Covid, grief & surfing the waves

In between the statistics and government announcements about lockdown rules, many people have suffered and some shared their personal stories. Depending on where you are, you are or are not able to see your loved ones because they are sheltered elderly or vulnerable. I too am in/have had a personal crisis, my father died 2nd of June, and I experienced a complete focus on what is truly important. I am thankful that my dad spoke to us about love and wishes for the future – to be happy. But survival and then grief isn’t a linear process – it crashes and turns like the surf and we as a family had to adapt, be agile, kind, patient, decisive, and ultimately respectful of what the other wasn’t and was able to think and do.
My organisation, Middlesex University has been supportive and I am grateful for the compassion of colleagues. This isn’t a given. We have seen stories of people getting fired, denied new contracts, or expected to work as per normal if not harder despite being at home and taking care of children. Of course at the moment organisations are engaged in strategic thinking in uncertain times and the same applies to universities. Viewing people not as a means to an end but as a family with talents and needs that complement can actually instil trust and much goodwill. Agility, kindness and resilience are not just management buzzwords – as long as the organisation and family have your back. We are all part of the human race and together, at home or at work, we have much to think and talk about in terms of work-life well-being and riding the surf 🏄‍♂️

Continue Reading

Now is a time to unite whilst “social distancing”

If ever there was a VUCA event (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) it is the Covid-19 virus crisis (Corona Virus). Trying to figure out how to process information, take care of yourself, maintaining or finding a new job, care for others is important.

What then to do whilst not feeling overwhelmed links back to the good practice of levels of analysis. When an organisation (or individual) is faced with a crisis, it helps to analyse what is going on at which level (and to what extent can you control it): individual level, organisational level and (inter)national level. Unless you’re the president or prime minister, there is little you can do but write to your political representative to indicate what you want (try one tweet also but extensive rants on social media won’t help). You must take care of yourself (especially if you are looking after others also). It is tempting to want to be ‘resilient’ – I can go out and beat this virus – you probably will survive it, but may infect someone else (who you love) who won’t.

Beware of your mental well-being. Whereas stress and adrenaline helps when we’re navigating difficult traffic, long term stress is not good. HPA (Hypothalamic Pituitary-Adrenal) axis is our ‘fight or flight’ response and, if ‘on’ for longer term, this may cause anger, anxiety and depression. It can also affect our immunity as in ‘fight or flight’ mode the body will send energy to this and not other ailments that need healing.

  • Sleep is important. It is like a CNTRL-ALT-DELETE for the brain – avoid too many uppers (caffeine) and downers (alcohol/tablets). Try meditation (yoga nidra) or prayer.
  • Healthy body – do exercise (jump rope, find video online, go for a walk in nature), eat nutritious food. Don’t see this as a license to eat junk food, see it as a time to rest and take care of yourself whilst not ‘on the go’.
  • Down-regulate HPA by finding happiness and hope in gardening, family, work, academic work. Set achievable tasks and deadlines. Create a rota for the home that includes listening to music or David Bowie narrating ‘Peter & The Wolf‘ Nature is a very good way of soothing anxiety but if you really can’t go out (self isolating) or you’re in the city and there’s no space – find Motion Art on Netflix or listen to birdsong

For decades people have used the word ‘agile’ and expensive Business Consultants are now finding out that they too must practice what they preach. Previously relatively stable jobs and industries are suddenly affected (think of retreat and conference centres, hotels, restaurants, gyms but then also consider their supply chain: food and cleaning companies, or artists, teachers). Some restaurants now deliver toilet rolls. Other kinds of agile thinking involves beer companies now making hand sanitisers, museums opening up digitally but paid-for nature parks opening up to the public to get them out and about.

If anything, this crisis also shows that there is cultural variation in how to handle a crisis. There is no specific leadership that fits the scenario. However, Michel Gelfand has written about how cultures that are ‘tight’ often had to deal with a crisis before and now ‘free’ or ‘lose’ Western democracies need to do the same. As some governments are finding – kindly asking citizens to do something or refrain from something, isn’t quite working! Yes, many of us are concerned about autocratic leadership and fascism. Still, this is not a war with another nation or ‘ism’ – it is a global health threat.

