Oh that’s why?

Cross cultural management is the ability to handle issues between people from different backgrounds effectively. 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 but it can be a minefield . We are never neutral, and all that we perceive is through a filter coloured by our cultural background.

However, it is also often ignored by people in leadership roles because the benefits of training 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.
In this report, I summarise the knowledge that I have taught to (MBA) students and researched over the years 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. Since it is impossible to track who reads my blog, journal articles, chapters and lecture notes, I wrote this report for you, which I hope you will read but also actually use. I genuinely believe in ‘Evidence Based Management’, which is essentially the idea that people should manage by gaining some evidence to back up their decisions. So, if this report is useful to you and you implemented some of it in your working life, all I ask is for you to put that in writing and send this to me via n.van-meurs@mdx.ac.uk

Identity Research for impact

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A poem for James Foley

For James Foley
from an Iraqi poet

I dreamed
that Iraq was a sea.
Her wars high waves,
her sorrow dark sand,
the blood
a distant sunset.

I dreamed
that the Sunnis of Iraq
were sharks,
the Kurds starfish,
the Christians dolphins,
the Yezidi goldfish,
the Shiites octopuses
and you, James,
a high-flying seagull.

I dreamed
that Iraq was a sea,
Saddam Hussein a salty tsunami,
black rats on a sinking pirate ship

and I

a boat with millions of holes,
broken masts
and burnt sails,
which no one can push out to sea.

– Rodaan

Rodaan Al Galidi (1971) is a Dutch writer and poet, born in South Iraq

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Under organizational wings

How the universal need for certainty in nations under socio-economic stress can be satisfied by greater formalization within organizations.

Addressing debates about a) the negative correlations between cultural values and practices and b) the controversial effect of formalization and bureaucracy on organizational citizenship behaviour (OCB), we developed a cross-level theory specifying that formalization at the organizational level buffers negative effects of uncertainty at the nation-level on OCB of individuals.  Drawing upon organizational and psychological literature, we argue that a universal need for certainty in nations characterized by high levels of uncertainty can be satisfied by greater formalization within organizations. A three-level hierarchical linear modelling analysis of data from 7,537 employees in 267 organizations across 17 countries supported our hypotheses. In nations with greater levels of uncertainty practices, formalization is positively associated with voice OCB. Our theory and findings open new avenues for re-addressing the debate around negative correlations between cultural values and practices and offers new insights into the complex role of bureaucracy in a global context.

This paper is accepted for the IACM conference in Leiden, The Netherlands July 2014


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Person-Nation Fit and group equality

If Multiculturalism ‘has failed’, then a better understanding of what concepts such as citizenship, tolerance and value congruence mean to society is required. Modern societies are hybrid versions of the traditional culture and new influences (Claeye & van Meurs, 2013) and within each society, in/out group dynamics among subcultures may cause ethnocentric tension (e.g,  Berry, 2009; Pratto et al, 1994). Johnston et al., (2004) found that respondents’ views on citizenship reflect complex mixtures of liberalism and communitarianism. This paper explored how individuals perceive themselves to fit in with their nation based on adapted work from the Person-Environment Fit theory in order to establish societal level Person-Nation Fit (P-N Fit). Citizenship, cultural intelligence and perceptions of intercultural encounters were linked to P-N Fit and belief in group equality. The qualitative study involved 16 participants from anti-fascist groups in Britain. Results showed a denouncement of national identity but a sense of citizenship based on proximal factors. For the quantitative study, 238 students were surveyed. Results showed that Demands-Abilities Fit and cultural intelligence positively predicted a belief in the equality of groups, whereas having experienced negative emotions when meeting people from other cultures linked negatively with beliefs of group equality. Having these negative emotions, low genetic essentialism and strong political leanings predicted citizenship as “A person who has legal rights and duties”. The results highlighted the complexity of communitarianism and liberalism in terms of views on citizenship, and a requirement to re-negotiate the conceptualisation of a multicultural society.

This abstract, titled “Person-Nation Fit and group equality: Defining an individual’s tolerance in a multicultural society“, has been accepted for the annual meeting of the International Association of Cross Cultural Psychology in Reims, France this summer.

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What’s behind the image?

Twitter allows us to find information quickly and catch up with the latest news, innovative developments and (mass) opinion. I use it as a search engine, especially if I don’t want to be searching through links from 2006 or before. Nothing can be more frustrating than entering ‘(comedian’s name)’ or ‘(conference name)’ for information on (tour) dates, to then get a link from three years ago.

However, the convenience of fast searches and scrolling through tweets, FB posts etc quickly can obstruct deeper learning if we don’t engage with what we see. True, this costs time and we’re all busy. But take this photograph. It was on Twitter and links to an exhibition on bottled water. The image is shocking in terms of poverty. But it’s also a warning about the mountain of plastic bottles we’re accumulating. Finally, could it be used as an extreme example of innovation to wake up a student audience sliding into a slumber?


