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 🏄‍♂️

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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: https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/dont-personalise-collectivise ). 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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Reflective questions (for academics)

The assiduous Dr Giroud came to Middlesex University to discuss networking for academic success, for which I, personally, was very grateful. Academics are known to be introverts and the networking aspect can be daunting. The below is a reflection of her presentation in the frame of self-reflective questions that any writer, researcher, academic can ask him/herself. These questions are my interpretation of the talk that was organised by Prof Anne-Wil Harzing and Prof Terence Jackson.

Workshop 8: Rocket Science? Networking and External Engagement for Academic Success. A presentation by Dr Axèle Giroud

Key reflective questions:

Values

  1. What are your convictions?
  2. What are your professional values?
  3. What personal values are not to be compromised?

Goals

  1. What are your goals over 20 years?
  2. What do you want to achieve and how?
  3. What kind of leadership motivates you?

Field of interest

  1. What is the area that interests you?
  2. In what topic would you like to be (known as) an expert?

Research coherency

  1. What projects are you working on at the moment?
  2. What is the coherent narrative behind your (unpublished) papers?

Networking

  1. How do you want to communicate your work?
  2. Who are the stakeholders?
  3. How will you gain: 1) enjoyment 2) validity 3) learning?
  4. In what practical ways can you network to enhance/better the following:
    1. Reputation
    2. Collaboration
    3. Humanity/Life

Room for improvement

  1. What is the most challenging aspect of being an academic for you personally?
  2. How can you develop this?

An important question that is important to me personally and also in terms of as a research interest is whether we experience ‘person-environment fit’ and sense of belonging. Our environment can be the organisation but can also be our field of research or our choice of vocation. Doing some reflective exercises such as the above can help (re)focus on where we’d like to be in life.

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Too many of us?

When I travel on the London underground and take an escalator up or down, I watch the faces of the people across going into the opposite direction. Usually, these faces are expressionless, on their way to something that will require some engagement but for now, on this metal vertical carpet ride, they’re in rest. I see people ahead of me getting off and I wonder about their lives, their goals and how that face is meaningful to someone somewhere. Then, forgive the morose thought, I sometimes wonder about the impact of a terrorist attack. In one blast, 100s of peoples’ lives would be ended or forever changed. I wonder how this would have an impact on those nearest to them and how community or government leaders (have to) respond. But there are so many of us. 7 billion in fact. What exactly is the impact of such a loss?

When the Charlie Hebdo illustrators were killed, discussions flared up about a value of a life. For some we hold vigils, for others we just read the headline and move on. Much of this is about proximity – we care about those similar to us, near us and less so about those further away. It’s an ingroup/outgroup phenomenon that is much studied in social psychology.

My work, in part, is to understand when and how people sense a belonging as part of their nation (Person Nation Fit). I’m currently analysing qualitative and quantitative data from people from a range of backgrounds and asked them questions about their own citizenship but also when they think someone else becomes a citizen and when the other should lose his/her citizenship. When international students were asked “When you hear the word ‘citizenship’ do you think of a person who is a member of a community or someone who has rights and duties’, the 107 who answered the question were split down the middle.

citizenship rights duties MDX

When asked to explain their answer, the replies varied but one respondent who opted for ‘member’ said “More than just being in the community residing and spectating, a citizen is an active member of the community” and one of the respondents who opted for ‘rights’ said “citizen is someone who have a right in voting and sharing the benefit with other citizen [sic] within the country”. Some felt it was a combination of both: “Actually I think about both. As a citizen, a person not only belongs to a community but also has the right and duties.” For now, I’m hypothesizing that the former (member of a community) definition is more tribal, linked to a sense of belonging whereas the latter (rights & duties) is transactional.

In our globalised world, migration is a hot topic, despite the fact that humans have been moving around for as long as we can track back records. Perhaps we are more bothered now, since the volumes of people have grown. Yet, I doubt many of the people who ride the escalator up or down think about their citizenship much, unless they’re in the process of pledging their allegiance, if they’re a refugee/asylum seeker or if they’re about to migrate elsewhere. I’m unsure the majority can remain ‘laissez faire’ about migration, in that, if we’re not opposed to it, we cannot choose to remain neutral. If I invite you to my home, I show you where the kitchen and bathroom is. I don’t let you get on with it and figure it out so you make mistakes and then I get annoyed, especially if you brought your husband and parents too. One needs to invite the other to the proverbial fire, sit with them, share with them. The rules of pragmatic multiculturalism have changed and that requires engaged and culturally intelligent management.

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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,
ISIS
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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