So how does this fit with Cultural Intelligence? Well, a leader must know how their ‘people’ – be it citizens or employees respond to certain tactics PROVIDED they keep in mind the macro level situation. So, yes, for a modern organisation, being agile and flexible is good and micro-management and bureacracy isn’t. But the minute that the macro-level enviroment changes, the leadership style must adapt also. With a threat, people want information and direction. There will also be a strong need for ‘fairness’. Asking people to engage in ‘social distancing’ to help the vulnerable and elderly and then subsequently the elderly are still out and about in town or garden centres may raise some eyebrows or more. People want to belong and, after decades of pushing for ‘individualism’ and ‘entitlement’, it’s important to foster a sense of community.

Steve Reicher, Social Psychologist, advised that people will not riot because of scarcity necessarily, more likely it is when they perceive inequality. Therefore a shift from individualism to collectivism in a time of crisis is important (see Reicher’s piece with John Drury, a riot expert, here: ). They make clear that at national level, a shift in cultural norms must take place for people to behave decently and not selfishly: “The best way to stop people going out when unwell or demanding resources they need less than others is not simply to change internal motivations but also to mobilise external disapproval. The feverish person who goes to work, the fit young person demanding access to A&E will be best dissuaded when the community comes together to make clear that these are not acceptable behaviours.”

What can organisations do? Be aware of the need for organisational justice: interpersonal and informational justice (how does my supervisor communicate with me and is it true or inauthentic?), distributive justice (are we all taking a paycut?) and procedural (how are things managed? what are the guidelines?). A leader or manager can make clear rules and procedures about what is required so to ensure employees will still engage in helping each other and giving (innovative) input. We analysed data from organisations in 17 different countries and that study can be found here. We advise organisations to not take advantage of uncertainty by creating more chaos (e.g., firing people) but be transparent and clear about the way forward, setting some ground rules but also asking for input and coming up with creative ideas to weather the storm.

Overall, be prepared that some things will change permanently, new opportunities will arise and if you lend a hand, it’s likely that someone else will be kind in turn. Here’s an example of how to do that on your street/in your community.


Continue Reading

In a courageous new world, should we be resilient or vulnerable?

If we consider the popularity of competitive shows – be it (country) has got talent, (country)’s Top Model/Designer/Mountain Climber – we like a tough journey, with highs and lows and where only the one’s who work hard and who have tenacity make it. In the real world, however, organisations deal with an ever-increasing demand for understanding and consideration of people’s needs. It is not easy for any person then, to navigate the balance between resilience and vulnerability for themselves. Plus it’s complicated: national cultural norms can impact how organisations are led and how individuals behave. For example, in an uncertain, unstable environment, individuals are more likely to cooperate and come up with ideas if the organisation provides guidance and clear rules that facilitate an environment of trust.

People like Brené Brown, Oprah Winfrey and Simon Sinek would encourage us to consider those who are vulnerable to be brave for speaking out when not feeling safe. Yet, there is a plethora of articles that discuss “the X things successful people do to be resilient”). Some of this may be linked to context – in certain organisations and also countries, it is more socially acceptable to be vulnerable (expressed explicitly or indirectly – i.e., valuing vulnerability doesn’t equate being emotional) or to be stoic, strong and/or resilient. The tricky thing is that the cultural context seems to foster one or the other – needing security as a value is theorised to be opposite self direction. We seem to be engaged in a ideological tug of war of what individuals, countries, the world need to prosper. For example, Michele Gelfand speaks of ‘tight’ versus ‘loose’ cultures in reflection of the popularity of “strong man culture” and you can even test your own looseness or tightness.