Similarly but different, the journalist Mikey Kay has been criticised for the lack of professionalism when reporting on Syria (review in Dutch but tweets in English to get a flavour). Kay is accused of being a caricature of the journalism profession in his report on the Mid East. Indeed, Kay’s tweets hover between James Bond wannabe and genuine observations. So we could put the video aside as inadequate.

But reports on the Mid East,  critiqued by journo/anthropologist Luyendijk in his book People Like Us, are perhaps a little one sided. After having watched the video and as someone who has visited Beirut several times, I think that ‘serious’ journalism doesn’t always have to be morose. This video by the former military pilot may be a poor attempt at highlighting that the situation in Syria is serious but, actually, it also functions as an insight into Beirut’s nightlife thus lifting the veil on the usual stereotypical perceptions Lebanese people have to deal with on a day to day basis. It could make some who viewed it reconsider the entire Mid East as a deserted war zone. I mean, who knew that they celebrated Halloween in Damascus? The Syrians remember, and if we empathise, hopefully their world can get back to normal.

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Memory: A reality check

This weekend I had dinner with friends and we discussed an occasion where the two others distinctly remembered a previous outing (and a discussion about tipping) and I couldn’t recall this at all. Not only did I not recall the event, I also didn’t think that the behaviour described was something that I would say or do. I couldn’t check it on Wikipedia, nor was there a log on Facebook/Twitter or other social media. So that was that, I just had to accept that this had happened as I was in the minority.

Ok, so much for the personal anecdote. However, it does beg the question: Is our perception of (historical) reality reliable? Furthermore, is our ability to remember things changing due to technology?

Through my readings, I came across the wonderful website of BrainPickings. In particular, upon reviewing the effect of technology on remembering, the following paragraphs is poignant, albeit in relation to tip-of-the-tongue recall: ”

Tip-of-the-tongue syndrome is an experience so common that cultures worldwide have a phrase for it. Cheyenne Indians call it navonotootse’a, which means “I have lost it on my tongue”; in Korean it’s hyeu kkedu-te mam-dol-da, which has an even more gorgeous translation: “sparkling at the end of my tongue.” The phenomenon generally lasts only a minute or so; your brain eventually makes the connection. But … when faced with a tip-of-the-tongue moment, many of us have begun to rely instead on the Internet to locate information on the fly. If lifelogging … stores “episodic,” or personal, memories, Internet search engines do the same for a different sort of memory: “semantic” memory, or factual knowledge about the world. When you visit Paris and have a wonderful time drinking champagne at a café, your personal experience is an episodic memory. Your ability to remember that Paris is a city and that champagne is an alcoholic beverage — that’s semantic memory.

What’s the line between our own, in-brain knowledge and the sea of information around us? Does it make us smarter when we can dip in so instantly? Or dumber with every search?

As a lecturer, I find that some students are less willing to engage in racking their brain, going into the chest of drawers that is their knowledge, which is built up from episodic and semantic memories. They tend to check Wikipedia instead and there is an entire journal devoted to computer assisted learning that tells us we need to understand how to embed technology in education. I am all for blended learning but think a certain skill will be lost if students can’t sit together in a seminar and ponder/deduct, without instantaneously knowing the answer, yet being comfortable with that uncertainty.

It would be interesting to see if, through the development of technology, we are moving towards higher uncertainty avoidant cultures at a macro level. It seems that, for now, this has only been explored the other way around: Do certain cultures affect adoption of ICT? This is because we view cultural values as guiding principles, stable over time, especially at the national level. Or, we embrace ICT as democratic enablers, causing revolutions such as the Arab Spring, although the jury’s out on the tenacity of old systems but we have not (yet) considered the impact on the evolvement of our cognitive abilities over time.

As a researcher, I wonder how the future of social scientific research will be affected if our lives are logged on social media and we may thus be less inclined to store personal knowledge or perceptions of the self in our ever expanding mental cupboard. So, we quickly cut-and-paste something on Facebook and our episodic and semantic memory abilities are not engaged, let alone reasoning and deduction. What if technology advances to such an extent that neuroadaptive systems allow us to update our status cognitively, without a keyboard? It seems that experts have considered the same questions. We would then not consciously process our state of mind and ‘work through it’ before sharing it with the rest of the world. That said, it seems some (trolls) are already devoid of any filter. Perhaps Twitter and Facebook will function as a new tool for longitudinal research on our psychological contract with humanity.

