: we are more educated, healthier and wealthier on average[1]. If we did an archeological dig in 1000 years from now, our current world may seem rather homogenous – urbanisation made up of global retail outlets, electronic devices and online platforms such as Zara, McDonalds, Starbucks, Apple phones and Amazon delivery boxes may suggest we are becoming similar.

But for those who travel and dig deeper into the human mindset, find a key tension: people may drink Coca Cola, eat from McDonalds, wear jeans and t-shirts but want to express their personal identity (ex/introvert, sexuality) mixed in with their social identity (faith, politics). There are conflicting trends – we see more people expressing deeply religious values through dress (e.g., hijab) in comparison to the 1970s but equally more countries embrace same-sex marriage. Social media tells us to “be yourself” and to “pick a side”. We are also asked to take perspective and realise that the ‘present’ is but a blip in history (Daniel Kahneman – Thinking Fast and Slow), yet we are also encouraged to live ‘truly in the present’ (Eckhart Tolle – A New Earth). Meanwhile, organisations and businesses need to cope with an increasing complex environment that demands speedy technological advancement, just-in-time delivery whilst acknowledging diversity and understanding cultural differences.

          So let’s unpack this a little further. Issues pertaining to international business, immigration, partisan politics and ethnic tensions seem to increase, rather than decrease despite our ability to travel, work in  diverse teams and learn about others via (social) media via the internet. Effective cross cultural management is the ability to handle issues between people from different backgrounds and identities, be it religious, ideological or national. In our current globalised environment, any individual with responsibility over or for others, i.e., a leader and decision maker, would do well to take heed of the cultural differences that exist. Moreover, an important ability is taking perspective and be aware of context: we are never neutral, and all that we perceive is through a filter coloured by our cultural background. Effective communication is not about simply being aware of using the polite form of ‘you’ in certain languages but about being highly critical of what is deemed universal when in fact it is a subjective norm in your community.

An important messages during my key-note speech in Bulgaria (van Meurs, 2007) was that even if we collectively think that democracy is the ideal, we must be aware that others may not agree with that political system and we need to be cautious about imposing the idea onto others. This caused some controversy and people argued during the talk that they didn’t understand because passing on the Western civilised notion of democracy is what they felt was their duty as cross cultural consultants. Note that I was not arguing against democracy, I was merely pointing out that it was a system that some, not all, subscribe to, due to the values and the norms that are prevalent within the community and that ‘democracy’ in the USA is different from the Netherlands anyway. For one community to impose their views (even in their heart it feels like a universal truth) is problematic because people are usually not very sympathetic to someone else telling them a) they’re wrong and b) they need to think in a different (read: that someone else’s) way. The problem that occurred at the congress was that people mistook democracy for a universal truth.

I realise that this opens a huge can of worms. What about human rights? What about torture? What about ‘freedom of speech’? With an ‘it’s all relative’ approach, what chaos will ensue when people move somewhere where, to them, undesirable laws/norms/values are in place and they are not required to adapt? Let me share with you an example that may explain that even concepts that we deem to be universal, e.g., freedom of speech, are bounded by our cultural lenses. Recall the debate in Denmark on the cartoon that depicted the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). It caused a difficult debate on freedom of speech as some felt they should be able to depict anyone in anyway whereas others felt it was unnecessarily offensive to a particular minority group. If the Prophet has no cultural meaning to you, you may agree that freedom of speech is important and no person is above this.

Move a two countries West and in The Netherlands another debate was raging. The authorities wanted to forbid a political party called Martyn. Martyn also claimed freedom of speech, and some intellectuals whole heartedly agreed. The issue here is, however, that Martyn represented the interests of pedophiles. Quote: “the purpose of the association is being described as follows: “To make debatable the aspiration towards legal and societal acceptance of adult-child relationships.”[2] Furthermore, Martyn published in a magazine: “”OK magazine” is an informational magazine about adult-child relationships and pedophilia. … It can … be obtained from a few bookshops and is available for perusal at some libraries. Members and non-members can share their stories in OK. OK contains serial stories, short stories, poetry, essays, articles on topical issues, reviews, letters, cartoons and useful addresses. Furthermore it always contains a delightful assortment of legal pictures and illustrations.” Only in 2003 did a campaign start to stop the party from existence and in 2007 the Dutch King went to court because pictures of his eldest daughter (then 3) were on display on the website.

From 2011 onward, there was a battle between courts and several appeals ensued. In the end, On 18 April 2014 the Supreme Court overturned the acquittal and reinstated the trial judge’s order that the group was illegal. This judge had stated that the group’s actions and statements regarding sexual contact between adults and children were in conflict with the accepted norms and values of Dutch society. In his statement, the judge emphasised the overriding need to protect children In 2015, an appeal by the association to the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) was rejected.[3] I use this example in my conversations with people about what they believe are universal truths. It may be unfathomable for most of us that this debate even happened. It illustrates, using a very powerful example, that what may seem logical to be forbidden even in the courts was articulated through an emphasis on Dutch norms and values (in other words, the argument that the rights of children are above the law of ‘freedom of speech’ didn’t apply). If countries like France and Denmark decide to ban the burka, then they may do so if they feel the garment is unacceptable in that society, however, authorities (and its citizens) cannot do that and also claim they are a democracy with freedom of speech, attire, religion, etc. Yes, but, one may argue, in the first scenario it was important to protect children and in the second scenario we are protecting women from oppression. This does not matter, both are still value judgements. Martyn argued that they want to talk and write about what they think is ‘normal’, not actually abuse children in the process – yet the courts now decided to shut them down (and rightfully so, in my opinion). It is fine to have these rules and policies, reflecting cultural values and norms. But we must then face up to the fact that they are this, and not a reflection of universal truth; a way of thinking to which every nation and citizen should aspire.