Copyright Dr. N van Meurs 2019

Albeit not quite on a spectrum (resilience is not the antonym of vulnerability), both do fall under the umbrella of ‘courage’. The opposite of vulnerability is defined as not being able to be harmed, which suggests the person borders on psychopathic. The antonym of resilience is weakness and that implies a lack of courage but not a lack of vulnerability. Truth be told, in this complex, globalised world we probably need both – societies and organisations benefit from people who are courageous enough to show a balance between sensitivity and strength. And that takes 50 minutes of reflection with a sense of humour as a first step.

Continue Reading

Caring is sharing the notion that we want to belong and we want to feel special.

Like many, I’m bemused at best but often angry that people don’t listen to facts when it comes to the environment, Brexit, immigration, white supremacy etc. So I watched a video about the Flat Earth movement. It’s such an extreme example that I wasn’t pulled into the debate. Then it became clear that the underlying values that guide these beliefs is simply that they don’t like the scientific notion that the earth is nothing but a speck in an immense universe. They want to feel special. Perhaps this is what drives any ideology: a club of people wanting to belong to something and feel top of the pecking order, master of the environment. The way forward is dual: stand for your convictions (I am a feminist because…. ) but not to try and convince any group by imposing one’s own viewpoints (you are wrong because ….). And in the meantime perhaps acknowledge the challenges of being human and the importance of the need for belonging.

The reason for this need can be analysed from different perspectives. It can be evolutionary (survival), social (indoctrination of be value of individualism and being special and needing to “win” mixed with masculinity (Hofstede’s interpretation of that – so ambition and power) and such values that are taught through institutions, to how we as humans would seek group membership to enhance our self esteem to feel good about ourselves (social identity theory).

A modern notion of identity is pluralism and the politics that goes along with that is tolerance and laissez faire. All well and good for educated (white) urbanites who can identify with multiculturalism and being a citizen of the world but for many, tribalism is (still) so important. And why be dismissive of this? Who of us is truly multicultural; we all have our tribes, including that urbanite. Perhaps we are fighting the wrong fights about being right and what matters is the underlying driving value. There are initiatives that are remarkable, such as a project in Germany that connects people with opposing views to have a chat. This is an extraordinary initiative and the organisers are reaching out to Europe and beyond to connnect. So what can you do? Well, much of the understanding for the need for belonging starts at home or in your organisation. In an uncertain environment, showing that you care will encourage people to voice their ideas and help each other. That care can be expressed by (ethical) norms and procedures (formalisation) – standing for a way of doing things that makes people feel safe. This way, people spend less energy worrying about survival.

Continue Reading

Market leaders, young dogs and global challenges

This morning, I read an interesting article by Prof. Dr. Désirée van Gorp about how large tech companies dominate across sectors but other ‘young dogs’ can also play. Although about tech, the article is relevant to any international business. It echoes Simon Sinek‘s point (and I like that because it means knowledgeable people are saying the same thing, which I trust more than one individual’s opinion). It links nicely with stake (not share) holders analysis (see work by my colleague Andrea Werner).

It also refers to deeply ingrained paradigms, which links to values and how we do things (which is what I teach). From what some of my MBA and MA students describe, a HQ may be located in one country (eg USA) but it tries to adapt to local markets/subsidiaries and if you’re a global business this isn’t easy. At a time when the outside world is uncertain too, clear guidelines on the organisational strategy (and the ‘why’) can help. Linked to this our study that showed that in countries where there’s instability and uncertainty, organisations may ‘buffer’ this when they have clear rules and policies, which can foster innovative and collaborative behaviour.

In the brief article in Dutch, Prof. van Gorp from Nyenrode Business University gives a few insights and examples and so I took these words and translated them with the help of Google Translate.

It seems that companies exist by the grace of rapid changes. Especially international tech giants compete in different sectors and many still underestimate the strength of these global challengers. They think that the ‘Seven Sisters’ – including companies like Apple, Amazon and Google – are in control.

