Category Archives: Culture

Is Your Strong Personality Hurting Your Team?

Cartoon Man with Bubble-HiRes-Photoshopped-Sized for InternetPeople often say you can’t judge a book by its cover. But you can judge a book by its title.

For example, if the title of the book is, “The Wisdom of Peter Drucker,” then you can be sure that the book is going to have a lot of good management principles. On the other hand if the book’s title is, “Accounting Made Simple,” you know that the book is full of lies.

Many times, when we say “you can’t judge a book by its cover” we’re referring to people, and the implication is that you can’t know someone just by meeting them briefly. This actually is not true. We all know that first impressions are important and studies have found that in meeting someone for just 7 seconds, people are about 80% right in understanding what that person’s basic personality traits are.

We all know leaders and managers who have a strong personalities.  Many times, the perception is that it is the strong personalities that make them good leaders. That may be true for businesses that are stable and have little change, but it is completely wrong for businesses where rapid change is involved.

A recent study out of Europe* shows that leaders with strong personalities find it very difficult to change.  This hindered the teams and likewise made the teams less able to cope with change. This is explained, at least in part, by the fact that the stronger a leader’s personality is the more they are “stuck” in a certain method of accomplishing tasks and goals.

To quote the researcher, “Teams that had markedly strong personality traits were more inflexible than teams with less markedly strong traits.” He also found that the stronger the personality traits, the less able the teams were to adapt.

 What can we do?

There are at least three ways that we can help ourselves and our teams in this area.

  • Understand the problem and diagnose it

As always, knowledge is power. Since we now know that our leadership strengths can also be our weaknesses when it comes to change, we need to understand who we are and how we function.  If we tend to be rule-conscious, then we need to be willing to work around the rules. If we are more private, we need to work at being more open. If our nature is to be more self-reliant, we need to purposely try to depend on others in a greater way.

  • Get some training in flexibility

There are a lot of great training programs for individuals and for teams that can teach increased flexibility.

  • Get some training in teamwork

Training programs to increase teamwork will also be a huge benefit since different strengths from each team member will tend to offset each other.

Small self-promotion: We have a lot of great training programs like these and others available at Professional Gulf Consulting and would love to be of service to you.

Many times we think that we cannot change; that we are the way we are and are doomed to always be that way. It’s not easy, but we can change and change for the better.

And last, be sure to let me know if you want to borrow my old copy of “Accounting Made Simple.”

*Jan Ketil Arnulf. Organizational change capacity and composition of management teams: A visualization of how personality traits may restrain team adaptability. Team Performance Management, 2012; 18 (7): 433 DOI: 10.1108/13527591211281156

A Charred Steak in the Garden of Eden

Not an actual picture of my grandmother

Not an actual picture of my grandmother

My Grandmother Williams, a wonderful woman, was born in rural Iowa over 100 years ago. If you don’t know what rural Iowa was like 100 years ago, it should not be mistaken for a place where actual human beings lived—at least not in large numbers.

Rural Iowa was beautiful. Picture the Garden of Eden with more clothing and lots of corn. Except in winter. Then you have to picture snow, covered with a layer of ice, slathered with more snow, with sleet and hail mixed in.

Evidently during that time in rural Iowa, one of the leading causes of death was undercooked meat. According to my grandmother’s idea, the bubonic plague was child’s play compared to eating meat that wasn’t charred beyond recognition.

To her, a steak had to be thoroughly cooked—and by “thoroughly” I mean “black.” If it was recognizable as an actual food-like substance, it was unsafe to eat. Only if it looked like Martians had zapped it with a death ray, could it be safely consumed.

I mention my grandmother here because she brings up an important topic: change. She lived her whole life believing that all meat must be thoroughly cooked in order to be eaten. I know for certain this is not true because I love my steaks rare and yet so far I am apparently still alive. But she was taught one thing and stuck with that plan her whole life.

As leaders and managers we have to be brave enough to implement change.

Change is always hard because it seems that all of us, as human beings, resist change. We can do things to make change easier, though.

  • Don’t be paralyzed by the idea of change or the magnitude of a big change.

Often we don’t know how or where to begin and this causes us to do nothing because we don’t know what we should do. Making a plan will help with this (see below.)

  • Identify what needs to be changed.

This is critical because we don’t want to make change just for the sake of change and ruin something that is working well, nor do we want to destroy what could be effective change because we don’t go far enough.

  • Figure out how much change can your organization or team handle.

Every organization or team has a threshold of the amount of change that they can deal with at any given time. Take stock of how much other changes happening in the organization and make sure that there is not too much change happening all at the same time.

  • Decide before you start how you will measure success in the change.

Before you even begin the change decide how you will know when you have been successful. This includes a way to measure when the changes are accomplished successfully, and the many small goals that must be met along the way in order to accomplish the final goal.

  • Make a detailed plan for how to accomplish the change.