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I had a meeting with our University’s Dean of Law to discuss my novel on human smuggling. We also discussed Syria, which he described as “Hell on earth”. Bombing indisciminantly is not a solution, also due to the complexity of allegiances/role of Iran/oil, so beware what you vote for. He questioned usage of the 2007 Resposibility to Protect militarily. The Mid East is bursting at the tension seams and intervention by the US/EU adds fuel to fire, as much as it would annoy Putin.
It may be that the opposition (Free Syrian Army vs Al Nusra??) and Syrian gov need to fight it out and the world must provide aid to refugees. But it is a disaster.
Factsheets on aid make it clear how much is spent already and how difficult it is to reach people (EU commission Syria factsheet). Za’atari camp is an example of the misery (newyorker.com) BUT, controversially, the Jordan villagers nearby sees aid arrive while they live in poverty (irinnews.Org).
Knowing who to donate to is difficult. Mercy Corps tries to help refugees specifically and focuses on the local impact, but there are others too (if you prefer a religious org for example). I donated to the Red Cross per advice from a friend in Lebanon as the RC is non-political but again, you may believe in smaller local aid organisations.
There so many more humanitarian issues, I know this. I care about the environment and welfare of animals too. So why?
Because there are 2 million refugees outside Syria, half of them children, and 4.5 million displaced within the country. That is approx 30% of the population or Paris plus Los Angeles. The resolution of this tragedy requires collective efforts at (inter)national, organisational and individual level by humans for humans.

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Inspire in class.

In order to prepare students as a well-rounded global business professionals, the content of the degree BA International Business that I lead develops competencies to enable students to be effective in a global business context, exploring a variety of international business issues. They will also learn the fundamentals of marketing, human resource management, economics, operations management and accounting. Most of these modules use standard textbooks, seminar activities such as case study analysis and assessment such as presentations. We try to make it interesting with visuals such as videos. I am currently working on next year’s curriculum and lecture content.

Below are three examples of TED talks. TED is a global set of conferences owned by the private non-profit Sapling Foundation, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading”. Lecturers use videos in class to raise a question to be discussed in seminars or in course work.


Typical TED talk for first year students: What was the greatest invention of the industrial revolution? Hans Rosling makes the case for the washing machine.
Topics: Statistics, Economics, globalisation, technology, human resources
Typical questions: How are wealth and a washing machine connected to globalisation? How can statistics help the international manager? How would you, as a student, manage without a washing machine?

Typical TED talk for second year students: What makes a good idea? What is a theory or model? How do we know a global leader’s X Factor? Simon Sinek talks about leadership in action.
Topics: Multi-National Corporations, values and beliefs, leadership, management and human behaviour
Typical questions: How do we know business practices work? How can we recruit the best people? What is the evidence for the recipe for success?

Typical TED talk for final year students: How can we keep our global supply chains honest? Van Heerden makes the business case for fair labour.
Topics: Rule based vs. Consequence based decision making, cross cultural management, ethics, strategy.
Typical questions: Do companies have a corporate social responsibility? Do you agree with the speaker? Why/Why not?

In the end, I aim to provide students with the critical tools and mindset to analyse and identify responses to such questions. The class environment is a great context to explore perspectives of management, which is very important in the global environment.

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He said, she said.

Communication is key. As many translators and language instructors know, it’s one thing to teach someone to speak a foreign language, it’s yet another issue to teach them how to communicate. That’s why many translators find themselves in the world of cross cultural consultancy. Points madeWhat is perceived as an acceptable way of getting the message across in one environment, may be entirely unsuitable in another. For example, a plane or boat crew dealing with a dangerous situation are best to throw their diplomatic skills overboard. Yet, at the same time, there is need for reflection on the directness of social media and how we address each other via Twitter and Facebook, especially in terms of foreign policy affairs, due to cultural differences.

In the past year, I witnessed a series of events that culminated in a break down of communication between people who, due to the nature of how entrepreneurs often work, have been friends and use the services of each others’ small businesses. It seems that business chats over dinner or promises of payments over a picnic can be, sadly, a recipe for disaster. Throw in some personal curve balls of relationship ups and downs, stress in this time of economic malaise and thus threats to subjective well being and one is dealing with a pressure cooker that is ready to explode. We may forget to remember why we were friends who went into business together in the first place and make a judgement call, even though it’s a fact that we are not neutral in our interpretation of a situation and thus what is a reality or truth is always subjective. When we forget this, it stands in the way of finding an integrative solution. I too dismissed from my mind the option to ask questions, listen carefully and get things in writing.

Good advice that I learned this week from a successful businessman who set up a company with his classmates, is not necessarily never to mix business with your friends. But if you do, take the next professional step and create a contract. Yes, that’s BEFORE any service, any introduction, any product is rendered, made or sold. A document that sets up the exact parameters of the deal, signed by all involved with a clear ‘what if’ clause (what if I do X for your company but it goes into administration, what if I take on the running costs for time Y but you can’t pay me back, what if I am the mediator between company A and B and the collaboration is a big success/failure?). Research has shown that gossip has its role. But when it comes to money and friends, clear and direct communication signed and honoured by all involved is the way to avoid that metaphorical plane crash.

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