“Lesson one is: think big and different. The sales area of ​​these tech giants, but also of other new challengers such as Tesla, is by definition the world. In addition, their mission is often based on ideals, which is important for attracting and retaining talent. For example, Google has the mission to organize all information worldwide and to make it universally accessible and usable. The engine of growth for these companies consists of innovation, attracting young talent and quickly responding to changes. That is crucial, because it is the only way to be future-proof.”

Appealing story

“Communication gets a new dimension: the big challengers tell their story with verve, so that their customers also feel part of the meaningful ecosystem. Consumers are also merciless when the ambitions are experienced as insincere, as Facebook has recently experienced. The concrete actions and policies of companies must fit one-on-one with the message. When this is applied in perfection, this way of adding value brings success. Companies thus form a magnet for young talent. This is essential to be close to the market and to respond quickly to changes.”

Thoughtfully digital

“Mammoths like Apple and Alibaba are sailing smart applications of digital innovations. Not only do the tech giants benefit from this. Look, for example, at Burberry and its seamless alignment of off-line and online offerings, resulting in a total customer experience. It turned out to be the salvation of the ailing fashion company.

“Moving along and daring to let go of deeply ingrained paradigms if necessary is the only motto.”

The platform in general offers innovation opportunities for smaller players. They can collaborate with public and private parties to create more value for different stakeholders. A water sports company, for example, has an interest in clean water that is not full of plastic waste. Clean water can contribute to a better customer experience. In order to achieve this, the company can seek cooperation with other partners who have the same interest, and with whom they can create an ecosystem together.”


“Finally, big challengers stick out their necks when they discover sector-alien directions. They do that amazingly well. Many think of fintechs, the young dogs, among competitors in the banking industry. But outsiders like Amazon seem to have the best cards. Innovation is important to be and remain relevant in the future. In this way DSM has innovated from being a mining company through bulk chemicals manufacturer to producer of high-quality ingredients and raw materials for the food sector, pharmaceutical manufacturers and the automotive industry. The condition is that such a company dares to invest heavily in new markets that do not immediately generate money. The big challengers represent the new reality of business management. It is a fatal misconception to think that it is a far-from-my-bed show, i.e., it’s not relevant to you. Moving along and daring to let go of deeply ingrained paradigms if necessary is the only motto.”

Continue Reading

In times of uncertainty, people will help and innovate if the organisation is stable.

Our paper “Does organizational formalization facilitate voice and helping organizational citizenship behaviors? It depends on (national) uncertainty norms” was published in the Journal of International Business Studies after years of analyses and writing. To be published in such a top-level journal is very rewarding and we owe colleagues, reviewers and friends for useful feedback. We had not anticipated that the world dynamics would’ve shifted to the extent that previously relatively stable countries are now experiencing their own internal and international uncertainties (e.g., G7 June 2018 and the debates around Brexit). We hope that this paper gives policy makers and organisational decision makers some key advice on how to cope when the macro-level environment is unstable but as an organisation you still want your employees to collaborate and voice ideas.

Abstract: “Prosocial work behaviors in a globalized environment do not operate in a cultural vacuum. We assess to what extent voice and helping organizational citizenship behaviors (OCBs) vary across cultures, depending on employees’ perceived level of organizational formalization and national uncertainty. We predict that in contexts of uncertainty, cognitive resources are engaged in coping with this uncertainty. Organizational formalization can provide structure that frees up cognitive resources to engage in OCB. In contrast, in contexts of low uncertainty, organizational formalization is not necessary for providing structure and may increase constraints on discretionary behavior. A three-level hierarchical linear modeling analysis of data from 7,537 employees in 267 organizations across 17 countries provides broad support for our hypothesis: perceived organizational formalization is weakly related to OCB, but where uncertainty is high; formalization facilitates voice significantly, helping OCB to a lesser extent. Our findings contribute to clarifying the dynamics between perceptions of norms at organizational and national levels for understanding when employees may engage in helping and voice behaviors. The key implication is that managers can foster OCB through organizational formalization interventions in uncertain environments that are cognitively demanding.

