Mental health – An individual issue or a challenge for society?

The Guardian featured an article on mental health that stated the statistic that one in four people suffer from mental illness. Despite some celebrity exposure (at least in the UK by Ruby Wax and Stephen Fry), very few of us seem to care about mental health issues unless it affects us personally. We let those who suffer from any issues deal with it alone. Even if we understand, our busy lives may not allow us to ignore cognitive shortcuts such as rude=avoid, gloomy=avoid.

The irony of this is that our individualistic society is learning that it is a collective responsibility.  At a macro level, some researchers identified corporate psychopaths [sic] who work in the finance sector and take unnecessary risks to the employee. But harsh labels aside, the mental well being of an industry under pressure must be analysed and any advice must be implemented by governments. At the organisational and individual level, managers, teachers and others in decision making roles must be guided about the challenges employees,  students and our neighbours face who suffer from depression, anxiety or panic attacks. For example, if a person’s reaction seems unusually down or rude, perhaps stop to think why this may be.

In social psychology, studies have found a significant difference between the diagnosis of mental health issues – what’s considered desirable behaviour varies. There are also cultural differences in explaining people’s actions or the allocation of blame: Western countries tend to make more personal attributions, blaming the individual, whereas collectivistic cultures tend to make situational attributions, blaming the situation for a person’s rudeness, for example. We’re dealing with a spectrum, not categories of mental wellbeing and the perception of (adequate) adjustment.

What does this mean? As Ruby Wax said, we do need to get organised. Not only do people suffering from mental health issues need medical care (and thus funding for research is paramount), as humans we benefit from communal spaces, where we have a sense of belonging and are not judged for our ‘different-ness’. It’s not just tolerance (as tolerance indicates a power relationship “I tolerate you”), it’s one step up – pro-social engagement, which involves education (not merely formal), consultative communication and empathy.

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Art as an identity

I have been reviewing art and craft for the Artists Open Houses as part of the Brighton Festival and Fringe Festival. There are quite a few of us volunteer reviewers who were allocated certain trails. This was great because it meant we would encounter a variety of houses, without having self-selected the places, which would have been subject to our taste(s).

In one of the houses, ceramic butterflies and birds were displayed on a wall as part of an initiative for those with learning disabilities. The brief read that the artists are aiming for a ‘collective identity’ – the works are rustic, with lots of colour. When I say ‘rustic’, I mean rough around the edges. The question of is it art or craft and how are we to review this came to my mind.

The same occurred in a venue with many more items made by people with learning difficulties. The two venues couldn’t be more different, yet carried a similar message: See beauty in places where you may not expect it. I found that the pieces made by artists with cognitive challenges are a) incredibly varied and b) surprisingly beautiful.

The Montefiore Artists’ Collective are part of the Grace Eyre charity, who help people with learning disabilities. I was welcomed by Anne who sat by still life photography, who asked me if I wanted a cup of tea. It was cold outside, so I did (£1) at the indoor Angel Cake Café. The people involved with the charity also organise plays with their group Grace Enders. As I sipped tea, I checked the displays. There were two spectacular painted mosaics of Brighton and of a dragon by Maurice Wilson, prints on linen, framed abstract art (stencil print and colograph print) and papier mâché puppets.

The church was light and the exhibition colourful.  I was especially taken by the mosaic ceramic tiles, each sold separately. There were plant pots and other items with mosaic detail for sale too. I also spotted a story book “A caterpillar called girlfriend and other stories” with limericks, stories and poems. The team were very friendly and evidently committed.


So, did my surprise show I had made some assumptions? No, I didn’t have any before I came to this venue. But yes, once there, I could recognise works that were simply lovely and then there was art that was genuinely beautiful. I want to highlight this because the church was empty and when I went to the next house, two streets further, with, if you like, ‘proper’ art, it was full. That is unfortunate for any visitor to the Seven Dials trail who decided to skip house 9 and go to house 8, almost next door. The Sunday experience of the 3 venues was exactly so inspiring and memorable because they were so different. ‘Proper’ craft after proper craft the brain couldn’t cope with, but this made an impact to all the senses.

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Nineveh, directed by Ailin Conant and written by Julia Pascal, is a “physical show” inspired by the testimonies of international soldiers. The show is based on Ailin Conant’s work with ex-fighters, peace activists, veterans and child soldiers from Lebanon, Rwanda, Israel and Kashmir, as part of The Return Project. Conant is also the Artistic Director of Theatre Témoin. I went to see it on Thursday 18th of April, together with film director Joe de Kadt.