Summarize what the change will look like when you are successful. This is the vision. Think about who the change actors will be and how to get them on board with your plan. Communicate your vision with everybody involved; let them know what their part will be and why it is important. Create a plan with all of the necessary steps to make your change happen.

Hopefully, we will be the kind of leaders who can implement change successfully so we won’t be stuck in the Garden of Eden eating a charred steak.

If You Never Make Mistakes Don’t Read This!

Cat warns Inflatable Furniture- dreamstime_l_27741152-SmallerNow that the perfect people have left the room, let me share a story that I think you will like.

It is told that Tom Watson, Sr., CEO of IBM from 1914 to 1956, once had a junior executive lose over $10 million on a risky venture. When the young man was called in for a meeting with Watson, he offered his resignation. Watson replied, “You can’t be serious. We’ve just spent $10 million educating you.”

As I write this, General Motors is facing a crisis because they knew about a mistake in the ignition system of millions of vehicles but did not admit it and tried to cover it up.

If you want a different slant on the idea of mistakes, read on!

  • All of us make mistakes and we usually try to cover them up or blame outside forces.

In the creation of the world as found in the Bible, Adam blamed Eve for his mistake and Eve blamed the serpent for hers. It seems to be part of our nature to deflect mistakes from ourselves.

  • Failures are important because they are unavoidable in innovation and experimentation.

Companies that highly value innovation often have a company culture that does not ridicule or punish people who make mistakes. The really great ones encourage and rejoice over mistakes.

  • People actually think more highly of you if you admit mistakes.

Research has shown that admitting a mistake, especially ones that are controllable, make you appear more in control, more powerful, and create a positive impression.

  • Many people do not seek help, even when help is available, because they feel it will make them appear weak.

Research has shown, however, that this is not true most of the time. Guys, that means ask for directions if you are lost! (Interesting side note: Asian men are much more likely to ask for help or admit mistakes than Western men, while Asian and Western women ask for help and admit mistakes at about the same rate.)

  • These things are true for individuals and for companies.

In one research project, people were given identical company reports except that one report blamed outside forces and one company blamed inside factors. The company that blamed internal factors was rated higher than the company that placed blame outside the company. The same was found in the “real world.” Researchers followed companies who admitted mistakes in their annual reports and did not blame outside factors and found that these companies had a higher stock price after one year than companies that blamed outside forces for their problems in their annual reports.

Here are some take-aways.

  • If you value innovation, don’t be afraid of mistakes.
  • When you do make a mistake, admit it early and loudly.
  • Don’t be afraid to seek help if it is available and you need it.
  • If you are in a position of leadership, admit your own mistakes and cultivate a culture of innovation where it is okay to make and admit mistakes without embarrassment.


I Have a Great Gift For Your Mom. Not!

Wall Street Journal for Mother's DayLast Sunday was the holiday of Mother’s Day in the United States. Many people took time to send their mothers flowers, call them, take them out to eat, and even send them a tweet on this special occasion. In fact, traditionally it is the #1 day of the year for restaurant business in the USA since people want to treat their mothers to a meal and they don’t want to cook it themselves.

I received the advertisement above from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) last year just before Mother’s Day. My favorite sentence is, “It’s a Mother’s Day gift that will delight any Mom.” Really? I think my mom would hate it, actually. My guess is that most of the moms who would want to get it are already receiving it.

Of course, I think the WSJ understands that, but they wanted to use the opportunity to sell more magazines. Understandable.

It does bring three important points to my mind, though. These are things that if we really want to be successful, not only in business, but in life, we would do well to keep in mind.

  • Don’t use things (or especially people!) for our own advancement and to get what we want. That is the feeling I get from this article. It appears to me that the WSJ is using a holiday that is very beautiful and meaningful simply to advance their own agenda.

Solution: Make others around us winners and we will also come out the winner. Pushing down someone else to get ahead may work in the short-run, but it is a very bad long-term strategy.

  • Don’t just see the world through our own eyes. Just because I like the WSJ (personally, one of my favorite magazines) doesn’t mean that my mom or other friends of mine who are not interested in business would like it.

Solution: See the world through others’ eyes and hearts and you will have real friends and genuine partners in life and in work.

  • Don’t believe that everyone thinks the same way we do. Many times we are so set in our own opinions and agenda, it is hard to imagine that anyone else could see it any other way.

Solution: Understand that people from different cultures and different personality types will see the world in a completely different manner than we see it. Don’t be shocked when people don’t think like you do. Embrace the differences. Think outside your own “box.”

If your mom wants the WSJ, get her a subscription for Mother’s Day. But, please make sure she really does want it before you do!

Why Does My Nose Run and My Foot Smell? have taught English as a Second (or 3rd or 4th) Language for more than 20 years and I have to say that I love teaching English and never get tired of it.

But it is not easy because the English language is not easy. Native speakers forget that sometimes, but non-native speakers never do.

