May 07, 2015

Intercultural Management: The Inevitable Cultural Dimension

Intercultural Management

Sometimes, executive committees have the crazy ambition to change the culture of their employees. For Jean Pautrot, the study of cultures is based on the analysis of dilemmas.

Intercultural Management: The Inevitable Cultural Dimension

After a long career spent in corporate human resources and at the Cercle Magellan, I believe that the managerial discomfort which sometimes leads to psychosocial risks can be analysed from a cultural viewpoint. The increasing uniformity of management methods is something which is accompanying the globalisation of companies. This is generating tension between global procedures and local cultures. Only a willingness to place trust and confidence in others makes it possible to overcome such contradictions. As they globalise, companies standardise their methods and procedures despite the resistance they encounter.

The executive boards then flirt with the insane idea of changing their employees’ culture.

Philippe d’Iribarne demonstrates very convincingly that French culture has not really changed since pre-revolutionary days. Le Monde compares Putin to Tsar Nicholas I. How can the CEO of a stock market-quoted company succeed in doing something which even the French and Russian revolutions failed to achieve?

A culture is a way of viewing the world, of expressing emotions and acting in a characteristic manner shared by a community, whether this is the habitants of a country, the staff of a company or people performing the same occupation.

The cultural iceberg

A culture has three "layers":

  • The outer layer: the "invisible" part of the iceberg, the reality experienced by tourists.
  • The middle layer: the standards, norms (duties) and values (aspirations). The true and the false, the desirable and the undesirable, which vary from one culture to another, as shown when it comes to resolving the dilemmas described below.
  • The inner layer: the implicit aspect, the "sanctuary" of the culture. This often lies in words which can be difficult to explain to a foreigner: secularism in France, codetermination in Germany, etc.

Each individual belongs to several communities: his country, his occupation, and his company. The cultural changes within the community are very slow, even when outside pressure is applied. On the other hand, an individual placed in a new culture changes as a result of the culture shock. Expatriates adapt to the middle layer of the host culture while preserving the inner layer of their original culture.

Individuals adapt culturally. Groups on the other hand produce an "antibody" to resist cultural change. Certainly, the outer layer may change but the change is only cosmetic. History providers us with plenty of examples of this: Bulgaria preserved its Orthodox culture despite five centuries of Ottoman occupation.

A systematic study of cultures is based on the analysis of dilemmas, the need to choose between two alternatives which each feature major disadvantages. The dilemma of Stouffer and Toby amply illustrates this problem: a friend is driving a car in which I'm sitting. He hits a pedestrian while speeding. My friend's lawyer asks me to testify that he was driving within the speed limit. Fons Trompenaars presents the results of a survey carried out in a large number of countries. The percentage of people who would answer: "my friend was speeding" varies between 32% for Venezuela and 97% in Switzerland. The Anglo-Saxon countries are above 90%. Russia and China between 40% and 50%. France is at 73%. The tendency to lean more towards friendship or the law is very much part of a culture’s "DNA". The researchers studied around 10 different dilemmas which all serve to differentiate cultures.

In an international group, the "culture" of a particular occupation offers a sort of unity and favours technical consensual dilemmas. On the other hand, management reveals cultural fractures through life's dilemmas.

Identifying high potential managers means using managerial role-playing situations. However, managing means managing life's dilemmas. There is therefore a cultural dimension to selection. The cultural "standardisation" of managerial teams internationally is creating a fracture between the workforce and the management in each country. It's not the dominant cultural model which is the problem but the attempt to impose cultural uniformity.

Let's take whistleblowing for example: the idea that ethical rules take precedence over group solidarity. The results of Stouffer and Toby’s dilemma show that the Anglo-Saxons and the Swiss are at ease with this phenomenon. Despite a sizeable consensus (73%) the French are less comfortable with it. For their part, the Chinese, Russians and Venezuelans tend to favour solidarity.

In practice, auditing assignments will find nothing. The outer layer of each culture will conform to what is expected of it. The failure to adjust to standards and values will create resistance and frustration in the middle layer which becomes all the more intense the greater the variation vis-a-vis international standards. Psycho-social risks are often the result of a clash between opposing cultural models, such the Anglo-Saxon model and French-style public services at Orange. Stéphane Richard’s great achievement is to have given his staff back their French-style cultural points of reference.

Culture clashes also explain the financial failure inherent to many mergers, which occur within a period of five years, but the initial shareholders are no longer there to see it! The real challenge is to allow each culture to invent the procedures needed to obtain the desired result. Ethical security should not always involve whistleblowing, and reaching the annual targets need not always mean breaking things down into monthly targets to please the shareholders. To achieve this, it is necessary to appoint managers who not only know how to work in an intercultural environment but have the ability to operate as "cultural interpreters" accepting that different cultures find their own ways to achieve common goals.

In quantum physics, it is impossible to simultaneously measure the position and quantity of movement of a particle, and in the same way in international management it is impossible to simultaneously specify the end goal and the best path to reach it.

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