The set up is intimate: The audience is close to the stage, made up of ropes, chains and spiky metal objects that reminded me of the empty shells of rockets a friend in Lebanon has displayed by his fire place for bitter comedic effect, as a reminder of the civil war. Men march in and the beginning of this show is, indeed, physical, like a ballet, which feels a little too theatrical at times. They also banter and I recognise and enjoy the typical Israeli/Arab style of humour. Like the audience, they are trying to puzzle together where they are and why they’re here.

The banter relieves the tension of the harrowing stories, which are not told by storytellers, because soldiers aren’t good at telling coherent stories in the artistic or academic sense. We are being provided with an accurate portrayal of how experiences are remembered and shared. It reminded me of the research by Martin Euwema, who interviewed Dutch soldiers in Iraq: No, they don’t think about their cultural values. Yes, the do care about the brand of peanut butter available in the camp. Less mundane, but similarly surprising to the audience are the concerns of the men in Nineveh: their family, having ambitions to make it big one day, drive a certain car perhaps. It begs the questions: Can anyone love when there’s a war? Are they supposed to dream about seemingly frivolous things? If they, as individuals, commit cruel acts against another person, who is responsible? How do they themselves decide on their fate? Nineveh may make you fold your arms and frown when you listen to and witness inner turmoil.

The audience has the responsibility to allow the stories to sink in. It cannot be judged with a mind that wants a more coherent narrative or happy ending, because that is just not the reality of soldiers’ experiences. Nineveh is a physical and verbal relay of cruel acts that humans inflict upon fellow humans, relieved with dark comedy – A must-see.

Nineveh is on at Riverside Studios, London until May 11
May 3 Post Show talk Playwright Julia Pascal and Director Ailin Conant about ‘The Return’ Project, a year’s creative work in Kashmir, Israel, Lebanon and Rwanda that preceded the play
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Arguing over Argo

The film ‘Argo’ won an Oscar (Academy Award) for ‘Best Picture’. I watched it and researched it, as I wanted to know the different perspectives of the film. It seems that Canadian effort wasn’t adequately represented, Britain’s role wasn’t mentioned and New Zealand’s reputation was put in discredit because they refused to help.

A variety of people have commented on it and an overview of opinions can be found via Twitter #Argo.

The reason for this blog entry is that the discussions surrounding the film encapsulate the issues related to perspective taking, identity, culture and management. It isn’t an isolated incident, as a cross cultural ‘expert’, I get many questions about how to manage cross cultural conflict. With my MBA students, we do a ‘Game Theory’ exercise that requires mutual understanding and engagement. Students work in teams and negotiate over a scarce resource. Those who intend on convincing the other of their entitlement will lose. Those who aim to work together and try to see the others’ perspective, win.

We may all have encountered a dispute of opinion. I recall a discussion via email between American and Lebanese friends about the rights/wrongs of the invasion into Iraq. The Americans felt that surely the liberation of a people and the introduction of democracy was the way forward. The Lebanese questioned the American interpretation of democracy and the motives for the invasion. A stalemate situation, over which friends were lost.

So what is the solution? Well, show the whole picture. Just last week I asked my students what they thought the job-market was like for women in Dubai. All sorts of stereotypes came up. The few students who came from Dubai gasped at the preconceived ideas, much fuelled by popular culture and media. I then showed a short film of a British divorcee with 2 kids called Sonia, who works as a trainer in Dubai. It was a small alignment to stereotypical views, I hope.

The Iranians displayed in Argo, is a simplistic image, regardless of the token heroine. Especially the market scene is worthy of an award for most stereotypical display of a people. Whether or not Argo was a political tool to boost a pro-USA mood, is another discussion. What matters is that if Iran decides to sue, that conflict should not be wiped off the table as a hot-headed knee-jerk reaction.

I think the Middle East is tired of being depicted in a certain way, including Israel. Just as the majority of Russians were in the 70s and 80s and the Germans have been since WWII. Are ordinary (young) people to pay for decision making by autocratic leaders? As a producer, George Clooney could try and make a film that is less subjective about Arabs. Thanks to Syriana, my ‘street cred’ increased as I have travelled to Beirut several times. Clooney made it look positively dangerous there. Indeed, when I told friends I was invited for a wedding in Lebanon this summer, the reaction was all-round disapproving. That’s sad; it’s a great place to visit.

