No (wo)man is an island: Discussing self serving bias on Saaremaa.

The title of this blog isn’t even a metaphor. For a consultancy project I travelled to Tallinn in Estonia, where we boarded a bus to travel a further 4 hours to an island off the coast called Saaremaa. The 2-day session of the Virtex project ( brought together educators from Estonia, Turkey, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Spain and the UK. As an outsider, I observed their discussions on how to best assess students on their abilities in the hotel and tourism industry. It was interesting to watch videos that showed off the students’ language abilities and the ways that they interacted with their guests. It made me remember that people in their late teens/early twenties have guts – some move to another country without knowing much about the customs or language, having to organise a place to stay, a bank account, etc.

I talked about this project on this blog back in March and it’s interesting to be able to reflect back on the session now. The topic of cultural differences elicits mixed reactions – people either firmly believe in globalisation (i.e., we’re pretty much the same and differences cause little concern) or they believe that there are cultural differences and they do cause concern sometimes. My aim was to provide the teachers with materials that can be used to help the students understand the ‘why’ of cultural differences before they start their internship. Facts can be obtained from the CIA website ( and do’s and don’ts are also available on websites such as wikipedia. Mind, websites like these are not without bias. As is proven by the brilliant uncyclopedia (

As a consultant, it is important to select your materials carefully as illustrative videos depicting differences can generate a debate on the reality of the cultural prototypes that are displayed, rather than have a fruitful discussion on the ‘why’ behind these differences. Also, I don’t think it’s in the interest to show a student a video on the do’s and don’ts of the country they’re about to visit – prototypes quickly become stereotypes. Secondly, none of these materials are relevant if the student isn’t aware that he/she isn’t neutral and that the first step may be to consider how others perceive them as visitors/guests/employees.

I was reading Jeanne Brett’s Negotiating Globally during my time away. Interestingly, she mentions that international negotiators forget to consider their opponent’s BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) and focus only on their own needs and perceptions. The message is clear: we humans suffer from a self-serving bias. It’s probably innate. And, by Brett’s account, even happens to Harvard educated MBA students. Education may make students aware of this bias, however, so I hope that the training I developed may help some of the students of the VIRTEX project to feel a little bit more confident when they’re abroad.

My time on the island and in Tallinn was invigorating, by the way. All the members of the team that I met were kind and, rightfully so, very proud of their students and curriculum. Estonia’s Nordic calm, boundless nature and stoic friendliness was a welcome change from busy London. As a Dutch person I felt strangely at home…

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Yes, but no, but…

I met Kerstin, consultant for GPiPartner ( 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.


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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Saying sorry

Saying sorry is closely related to identity (image) management. It also so happens to have been a theme in my personal and working life this week, hence the blog entry.

In the course of my work related to cross-cultural differences and conflict management, I’ve been particularly interested in perception. My PhD thesis evaluated not only how managers perceived their own conflict management strategies, but also those of the other party. On average, they’d evaluate themselves as problem solving and the other as more dominating (out to win). Obviously, if both parties feel this way, there’s a dissonance in the interpretation of a situation. There are a few key questions that have kept me occupied throughout the years since my PhD research. If there’s a conflict,  whose interpretation of the situation is correct? And if you didn’t intend to upset the other but he/she obviously is, then should you apologise for your actions or for the fact that they’re upset? Moreover, if you find you’re constantly apologising, what does this imply about the relationship?

At a global level, there are many historical conflicts for which a government may choose to apologise, sometimes decades later. The case in point is Russia’s apology this week for Katyn’s mass murder of 20,000 Polish officials, including generals, teachers, diplomats and artists.  Although Russian leaders have acknowledged the issue, an official face to face ‘sorry’ had not taken place.

On the other hand, the media has covered the Catholic church’s response to the child abuse scandal. Although many Catholic priests and officials apologised for what has happened, Pope Benedict XVI ignored the issue in his Easter Day address. Such a tactic has been employed by other leaders too, who refuse to acknowledge mistakes, perhaps viewing it as a sign of weakness or perhaps because they’re ashamed.  Or it could be a move to manage one’s image by covering up for mistakes and then denying or ignoring them when these mistakes have become public.

