January 14, 2016

Levinas' intercultural approach

Intercultural Management

Levinas applied to intercultural management? Didier Dely was willing to talk to us about the contributions of Levinasian thought to his day-to-day professional life as a manager. An edifying testimony.

Levinas' intercultural approach

Levinas applied to intercultural management

Interview with Didier Dely, Managing Director of SEMAEST

Philosophy in the corporate world? Levinas applied to management and multicultural diversity? Mr. Didier Dely was willing to talk to us about the contributions of Levinasian thought to his daily professional life as a manager. Pedagogically, without taboos, he took up the challenge with brio.

How does philosophy influence the management style of a multicultural and diverse team leader? And how is it a powerful vector of interculturality? These are the two questions answered in this interview. It also answers a third, more interior question: how, without angelism, can we perceive the other as an antidote to mistrust and intolerance?

Emmanuel Levinas

La vision interculturelle de Levinas

Born in Lithuania in 1906 to a traditional Talmudic Jewish upbringing, Emmanuel Levinas became a naturalized French citizen in 1930. A teacher in France, he experienced the horrors of war, and was taken prisoner of war in Germany, where he was subjected to forced labor. On his return, he learned that his entire family had been exterminated. This tragedy, and his attempt to understand the mental mechanism leading to genocide, gave rise to his concept of Otherness. He died on Christmas Day 1995.

A vision of otherness

Levinas has long been a daily companion in your professional life. By way of introduction, could you briefly situate him in the world of ideas, in terms of the construction of the relationship with the other?

In Western Europe, a milestone in the definition of individual identity can be dated back to Descartes.

Faced with Cartesian "radical doubt", which calls all knowledge into question, the only things the subject can be sure of are his own essence and existence. This is the famous cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). The rest, everything that isn't him, is the id, the indeterminate, the uncertain.

Through the multiple deformations of this thinking, we end up with a form of egoism: "I" is the center of the world. It seems to me that we in the West continue to be imbued with this philosophy, which is anything but open to others.

After Descartes, other philosophers - until Levinas theorized his vision of otherness - obviously continued to sketch out a theory of the foundations of the individual. They evolved towards a way of thinking that embraced the other, but as an alter ego.

The other is me...

Yes, that's right. This conception breeds communitarianism and identitarian withdrawal. We open up to others when they are similar to us. We look for similarities with ourselves. None of this makes for an intercultural relationship.

For the first time, with Levinas, it's the other, radically different, who constitutes us. And we are constituted, we exist, only because the other looks at us1.

The epiphany of the face

Would you then like to define a central concept of Levinasian thought: the epiphany of the face? And what it implies for interpersonal and intercultural relations?

La vision interculturelle de Levinas

Levinas explains that the individual experiences what he calls "sublime freedom", which is the supreme form of individualism. The irruption of the face of the other curbs this sublime freedom. The social relationship is created. This is what Levinas calls the "epiphany of the face" (epiphany in the sense of occurrence, of that which occurs).

The other limits our sublime freedom and, by limiting it, constructs us as social beings. And one of the driving forces behind this construction is the other's vulnerability, which creates a de facto responsibility for the person who encounters it. Levinas even wrote: "I am more responsible for the other than he is for me".

If we unroll this thought, our personal richness as individuals comes from confronting what is different. We are fully human only if we confront and accept the irruption of the radically different face of the other. Clearly, meeting our fellow human beings is less important than meeting those who are not. Whether they have a different culture, religion, skin color or social position.

This responsibility towards others means that mistrust must come to an end.

Levinas applied to Management

How does this Levinasian approach apply to your day-to-day work as a manager?

When we are confronted with difference, and are able to see it as a potential rather than a threat, we are able to put our own certainties into perspective, and nurture a dialogue that not only enriches us, but is also a wonderful way of forging fruitful relationships. In an intercultural exchange, where the relationship takes precedence over the task, the Levinasian approach is a great asset.

For several years now, this approach has enabled me to manage teams, particularly those in emergency situations. Levinas gives me benevolence and an ability to understand that the other is different. And the other, in this case, is not just someone who is different in terms of culture or skin color, it's someone who is different in terms of socio-professional background, family life for example, or even way of thinking ("left brain" or "right brain" for example) and I'm able to understand their constraints, their limitations. Levinas teaches us to put ourselves in the other person's shoes. So the responsibility he implies towards the other leads, of course, to benevolence and understanding, and also to the fact that we don't have to impose our own codes.

Too many managers believe that the objective takes precedence over the human aspect, and imposes a fusion of individuals into a uniform. If we take a Levinasian approach, we know that the objective can only be achieved by respecting the differences within the team.

What impact does this have on project management?

In a way, the Levinasian approach frees us from the notion of hierarchy, since we're dealing with men and women whose relationships nourish us. It facilitates a subtle balance between a leader's need to lead and the ability to create a collective body.

A Levinasian approach to project management would perhaps have us say that managing means saying hello, deciding and saying thank you2. However, we're not in the angelic position of saying that we're all equal. Of course, you have to decide and defend your interests, but the relationship with others is so different when you're not on the defensive... You project empathy. This empathy, this benevolence, really increases tenfold what you can expect from others in a professional relationship, and what others can expect from you too.

The epiphany of the face, applied to management or intercultural relations, is a concept of reciprocal valorization, where we are no longer imposing, but exchanging and freely willing, in a way, to please the other. We respond to each other, we resonate with each other, we value each other, we get the best out of each other by getting the best out of ourselves and, in the end, we grow from the projects and the relationship. And, what's more, it leads to new contracts!

What about team management?

First of all, as I said before, Levinas teaches us to take people's appetites into account. He invites us to modify our management methods to take account of people's differences, so as to ensure that you provide them with well-being at work, and that this well-being is productive for the company and the team. We can't apply our own way of mobilizing the brain, conceptualizing, projecting into the future or, on the contrary, frameworks and norms to all situations, equally. Understanding this simple fact is the foundation of a healthy intercultural relationship.

The second thing concerns the notion of justice. You are responsible for the other, but you are also responsible for everyone else. Levinas explains that this is where the notion of justice is founded. It is not founded in the unjust acts that the other commits against me, but in the wrongs that the other commits against the community.

Applied to team management, this means that you can tolerate any member of your team behaving in ways you don't want, through various forms of "deviance", including insubordination, within certain limits, of course, if it helps productivity or nurtures the relationship. On the other hand, you must intervene when this person creates harm to the rest of the group and disrupts its harmony. In other words, you're constantly balancing the need to take account of otherness with the need for justice. As a result, you're never in the angelic position of an egalitarian relationship where everything is allowed, but in a real adaptation to the other's difference, as long as this difference nourishes the group.

1In fact, it's interesting to see the extent to which a similar concept can be found in the theories of quantum mechanics. We know today, and in particular thanks to the confirmation of the existence of the "Higgs field", with the discovery of the Higgs Boson, that a particle "exists" only because it is "observed". Levinas, prescient as he was, discovered in philosophical terms what would also be discovered much later in quantum mechanics: particles only leave their probabilistic wave state and materialize because we observe them.

2This was a favorite expression of my coach, the late Alain Coscas.

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