Continue Reading

The UNHCR made a statement on the second anniversary of little Alan (known as Aylan) Kurdi’s death. For many people the idea that others want to come to their shores is a frightening prospect. This issue is enormously complex and taking up the drawbridge is not a solution nor is it morally justifiable.

One of the main reasons why it is not a solution is the misunderstanding that people cross deserts and seas on their own volition. There is a business and profit oriented aspect to immigration that needs the input from scholars, experts and individuals with their voting power. First, the security industry has no interest in reducing the fear of people regarding immigration. They make a lot of money. They do not take Corporate Social Responsibility into account.

Second, a photographer with an exhibition that won the Carmignac Photojournalism Award at the Saatchi gallery in London was able to dismiss his own hypothesis of the ‘romantic’ (his words) notion that people would cross land to find freedom and security. It turned out that immigration is actually modern slavery. Groups of people are sorted and ‘stored’ until shipped to Europe. Who are the buyers? The stakeholders?

These are international issues that touch upon the murky (I refuse to use ‘dark’) side of globalization. During the teaching of our Undergraduate, MBAs and MAs course on International Management & Ethics and Management Perspectives we challenge students to see the wider implications, consider all stakeholders and develop critical, culturally intelligent skills. I’m proud of that work but as academics, we need to stop working in silos and multidisciplinary work, research, output needs to be better rewarded and published in open access journals. Fools are us for our own murky publications business model.

Continue Reading

Accepted and nominated

My paper has been accepted! I’ll be presenting a paper on Brexit titled “Fitting in as a citizen: An exploration of individuals’ conceptualization of citizenship through a Person-Environment Fit lens” in Edinburgh at the end of June 2017 for the International Society of Political Psychology

I was also nominated for ‘Most Inspiring Teacher’ for the annual Teaching Awards organised by the Middlesex University Student Union. Last year it was ‘Most Innovative Teacher’ and I’m pleased to be included in the list. What’s more, it’s a good reflective practice to read what made students nominate me. To read that I’m helpful, a mentor, that I’m feisty but I care, and that I motivate and stimulate on the subject of cross cultural management in this globalised environment is really important to me.

Intention and perception are key aspects to consider in academia (and beyond). The MBA student cared to do this in poem-form, which, for a business student is pretty amazing!

Continue Reading

It’s fine. (No, it’s not)

It’s been over 20 years but I still don’t seem to ‘get’ how the British communicate. Funny how when you’re busy and exhausted, physically and mentally, you go back to your MO – Hofstede did call culture ‘the software of the mind’.
I’m Dutch: Direct, pragmatic, trusting the mantra what-you-see/hear-is-what-you-get/mean. We are the worst immigrants the British can wish upon themselves…
Dutch person: Are you sure you don’t mind?
British person: No, it’s fine.
Dutch person: I’m sorry that X happened/I didn’t manage Y but I can do/have/sort/organise A, happy to do so (see how they have integrated? Apology, offers solution).
British person: No it’s fine.
Two days later – British person is cold and/or not answering emails/texts/messages/smoke signals
Dutch person rings or sees them in person: Is everything OK?
British person: No, you’re rude. X happened/you didn’t manage Y.
Dutch person: WHAT?! But i tried! And i offered! I even used the word ‘sorry’!
Upset, writes post on FB.
Every British friend: I saw you wrote that about me on FB?
Dutch person: I’ve not spoken to you in weeks/you’re not the only one British person I know/it was the customer service operator, see my twitter feed.

Thank goddess I live with a Yorkshireman.