On a personal level, we may have encountered the situation that someone made a mistake and then, in the aftermath, regrets talking about it. ‘I should’ve not said anything’ could be the response to the hurting party’s anger about a confession. That reaction is a bit like a teenager who admits to crashing his mum’s car and then thinks that next time they’ll just shut up instead of owning up when they get berated. The act of telling becomes the issue, not the actual offence. Or, they’ll stare at the floor, mumble a “yeah, I’m sorry, whatever”, which leaves mum feel unheard and disrespected.

As adults, we’re supposed to know how to manage guilt and deal with apologies.  Some of this is cultural,  for example, in Britain saying sorry is the norm, even for acts that are not your fault. Walk along a British high street and if you bump into a Brit, they’ll likely say sorry. Question is whether the act of saying sorry then becomes meaningless. As a society, we take remorse very seriously: criminals guilty of the same offence may get different punishments depending on the level of regret shown. Much of being able to apologise is personal. It’s indicative of a level of (emotional) intelligence because you are able to acknowledge the other’s upset, even if you a) didn’t intend to upset them or b) don’t quite understand why they’re upset.

Both point A and B are important. As a Dutch person, in my communications I can be very direct, for which I’ve learned to apologise if I see the signs in the other person’s face (usually raised eyebrows and a wry smile). Sometimes though, I tire of this and feel I just can’t get it right. Ironically, when I travel back to Holland I can be quite perturbed about people’s rudeness! It seems that when and to what extent we’re offended or hurt is thus socialised and changes over time.

In terms of learning to manage apologies, the apologiser needs to be ‘forgiven’ and this can be as simple as a ‘thanks, that means a lot’. A hurt party must be wary of playing the victim role continuously and sometimes ‘needs to get over it’ to get things moving along. If you find yourself constantly apologising for yourself, would you consider leaving that relationship if changing it is not possible?

Perhaps this is a controversial viewpoint, but this can also apply at a cultural level. If there’s not a ‘fit’ between your ways and the ways of the group, would you consider leaving if no compromise can be established? I’ve been observing the dynamics between groups of people with differing values and norms – such as strict religion vs secular humanism. On a personal level, I’m intrigued why one would choose to live in a community that does not represent one’s values. I’ve travelled to many places and also lived in a few and in some I feel at home and in others I don’t. I am quite happy to adjust to the ways of a place when I visit it (my friend C and I were appalled at the insensitivity of some European visitors in Zanzibar, seemingly completely unaware that a cropped tank top, bare feet and mini skirt was inappropriate in a restaurant). But if I choose (again, being able to choose is the operative word here) to make a place my home, harmony would be important. Van Vianen and colleagues found that expats adjusted better in terms of interaction when they have Self Transcendent values (universalism and benevolence), which, according to the theory, is in direct opposition to Self Enhancement (power and achievement).

The power of an apology, when sincere, can be tremendous, even after decades after the offence.  Saying sorry is not indicative of a weakness, moreover, it shows maturity, intelligence and character. However,  those on the receiving end of a sincere apology should accept it graciously and express that it makes them feel respected/heard/acknowledged. Finally, if you find that being apologetic has become (part of) your identity, and the other is not acknowledging this passive power trip, would you say it may be time to move on?

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Baseline, benchmark, bottleneck: Why cultural self-awareness is crucial.

I just had a chat with a Dutch teacher to discuss the materials that I will present to a team of European teachers at a workshop for the Virtex4all project in Estonia in June 2010. The aim is to give them some ideas that they can pass on to their students about cultural differences. During the briefing conversation, she mentioned that it’s not so much about a list of do’s and don’ts but about awareness of cultural differences.  I agree but think it’s more than that. It’s about awareness of our own culture and identity and understanding that we use these (subjective) norms to evaluate a situation and decide what to do next


how often does someone look up the ‘why’ of their own way of doing things before they travel for business or pleasure?

Being aware of your culture is key to understanding the other 


Cultural self awareness sounds psychological, which may put some people off. This is unfortunate, because even basic business, sales, good management and governance is all about psychology. Social psychology deals with the behaviour of people in social situations. By default, management (be it in business, governmental, non-governmental sector) concerns dealing with people; i.e., social situations. It pays to know your psychology.

As much as we’d like to view ourselves as superior intelligent beings, we are only human and with that come certain behavioural and cognitive traits. For example, we learn how to do certain things (like eating with knife and fork) and take that with us on journeys. We may learn to eat different things in different ways, but, on average, we have a preference to which we stick. I once asked my Chinese students how they eat (with chopsticks) and what they eat (Chinese food). To the question ‘Do you eat European food?’, the answer was ‘yes, but with chopsticks’. It had not occurred to me that the tool is separate from the substance. It’s a nice example that indicates that our reality is seen through cultural lenses that are part of our identity, but with which we also evaluate someone else.


