Polaris-ed World

Is it true that global connectedness is a good thing? Or are we all considering a move to castle, pull up the drawbridge like in the middle ages, so we believe we can live and work with like-minded others in peace? The world is doing better according to big data: we are more educated, healthier and wealthier on average[1]. If we did an archeological dig in 1000 years from now, our current world may seem rather homogenous – urbanisation made up of global retail brands such as Zara, McDonalds, Starbucks, and Apple phones would suggest we are becoming similar.

But those of us who travel and dig deeper into the human mindset, they find a key tension: people may drink Coca Cola, eat from KFC, wear jeans and t-shirts but want to express their personal identity (ex/introvert, sexuality) mixed in with their social identity (faith, politics). There are conflicting trends – we see more people expressing deeply religious values through dress (e.g., hijab) in comparison to the 1970s but equally more countries embrace same-sex marriage. Social media tells us to “be yourself” and to “pick a side”. We are asked to take perspective and realise that the ‘present’ is but a blip in history, yet we are also encouraged to live ‘truly in the present’ and shine like a diamond. We all have our own platform and we want to be heard – our voice matters. But who is the audience and who is on their side to help them to listen?

We know that cross cultural issues are viewed as important.  However, it is also often ignored by people in leadership roles because the benefits of engaging in very difficult dialogue 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.

Apart from taking perspective, it is also important to be able to think about solutions at different levels. For instance, if a goverment makes a legislative decision, an organisation needs to decide what to do strategically and how this will impact the individual. Together with colleagues from 17 nations, we discovered that if a country is going through uncertain times and it’s hard to plan ahead, organisations may do well to provide a bit of a buffer so that employees are not stressing out about this uncertainty and can devote cognitive efforts on collaboration (helping) and coming up with bright ideas (voice). The scientific evidence for this is available for free here. It is a typica example of the barometer tool referred to in other sections and as part of the counselling process.

The environment to which one pledges one’s belonging or, more formally, allegiance, span a spectrum from perceiving it as a community that aims to relinquish foci on nation, race and ethnicity on grounds that it hinders humanitarian progression to a vote for isolation as an act of sovereignty, taking back control and celebrating “flag, faith and country”. We need to find what occupies the space in between various polar opposites if we want to reach a point of understanding that is beyond ‘tolerance’.

I have over ten years of experience in teaching and researching cross cultural management and psychology. Based on this experience, the overall conclusion (so far) I’ve drawn is that:

  1. Shelve any convictions of your own neutrality or superiority (‘surely everyone wants democracy/wealth/equality/freedom of speech’). Even if you believe with all your heart in an ‘ism’, ‘ology’ or ‘theory’, another person may not.
  2. The path to agreement, collaboration and compassion is hard work. Tolerance stops at true understanding. If I say ‘I tolerate you’ then this doesn’t sound positive and indicates a power imbalance.
  3. Taking perspective involves the ability to stop, pause and listen without making assumptions about the other person. The way that we make sense of our world is not set in stone. Much of how we organise the world to navigate it is changing. We need new tools: a map, a barometer, a compass and some help from the North Star.

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