In management and governance research, experts support the notion for taking an other’s point of view: in the Journal of Public Administration Research & Theory (4* ABS), Ansell & Gash (2007) argue that “stakeholders’ level of commitment to collaboration is a critical variable in explaining success or failure of governance. … stakeholders may wish to participate in order to make sure their perspective is not neglected or to secure legitimacy for their position or to fulfill a legal obligation. By contrast, commitment to the process means developing a belief that good faith bargaining for mutual gains is the best way to achieve desirable policy outcomes. Such a belief is not altruistic. A developer may believe that the best way to get his houses built is to engage in a good faith bargaining effort with environmentalists. Yet commitment to collaboration can still require a very significant psychological shift, particularly among those who regard their positions in absolute terms. As a first step, such a shift requires what is sometimes called ‘mutual recognition’ or ‘joint appreciation'”.

We’re more similar in terms of our aims for security and social well-being than pop culture, media, politics would like us to think we are. I was inspired by Nilson Tuwe Huni Kui’s story. A young man, currently visiting New York, will soon follow in his father’s footsteps as a political leader and defined wealth as being ‘rich in culture, biodiversity and spirituality’. He says he likes film and technology and wants to use both to learn about the world outside his village and hopes the world will learn about them.  Clooney, Affleck et al – take note.




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Becoming more business-like? Marketization and its impact on the construction of NPO identity in South Africa

We (Frederik Claeye and I) submitted a paper to Academy of Management that investigates the impact of the trend of managerialism on the construction of organizational identity in non-profit organizations in South Africa drawing on the more critical traditions within both Development and Management Studies. 35 semi-structured interviews were conducted with managers and team leaders from 15 NPOs. Using an interpretive framework, this study analysed the outcomes in light of two discourses (managerialism and Ubuntu) at the global/local interface. The data suggest that processes of sense-giving and sense-making shape the construction of organizational identity. Managers derive a sense of identity by internalizing the managerialist discourse and the ‘best practices’ that go with it in order to obtain legitimacy as ‘proper’ organizations. At the same time, however, they also wish to emphasize the distinctiveness of NPOs, which gives rise to an identity that centers on human interconnectedness that is in line with local cultural value orientations, such as Ubuntu, as the corner stone of organizational identity.

We aimed to illustrate how sense-giving structures are being mimicked under influence of isomorphic pressures and the quest for legitimacy. At the same time, however, processes of sense-making may be seen at work through the ways in which culture offers a lens through which the managerialist discourse can be translated, and aligned to local cultural values.

The paper’s main contributions are both theoretical as well as to development praxis. At the theoretical level, it offers critique that blends postcolonial, critical management and critical development approaches in order to build an understanding of the implications the dominance of managerialist modes of thinking may have on the construction of organizational identity. In this way it contributes to the debate on managerialism by offering a more fine-grained and empirical analysis of power and resistance underlying processes of sense-giving and sense-making in the construction of organizational identities in NPOs in a developing country. At the level of development praxis it highlights the need to allow room for the expression of the local cultural values in order to ensure staff commitment and thus enhance our current efforts to make aid more effective.


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Pseudo science, faking it and cheating

There have been several articles circulating on Twitter and Facebook about pseudo (neuro) science, academic cheating by academics themselves and the ongoing challenges of cheating students.

It is certain that this isn’t a recent thing. The tools have become more sophisticated but the actions of some to take a short cut in order to sell more, get published, obtain fame or get a diploma is not a new development.

Fortunately, there are plenty of die hard science critics who are constantly monitoring the validity of others’ publication, such as Ben Goldacre and Steven Pool. Then again, others argue that these writers are too critical and that the translated message is like a dish served in a restaurant: We as consumers don’t need to know if 2 eggs were used or 3. They like the work of people like David Rock, who dilutes/processes research for us so we can develop ourselves, using evidence based management.

As for academic cheating, be it by academics or students. There are discussions going on why it’s done. Is it the rat race? Too much pressure to publish or perish? Alok Jha explores the reasons behind academic cheating. Certainly in our department colleagues have circulated stories via email about retractions etc. Some of us feel better when we didn’t quite make the REF or that 4* journal this year.

