Yes, but no, but…

I met Kerstin, consultant for GPiPartner (www.gpipartner.com) at South Kensington station and we walked to the V&A museum to have lunch in the beautiful piazza and talk about cultural differences, identity and globalisation. It is always good to talk to someone who shares the same interests. Time flies, your brain goes a 100 mph and, I apologise to Kerstin, so many thoughts and ideas come up we hopped from topic to topic. One of the main questions that silenced me for a moment is the challenge for those of us who are direct in their communication to interact with those who are indirect.

Kerstin told me that her clients sometimes struggle when, due to globalization, a team in, for example, the UK needs to work together with a team in, for example, India or China because the latter colleagues may say ‘yes’ to a timetable or a way of executing a  project but mean ‘no’ or ‘maybe’. It is the one issue I’ve heard about when I speak to people about their work, whether it’s those in my network who work for large companies like IBM or Barclays, or those who are training a small team when they’re sent overseas as an expat. I agreed that we face the same challenge in education when we teach students from countries like China, Vietnam, India, etc.

Hall called it high context vs low context, Kim called it conversational constraints, Ting-Toomey and Gudykunst called it ‘positive and negative face’. Although these concepts give the problem a name, the solution is not that straight forward. Now, Kerstin’s example may be because the Indian team wants to maintain harmony (Kim), save face (Ting-Toomey) or come from a culture that is high context (Hall). The problem is, what do you do as a team manager from a (business) culture that does not work that way?

It left me wondering if people from high context cultures who prefer communicating indirectly view those who communicate directly? Is it easy for them? Do they view the other as rude and obnoxious? Then, I pondered how two indirect/high context/save facing teams work together. Have they learned to be more perceptive of others’ body language? Do they know what questions to ask? We agreed that it’s key to ask the right questions. If you’re someone who likes direct communication, don’t ask ‘Can you do this project?’ but instead ask ‘How will you do this project?’. Don’t ask ‘Will it be finished by X deadline?’ but ask ‘When will you finish the project?’.

Furthermore, as I mentioned before in my blog, be aware that your not working from a neutral perspective. Being direct does not equate ‘being right’. Having some cultural self awareness is a key skill for any global manager.This includes remembering the historical relations between the countries where your teams/business is located. For example is there a colonial history? Then be careful about being informal too soon, as a director for a UK company shared with me. When he said ‘come on boys, let’s get started’ to his Indian colleagues he was curtly informed that this familiarity was not appreciated. Having this kind of insight can be priceless for any organisation going global.

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Being a misfit at work or within the community: The importance of belonging

Managers are usually well educated (university of life included). For this reason, they have strong ideas about what works and how they should manage effectively. What often clouds our judgement is having the time and space. Despite our years of experience, we sometimes have the inability to take a moment and think why the other is so ‘difficult’, ‘stupid’, or ‘unable’. We assume everybody does ‘organisational professionalism’ and speaks ‘business English’…

It takes two to tango. When we interact, we are dealing with someone else who may perceive the situation differently. Therefore, we’re dealing with a (mis)match. You may find that in books, workshops and other media different terms are used for disagreements in perception: e.g, (non) allignment of practices, value (in)congruence, person-organisation (mis)fit, harmony/dissonance in cross-cultural interfaces.

 (Mis)Fit

When we asked people to talk to us about their perception of their ‘fit’ with the organisation, it generated
several domains: Work-Life Balance, People (team, supervisor), Organisation (mission, values, reputation), Employment (conditions, personal development), Job (nature, own skills and achievements) (Billsberry et al., 2006). In several workshops, when I repeated the exercise, some people realised there and then that they were a misfit according to their own assessment of how they fitted in (or not) (van Meurs, 2007). The exercise identifies areas for development or a need for change.

          An American approach to fitting in is known as ‘Person-Environment Fit’ or ‘Person-Organizational Fit’. Researchers looked at the average ratings of work values by people within the organisation and compared that to the ratings by another set of people or, for recruitment purposes, one individual. Sometimes they fit, which is considered desirable, sometimes they don’t, which is indicitive of a bad recruit. This has caused some controversy, and I believe that such measurements and results may be helpful for research but should be discussed on a one-to-one basis in real life. In fact, any psychometric test, especially those assessing personality traits, should be used as a diagnostic tool only. Differences can be a wealth that should not be underestimated, as creative stagnation may occur if only clones are recruited.

               That said, fitting in and our sense of belonging are important within organisations but
also within society. ‘Us vs. Them’ talk is powerful because we are social animals and it makes us happy to belong to a group made up of people who think similarly to us. Yet, this is deemed as politically incorrect and we are told we should be someone who can live and work peacefully within a community that is diverse. In a discussion about mixed neighbourhoods, an executive told me that he used to live in a diverse neighbourhood that was friendly and cooperative, ergo, arguing that people from different backgrounds can get on with others different from themselves. This is a nice example, because it is likely that, despite the differences in national and ethnic backgrounds, the people in this community were like-minded about how to create a good community, which became the core feature of their common identity.

It doesn’t matter where you came from, but it does matter where you think you’re going and that, together, you have this common goal in mind. Teams within Google and other modern companies are made up of people from different backgrounds, however their common cosmopolitan identity is highlighted, which gives them a sense of belonging and advances Google’s success. It may be unreasonable to expect people to supress a core human trait such as wanting to belong to a group similar to ourselves. It may be time to drop the political correctness manuals and be mindful that, with good communication, education and training, diverse communities and work teams can establish a common goal without denying anyone membership based on their cultural or biological background. This way, diversity enriches but the acceptance of it is not enforced.

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