Jokes aside, the psychology behind this interest me – so the Brit assesses the behaviour through their own cultural lenses and judges it to be inappropriate. But for the other that is their best – they too act from what they deem was appropriate conduct. Yet it was seen as malicious, uncaring, rude. I think that that is one of the biggest challenges for integration in a multicultural society. Forget the British nationalisation test and questions about Corronation Street…

It’s about taking perspective and pause to reflect if the behaviour is representative of the person. Maybe we should all start conversations with “my aim/intention/feeling is this…” and then the behaviour that follows can be interpreted in the correct light. It breaks my heart that in a multicultural society people judge one another thinking disrespect and malice is at the core of it, when it is the opposite: A man not shaking a woman’s hand out of respect, a person showing up late so not to inconvenience the host, a person talking through plans/progress to be consultative not to push their own agenda, someone who is silent to show calm, not disinterest etc. Tolerance is not the way forward; it is indicitive of a power-imbalance (“I tolerate you”), nor should we slap the wrist of anyone who is deemed to do wrong from our perspective before we know intent (yes, that includes crimes of cultural appropriation, political incorrectness and sex/race/ism). It’s hard work but indicitive of a growth vs fixed mindset.

Continue Reading

There’ll be blood

Recently, I was alerted to a speech in which President Trump said: “I’m directing Department of Justice and Homeland Security to undertake all necessary and lawful action to break the back of the criminal cartels that have spread across our nation and are destroying the blood of our youth and other people, many other people.”

The word that stands out is ‘blood’ but in combination with ‘destroying’. As if it’s contaminated.

In an extensive study on how Americans and British people feel about equal citizenship, Johnston Conover, Searing and Crewe (2004) argued that people may not be able to psychologically disconnect their community experiences from the political definition of citizenship, i.e., civil rights and that the law maybe more progressive than the people. Now, post Brexit and US 2016 elections, the world seems confused about what it means to belong in a nation.

Equal citizenship is “the doctrine that all human beings are of equal moral worth and that all citizens, including minorities… should be regarded as full and equal members of the community” (JC, S & C, 2004, p. 1036). Gutmann (1992, cited in JC, S & C, 2004) argued that equal citizenship can be achieved through two pathways. One is by separating citizenship from national identity and culture (be culture blind) and adhere to the ‘rule’ that no way of life has privilege (i.e., the legal path, in this paper argued to be the ‘liberal’ path from its Latin origin Liber). Or, on the other hand, through cultural pluralism, which seeks to assure minority groups equal standing among the majority culture (be aware of cultural differences).

A third path, Johnston Conover and colleagues argue, is the communitarian model, which postulates that citizenship is learned through experiences. Unlike the liberal (see also a discussion on the cross cultural confusion about this term) path or pluralist path, communitarianism rejects accounts of autonomous or interdependent individuals because the quality of community life depends on ‘relatedness and mutuality; i.e., a system of shared meanings.

Johnston Conover et al. asked US and UK individuals questions about their conceptualisation of citizenship (rights vs duties) and what makes someone a citizen (blood ties vs assimilation). They found a distinct difference between the US and the UK, in that a membership of a nation in the US was deemed determined by (rank 1-3) residency, socialization and birth, whereas for the British participants it was birth, blood and then born and bred. When they didn’t ask about citizenship but about ‘belonging’ – then both groups agreed that residency and socialization sufficed.  It would be interesting to see what would happen if Johnston Conover and colleagues would replicate their study now.

Similarly, Pehrson, Vignoles and Brown (2009) analysed existing ISPP data from 37,030 individuals in 31 countries about their national identification in terms of citizenship (civic definition), linguistic ability (cultural definition) and ancestry (ethnic definition). Among other results, they found a positive correlation between viewing national membership based on ancestry and prejudice. Just recently, The Economist shared the results of a poll of 15 nations on what defines identity and this research suggested a common language is the most important.

For my research, I used these various conceptualisations of citizenship to find out how people feel about citizenship and how an ‘other’ may attain it or lose it. There is data on Brexit, data from Dutch students and data from students in the UK. It’ll be interesting to explore the differences, especially in terms of how the ‘youth’ themselves feel about blood and, so called, destruction. Moreover, the studies contain a framework borrowed from business literature, Person-Environment Fit, which may shed more light on how varying conceptualisations of citizenship could be managed.

Continue Reading
1 2 3 8