National and Organisational Culture

It is always interesting to think about where and how cross-cultural communication and competencies comes into project management or organisational success. It is also often a difficult thing to discuss with so many generalisations that are helpful in many ways, but also lead to oversimplification and stereotyping.

Karen Smits talks about her research into national and organisational cultures with some interesting findings from her investigation into a large multinational, multiorganisational project in Central America. She is interviewed by Chris Smit in this audio file at the following address.

3 Tips for cross-cultural collaboration

  1. Have an Open Mind; Know your own culture and be able to understand the “other” culture.
  2. Adapt & Adjust; Or go with the flow. If someone is late for a meeting don’t get (too) upset.
  3. Language; be aware that not everyone can express themselves in a foreign language as well as you might be able to do.

5 Language & Cultural Elements of Karen’s Case Study in Panama

Towards the end of the interview Karen discusses some generalisations around her own Dutch nationality and the Panamanian one she found herself in during her research. She identifies certain important dimensions and made her own observations:

  1. Time – the Dutch are very adherent to time and therefore being late is seen as being a time waster; however, in Panama this is more relaxed and fluid.
  2. language – the Dutch language and therefore behaviour is more direct whereas the Panamanians tend to be softer and smoother and less harsh.
  3. family – the Dutch family involves more immediate family whereas in Latin America it is extended to aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, nieces, nephews.
  4. gender – Karen felt she was able to get access more due to her position in this male dominated construction environment.
  5. appearance – Karen also felt that her blond hair and blue eyes gained her greater access to information and sections of the company – where she might not have otherwise succeeded.

Karen’s cross-cultural collaborations research on the Panama Canal Expansion Program involved a combination of national cultural diversity (Spaniards, Italians, Belgians, Panamanians and Americans working together) and organisational cultures across a number of different organisations all working closely together on the one project.

This showed her that culture needs to be high on the cultural agenda and the reality is that this doesn’t often happen. The reason for this seems to be that there is a strong focus on hard skills like engineering-related tasks and that the perception is that there is no time to spend on the softer skills such as cultural competencies. However, what gets overlooked, is the manner and approaches to work. Karen Smits says that it is not important to find a unified way of working but, in fact, to be aware of the differences so that they can be incorporated holistically into the development of the program in order to avoid conflict, breakdowns and inefficiencies.

She says that it is not necessarily coming from a place of ignorance, but rather that the urgency is underestimated. The ramifications are realised too late after conflict has occurred and this costs the organisation a lot of time and money to rectify in getting the program back on track.

The ideal solution for Karen Smits would be for someone like her to be involved from the beginning – before conflict arises – in order to lay the groundwork, which would be to undertake profiling to know the differences and similarities between collaborators and to instil a sense of equality with a focus on working effectively with these differences and similarities.

For more information on related issues go to Culture Matters.




Ted Talk of the Week – The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain

I was instantly attracted to this new Ted Talk because I feel like I have often fallen into this habit of urging my students to be bold and get out there and put themselves forward. Be noticed!

Parindra – The Extrovert

I have often held up my extroverted students as examples. I’ve celebrated Parindra the confident, gregarious student who somehow made me his best friend in the breaks with his deft social skills and see-through flattery, which, I hate to admit, somehow worked on me. You must think I’m shallow…

I guess I constantly see people like Parindra get ahead. They get their foot in the door by being charming and endlessly putting themselves forward for opportunities even when there don’t seem to be any.

The Extrovert in Australia

But I guess what this Ted Talk made me see was that extroverts are supremely celebrated across America, and I would say Australia too, and maybe unjustly. I suspect, however, this isn’t the case in many cultures, where being predominantly a quiet, independent worker is much more respected and rewarded. I imagine a leader also looks different in this culture.

Leadership in Australia

Parindra will do well in Australia – I have no doubt. However, I would like to see Australia become less focused on the lion and start to celebrate the owl. Sharing the leadership between extroverts and introverts is also in line with embracing a more diverse workforce – a more diverse Australia. We need to stop seeing just the Richard Bransons as the quintessential leaders.

Back to teaching – my promise to my students

I will make more of an effort in my classes in the future to nurture the more introverted students and diversify my activities to accommodate the quiet thinkers, those that need quiet time to reflect and come up with potentially more well-thought out plans and solutions to problems and ultimately and hopefully I will nurture a quietly confident leader or two that will embrace a more diverse and thoughtful workforce. Optimistic, maybe… or maybe not?

So, in the words of Susan Cain:

  1. Stop the madness for constant group work…just stop it!
  2. Go to the wilderness…be like Buddha…have your own revelations!
  3. Take a good look at what’s inside your own suitcase and why you put it there!