Then, there is the cheating by students, which has become more and more difficult to detect via tools such as Turn It In because students can now purchase bespoke essays and reports via websites such as Freelancer. Some companies are so bold to come onto campus and hand out flyers. As a reality check, academics should enter their course work instructions into Google and see what comes up.

Apparently an investigation was due to be launched back in 2006. I tweeted that link to the Guardian Higher Education and Times Higher Education accounts but it doesn’t seem that the global HE industry is shaking on its foundations (it should – we are unleashing frauds as graduates on a mass scale – if you think that’s an exaggeration, check the bank balance of the founders of essay writing services that students can use for ‘guidance’).

The problem is that students think that the end product is what’s desired and they delegate the responsibility. Some are amazed to hear that skills such as searching for sources, reading, being able to summarise, process, critique is what we’d like to see and a course work is evidence of the student having obtained those skills. This year, I’ll ask students to do work in seminars that they can hand in at the end of each session, which will count as attendance and activity (not just bum on seat) and that will be included in the portfolio with the final course work product.

So as I am continuing to read articles on the spectrum of fakery and falsifying it occurs to me that there is a need to shift from outcome focus to process focus. Reward students and professionals (also outside academia) for the process as much as for the outcome. This requires a culture shift. It’s cognitively tasking to monitor a process. It’s easier to reward the outcome, regardless of how that was achieved. But, as the economic crisis has taught us, it is necessary to be vigilant and observe who does what when and on what intelligence this is based.

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Connecting the dots part II

The lecture with the panel of entrepreneurs from ParcelGenie, MotorMate/MOT2U and Iconiq was recorded and can now be viewed via the links below. The session took an hour so there are 4 videos of 15 mins each approximately.

The first two videos feature me lecturing the final lecture: The Future. The aim is to recap what the core message is of this module Cross Cultural Management: To think critically and to evaluate what processes, concepts and ideas are universal, and which are culture specific. The panel then moves on to discuss their businesses and issues related to employability, which is of course an important topic for students.

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Connecting the dots – Part I

Last Monday was Cross Cultural Management’s final lecture, The Future. It reviews the two scenarios our future generation of decision makers face when it comes to globalisation: Will we have enough innovative thinkers and technological development to remedy the issues that threaten our existence or Is one planet really not enough to sustain our current lifestyles and any technological ‘band aid’ solutions are not part of the solution, thus part of the problem?

The 1 hour session considered these questions for the first half hour, which was followed by a ‘Meet the Experts’ panel made up of 3 entrepreneurs: Nick Pye from MOT2U/Motor Mate, Gary Barnshaw from Iconiq drinks and Rich Tolcher from ParcelGenie.

The students kicked if of by asking how to stay motivated when you run your own business. The panel answered that setting small goals is key and not to expect being profitable immediately, as a breaking even result then may demotivate. Interestingly, while two of the panel members talked about passion for the project, one indicated that the financial rewards were a main factor for setting up the business in the first place. Students asked more questions about what advice to take as an entrepreneur and the panel answered that some of it is guts but that it also means doing your research and not allowing for anyone to tell you something you don’t know. Linked to this is that if people ask you a critical question to which you know the answer then their well intended but misguided advice can probably be ignored.

Another student asked about employability and what it takes for someone like an business owner to hire someone like them. Gary advised for a good personal statement to show passion for the job. He told the students he likes to meet future employees in a social setting, since is product is about food and lifestyle. Nick added that evidence is key, to show you can do what you say you can by providing details of your experience. There was some discussion about how most applications are now electronic so it’s difficult to set yourself apart by using different coloured paper for CVs, etc. The entire panel agreed, however, that a generic letter and CV isn’t a good idea – key is to show your interest in the company by tailoring the communication.

The session was enjoyed by the panel and the students and certainly something we’ll repeat in future. Higher Education and industry should connect more often because the curriculum comes alive with practical anecdotes (and it’s great to hear teaching confirmed by stories of critical incidents and practical advice).

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To help or not to help?

The debate related to Invisible Children and Kony 2012 has gone viral. The discussion on the conceptualisation of ‘humanity’ (to help or not to help) is complex – whether rationally or emotionally argued. It also links in with any of the other current debates on foreign intervention: Syria, Bahrein, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, Congo, Tibet, Lebanon, or further back, Vietnam, Korea, Argentina, Iran, EU/Indonesia/ME (WW1 + 2) …

The Kony 2012d campaign, much supported on Twitter, by celebrities and politicians, is accused of ‘American Hero Syndrome’ and post-colonial colonialism , where the white man/woman wants to save the helpless black person. It is also debated in terms of its finances, but I want to focus on the former issue.