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Processing consequences

The last 10 days, for professional and personal reasons, have been about processing consequences and how this affects one’s identity. Coming from a country that prides itself for its tolerance yet independence, the cultural values that are about individualistic thinking sometimes battle it out with more collectivistic values that motivate me to think about others and evaluate what will happen next. So, if others do not do that, it can be frustrating.

Such cultural value differences can occur at individual, team, organisation and national level. If you are a perfectionist, who likes to deliver good work it can be awkward and frustrating when the teams around you have a slightly more ‘relaxed’ approach. It could be that the infrastructure or IT facilities within your country or organisation fail you, which affects your professional identity. It could also be that an individual does something that affects you directly. Perhaps a conflict ensues and you need to manage this. What can you do when the other really cannot understand your issue with what they’ve done? The other can say they’re sorry and your view on things may have changed forever, but is moving on the only option left?

Processing consequences is a form of emotional intelligence that is key to successful (cross cultural) management and good leadership. I am monitoring what is happening in The Netherlands, currently an interesting case study in terms of the rise of right wing extremism. What does it mean when a party like the PVV, which has strong policies on the maintenance of the Dutch identity, is so popular? If we vote for parties like that, are we processing the consequences properly or are we protesting against the status quo, not thinking about the future state of affairs if this party comes into power? And if it all does turn sour, what is the meaning of saying sorry, like so many leaders have done (and some still haven’t – left or right wing) for the mistakes they’ve made? In short, what are the consequences for those who do not process consequences?

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Cultural Intelligence

Discussions with students in the last couple of weeks have centred around the issue whether Cultural Intelligence exists and whether it can be tested through a test as developed by Christopher Earley, for example.

Chris Earley and colleagues focus on 4 aspects of Cultural Intelligence (CQ): meta cognitive, cognitive, motivational and behavioural. It is a self reported instrument, that has been tested by other colleagues (e.g., Ward et al 2009). Ward and colleagues concluded that the self reported bias and the fact that the concept is not different from emotional intelligence creates problems for CQ as a tool, although as a concept it is interesting.

Harry Triandis (2006) likes the idea of cultural intelligence but doesn’t actually mention the tool. He talks about 5 things that ‘cultural intelligent people do’ – like suspending judgement, paying attention to the situation, be trained to overcome ethnocentrism, choose to work for organisations with similar values and, finally, not make assumptions about organisational practices. Others, like David Thomas and Elisabeth Plum have also been working on cultural intelligence. Thomas has dived into the cognitive aspects of it, whereas Elisabeth approaches it from a pragmatic but perhaps slightly PC point of view (focus on ‘understanding each other’).

As far as I am concerned, I’d argue that Cultural Intelligence does exist and that it is different from emotional intelligence because it requires the insight on how cultures work, which is different from good social skills in general. For example, what would you score on the following statements (1= strongly disagree, 2= disagree, 3= don’t know, 4 = agree, 5 = strongly agree):

If someone foreign does not understand me then they are a bit ignorant or I didn’t explain it very well


If someone foreign is agreeing with me then this is because both of us are on the same wavelength on this occasion


If someone foreign is polite and kind to me this is because I earned their respect or they are a nice person


If someone foreign is in conflict with me then this is because one of us differs in opinion from the other in this situation


If someone foreign is offended because of what I said or did it’s because they’re a bit sensitive or I was a little tactless

If your answer hovers between the 4 and 5, you’ve missed out on a crucial component: culture. It may be that someone agrees with you to save face, as is part of their customs. Or, a person may seem offended but they’re actually neutral about the issue, it’s just a hot headed culture they’re from. Have you ever been abroad and asked for directions. Did you get an answer you KNEW was wrong and were you confused why someone would do that? In some cultures it is more important to be helpful than accurate.

My students from China gave me a wonderful example of Chinese feedback. If a lecturer would ask “did you like my lecture?” A Chinese student’s comment may be: I liked your seminar, which comes across as irrelevant and confused. However, the student is trying to save your and his/her face: instead of commenting on what was not good, he/she highlights what was. As a Dutch person (direct!), this was a wise lesson to learn.

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