In sum, there is not one solid answer for any of these scenarios. What is crucial, however, is to be aware that believing strongly that something should be universal (peace, human rights, democracy), doesn’t mean that it is. More problematically, if you think that it should be and therefore tell those who are not of that conviction (yet), this may not be welcomed. The debate of cultural rights vs. human rights also affects management as issues related to the respect of an individual’s culture (e.g., religion, sexuality, gender) within the workplace are a challenge for any organisation. We know that cross cultural issues are viewed as important.  However, it is also often ignored by people in leadership roles because the benefits of engaging in very difficult dialogue can be difficult to translate into a hard cost-benefit analysis and it goes against the general idea that we live in a global village, where modern people think similarly and where there is no need for understanding cultural differences.

Should you think that cross cultural awareness is a skill paramount for the functioning of modern society, read on. The core features of the ideal training and development for anyone functioning in an international environment is a multidisciplinary approach (connecting the dots), experiential learning soft skill development (e.g., interpersonal skills), a global perspective, and the incorporation of ethics[4]. For example, the Financial Times features cross cultural management as a core aspect of leadership and management development in their FT.com Business School section. In this short book, I summarise my research as an expert in Cross Cultural Management and Psychology. The report was developed with the aim to inform decision makers in businesses and organisations, who work in an international context.

I have over ten years of experience in teaching and researching cross cultural management and psychology. I have taught courses called ‘Management Perspectives’ with my colleague Dr Andrea Werner (ethics) and Dr. Paul Griseri (philosophy of management) for several MBAs and MAs (MBA general, MBA Shipping & Logistics, MBA Oil & Gas, MA Management in the International Payment Ecosystem in association with Worldpay (now a merger with Vantiv, USA), MA International Business Management) and I recommend that you explore their work too. My practical experience varies, working for organisations such as Shell International. Randstand USA, the Open University (HR department). Based on this experience, the overall conclusion (so far) I’ve drawn is that:

a) Taking perspective involves the skill to stop, pause and listen without making assumptions about the other person who may look Japanese, but will have studied in America, married a Peruvian and worked four years in Germany.

b) Shelve any convictions of your own neutrality or superiority (‘surely everyone wants democracy/360 degree feedback/performance appraisals/freedom of speech’). Even if you believe with all your heart in an ‘ism’, ‘ology’ or ‘theory’, the other may not.

c) the path to agreement, collaboration and compassion is hard work. To tolerate, I’d like to reason, stops at true understanding. If I say ‘I tolerate you’ then this indicates a power imbalance.

In order to achieve the above together as a team or as part of citizenship, I advocate ‘Evidence Based Management[5]’, which is essentially the idea that people should manage by gaining some evidence to back up their decisions. Sometimes, this evidence starts with a ‘hunch’ and that kickstarts further exploration through in-house investigation asking colleagues, then using a consultant or exploring (academic) literature to see what else has been published on the subject. In the end, the ideal scenario is for any organisation or leader to be able to come up with their own bespoke solutions rather than copying what others do (based on a fad or trend) or risking that the consultant employed copies an off-the-shelf solution that isn’t tailored to the particular challenge. It matters because in this complex, globalised world, it is most certainly good practice to learn from others and expand one’s horizons, but at the same time, ethical security breaches and financial crises show that to maintain some kind of control (“if you can’t explain it yourself, then why are you endorsing it?”). For this reason, the advice and tools provided to you in this text are for you to try and tailor and no size fits all.

I’d like to reitterate one point from above: There are a plethora of (cross cultural, intercultural) management books available. Most of these stop short of advice on cultural profiling (comparisons of national cultures in terms of values and then linked to behaviour such as communication styles). The challenge, however, is that in our modern societies, people may have a passported-identity that is American, but they were educated in Europe, lived in China for a while and live with someone from Brazil. This has an impact on how we behave and thus interact with each other. To manage a team of people with such cultural diverse backgrounds is a challenge. It requires the development of cultural intelligence and this book aims to contribute to your attainment of that skill.

Dr. Nathalie van Meurs


[1] https://www.gapminder.org/videos/200-years-that-changed-the-world-bbc/

[2] https://web.archive.org/web/20070805020515/http://www.martijn.org/page.php?id=200000

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vereniging_Martijn

[4] Navarro, P. (2008) The MBA Core Curricula of Top-Ranked U.S. Business Schools: A Study in Failure? Academy of Management Learning & Education, Vol. 7, No. 1, 108–123.

[5] https://www.cebma.org/  find the equivalent in your country