It may be useful to revisit some social psychological work. Back in 1969, cross cultural psychologist John Berry warned us about imposed etic: the idea that we impose an idea that we think is universally valid. Sometimes it’s difficult to imagine that there are ideas and actions, that, to us, the subjective individual, seem so good and beautiful, but are not perceived as such by the other, let alone gratefully received. Secondly, if the other is a member of an ‘out-group’, such as another nation, another race, another sexuality, our drive to help may be biased due to subconscious processes that view the other as less able, valid, ‘normal’, etc. Two good friends and major academics on the subject of social psychology, Stephen Reicher vs. Jim Sidanius, debate this constantly: our inherent racist nature vs. our socialisation and the impact of collective mobility. Cut a long story short, it reflects that yes, we are all racist (Sidanius) BUT we also have a sense of agency that allows us to make informed decisions and choose actively not to be categorised (Reicher), provided that we have the ability to engage in some self perception with reference to what we’re trying to achieve by ‘doing good’. In other words, we make (subconscious) judgements that someone (of another race) needs our (superior) help, without thinking through how this is perceived and what the long term consequences are.

Kony 2012 activists are also criticised for the self-patting on the back kind of humanitarian aid: the pictures of them carrying guns looking tough and footage of the son saying ‘I want to be like you daddy’. So added to the post-colonial aspect, we need to be aware of the extent of the altruism of our aid. The anthropological and journalistic work of Joris Luyendijk highlights the complexity of charities, the media and politicians, who, with their campaigns, keep themselves ‘in business’.

But I agree that this is difficult as it is so difficult to stand by when the media and role models tell us grave crimes against humanity is being committed and we are just standing by.  For this reason perhaps, the wisest aid givers stick to a charity close to ‘home’ – not just geographically but, more so, intelligently. To help a person you know, an organisation you trust and engage in humanity that started with the question: Are you ok, can I give you some help?

It could also involve some lateral thinking: If I don’t want my foreign affairs department to be fussed about country X (think for example the ‘war’ between Maldova, Romania and Russia, which was resolved as if over dinner in a local pub because no other foreign organisation/nation was bothered), then what would that require? Alternative fuels? Voting against the arms industry? In other words, what are the hidden agendas that I am paying for when I donate to charity Z or party X.

It’s difficult because I remain, as a Dutch national, that without foreign intervention there would be no ‘Holland’ during WWII. But due to this aid, Dutch culture is pro-USA to this day as a thank you (that is, until Santorum accused the Dutch of killing their elderly). Instead, they could be a little more critical of American foreign intervention: Sometimes our best friends need us to hold  mirror up to see a reflection of some (well intended but ugly) imperfections. Perhaps Jason from Invisible Children could have used his insights to work collectively with local initiatives, as many critical writers have suggested. My point is that any intercultural activity requires some self reflection of why you’re getting involved and are there alternatives, possibly less limelight inducing but more effective for LOCAL (and not necessarily your) values and norms.

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Controversial HRM Practices in the Context of Developing Countries

Dance We are working on a study that examined employees’ perception of ethically controversial Human Resources Management (HRM) practices in the context of multinational companies (MNCs) that operate in developing countries and emerging economies (DCEEs). We tested the predictive validity of individuals’ ethical reasoning as well as their cultural values in terms of ethically controversial practices.

We used self-administered questionnaires from employees working in Turkey and Romania (N=290) that contained various HRM practices to measure perception with regard to ethicality of these practices. Results revealed an endorsement of ethically controversial HRM implementation, including nepotism, in both Turkey and Romania. Additionally, the impact of values (mainly collectivism) was stronger than ethical ideologies of relativism and idealism in predicting individuals’ decisions on ethically controversial practices.

The practical implications for managers are to take into consideration that there is a subjective interpretation of appropriateness of HRM practices. It can be a challenge for any, especially experienced, HR manager to ‘unlearn’ certain norms that motivate decisions, which, in turn, affect people directly. This study shows that an imposition of ‘Western’ interpretation of inappropriateness, i.e., in terms of nepotism, internal priority, age and performance bias, may be perceived differently by employees in DCEEs. Becoming aware of the cultural (more so than ideological) background of managers’ employees may help in understanding these differences. 

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