And have the courage to speak softly!

Yes, I meant my LinkedIn profile to look like that…

Over the years, I have been asked about my LinkedIn profile as I have been told that it ‘seems a bit disjointed’. Recently, one of my corporate teachers subtly said to me, ‘you know, there are a lot of theatre references on your profile?’ with another colleague from the education sector telling me that it didn’t ‘look professional enough for the companies we’re dealing with’.

I have taken these comments on board and seriously considered them over the last few years. I even thought about splitting myself in two and having two profiles – one creative, one professional. It seems that there is an expectation out there to be wedded to one single objective and to follow one single path in order to achieve it but, somehow, this contradicts the era into which I was born. With parents of the Builder/Silent Generation, they had little opportunity to follow their dreams and therefore, encouraged me to be whoever I wanted to be.

So, I travelled, lived abroad in France and The Netherlands, taught English to business people, studied the Arts (French, English Literature and Theatre with some disturbing moments of diving deep into the cultural realities around the First Peoples of Australia, Feminisms and Post-Colonialism) and after an attack of being responsible, I studied to become a high school teacher, which I never practiced but used to become a Director of Studies and now a small business owner of E4B | English for Business.

Along the way I have consistently loved and worked in the arts. I love culture and I am particularly interested in the miscommunications that occur when different cultures come together. In fact, as I look back over the theatre work I have done, it has been in new Australian writing, new voices and new stories that we don’t always see represented in our media or on our stages.

So, it seems that the stories I’m interested in hearing have the same objective as the culturally and linguistically diverse people I’m interested in working with and with the ultimate goal of bringing together a unified and diverse community. I yearn to see more representative numbers in high levels of management and I yearn to hear more stories that represent the whole Australia I see around me.

Is it possible that there is room for these stories in corporate Australia? They could help bridge the gap between the older, dominant, migrant culture and the newer, minority, migrant cultures (not to mention indigenous cultures) that always seem to have to go through their period of initiation or submission into leaving behind parts of themselves in order to fit the dominant, western mould.

Is it possible that we are just tolerating our diverse makeup rather than celebrating it? And what would happen if we seriously invested in celebrating who we really are: ethnically, creatively, professionally or even sexually? Your own diversity is because of your special mix of any of these elements and many more that place you in your unique position. Fitting the mould with a perceivably professional profile that ticks all the boxes is not always going to be what gets you the job.

My interest in storytelling, whether on theatre stages, with corporate clients or in classrooms, makes me more open to listening and looking for the differences. It might even help me open my eyes to different ways of communicating, problem solving and just being in the world. So, by bringing the two fragmented sides of my LinkedIn profile together and being a whole person, it might just make me a better communicator and storyteller as the two sides nourishes each other giving me my specialised niche.

So yes, I meant my LinkedIn profile to look like that…

Are you feeling high or low?

“You don’t have to tell me again, I’m not a child”

“If you don’t understand, you’re…well…hmmm.“

A high-context communicator is someone who uses words in a way that relies heavily on the context in which they are used or, in other words, someone who relies on the things that are not said or rather implied, to communicate the real meaning of what is meant. This often happens in environments that are quite homogenous and often result in languages being formed around fewer words to express meaning because one word can mean a number of things in different contexts.

“Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them; then tell them what you have told them”

“If you don’t understand, it is my fault.”

Low-context communicators, on the contrary, do not rely heavily on context and are therefore more explicit in their communication. These types of communicators can come from more newly developed countries that have been built on immigration where many cultures live side-by-side and require more explicit communication to ensure that everyone is on the same page (even as I’m writing this, I feel for that very reason, it’s important to explain that ‘on the same page’ means ‘everyone understanding each other’).

Low-context; rich vocabulary

English is arguably one of the richest languages, namely due to its Germanic origins and historical influences from Viking and Norman domination and more specifically Norman French and thus Latin. The link that I hadn’t made until recently was that rich languages like this are possibly an indication of low-context cultures because so many more words are needed to express explicit meaning rather than the alternative of intuiting meaning by what was not said or ‘reading the air’.

“Sinister buttocks”

Upon reading this article, I suddenly realised our rich language might seem to be laden with choice – many words meaning the same thing and therefore synonyms being readily available – meaning a number of different words can be inserted into a phrase to make it more sophisticated or, more sinisterly, to dodge the plagiarism accusation. This article has some hilarious examples of some awkwardly chosen synonyms and has led, aptly, to yet another addition to the English dictionary – ‘rogeting’…