About 20 years ago I came across and article in the magazine “Reader’s Digest” that I have enjoyed greatly over the years. The article was entitled “Our Crazy Language” and was a condensation of a book by Richard Lederer entitled “Anguished English.” It is a great read if you enjoy literature and English. These are some of the highlights of the Reader’s Digest article, so I guess you could say that this is a condensation of a condensation of the book by Lederer.

I promise you’ll get a chuckle out of this.

English is the most widely used language in the history of our planet. One in every seven human beings can speak it. More than half of the world’s books and three-quarters of international mail are in English. Of all languages, English has the largest vocabulary—perhaps as many as two million words—and one of the noblest bodies of literature.

Nonetheless, let’s face it: English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant, neither pine nor apple in pineapple, and no ham in hamburger. English muffins weren’t invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candy, while sweetbreads, which aren’t sweet, are meat. If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?

In what other language do people drive on a parkway and park in a driveway? Recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same thing, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? How can overlook and oversee be opposites, while quite a lot and quite a few are alike? And where are the people who are spring chickens or who actually would hurt a fly? I meet individuals who can cut the mustard and whom I would touch with a ten-foot pole, but I cannot talk about them in English.

You have to marvel at a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which your alarm clock goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race (which, of course, is not really a race at all). That is why, when the stars are out they are visible, but when the lights are out they are invisible. And why, when I wind up my watch I start it, but when I wind up the essay I end it.

Embrace Uncertainty researchers were conducting a study and were interviewing people on the street. They asked one man, “What do you think of uncertainty and indifference?”

His reply was, “I don’t know, and I don’t care.”

We all have to live with uncertainty. Marc Schoen in his book “Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You” has this to say: “Uncertainty is inevitable. It’s human nature to find uncertainty very unsettling, and as such it’s also human nature for it to create high levels of agitance within us. As we wrestle with uncertainty, we struggle to find ways to manage it— and many attempts can worsen its effects.”

And yet, many times uncertainty can help us because it forces us to resolve problems and to accomplish more than we we would otherwise.

“Uncertainty avoidance” was one of the five cultural dimensions Gert Hofstede reported in his landmark research a few decades ago. There is both a personal and a cultural aspect to uncertainty avoidance.

Some people are, by their very nature, more adventurous and enjoy uncertainly to a great degree. Research has shown that this is both a function of nature and nurture.

Cultures and societies as a whole also tend to embrace or avoid uncertainty. Cultures that embrace uncertainty tend to be more relaxed, feel comfortable in changing environments, have fewer rules, and are more tolerant of change. Some of these countries are: USA, UK, India, China and Indonesia.

Cultures that avoid uncertainty tend to be more rigid, emotional, plan things step-by-step, and have a lot of rules. Some of these countries are: Greece, Belgium, Italy, Russia, Korea and Mexico.

One of my favorite movie quotes comes from “The Hunt for Red October” when Admiral Painter and Jack Ryan are discussing the Russians. Ryan asks if the Russians have a plan and the Admiral replies, “Russians don’t take a dump, son, without a plan.” Uncertainty avoidance!

To illustrate the differences, think of Germany and England. Both cultures are fairly similar, but Germans tend to be much more uncertainty intolerant. Thus, they plan and develop programs and systems to a much greater degree.

What do we need to do about it?

At work in a multicultural situation, we need to:

  • try to accommodate our coworkers who are less tolerant of uncertainty than we are;
  • learn the rules for cultures where uncertainty is avoided; and
  • communicate better with coworkers who have different levels of uncertainty avoidance.

Personally, since uncertainty is part of life, we need to constantly deal better with it. How? By embracing it and not fearing it. Our motto should be: “Embrace Uncertainty.” Constantly expand your comfort zone when there is uncertainty.

To quote Marc Schoen once again, “For now, when you do feel a sense of uncertainty, focus on a feeling of appreciation, and teach yourself to value it and achieve a level of comfort with it— despite how you might initially react to it. You can even focus on other areas of your life in which you feel thankful. With practice, this will ultimately recondition your response to uncertainty as you begin to view it in a more healthy and constructive way.”

A Tale of Two Hamburgers was the best of teams, it was the worst of teams…

David Livermore tells a story of a problem McDonalds had when they started operating in India. The company motivates work teams in the USA and Europe by rewarding hardworking employees with the distinction of “employee of the month.” It was very successful in America where people want to be noticed and individualistic…it was a total failure in India where people want to blend in and be part of the group in a collectivist culture.

In this series on multi-cultural leadership, we have been talking about the important subjects of  communication, trust, and human resource policies. Today I will share some ideas about the subject of how to approach motivation in different cultural situations.

As we saw in the example of McDonald’s trying to motivate their employees, well-intended motivational plans can sometimes cause more harm that good.

Motivating employees to accomplish more in both quality and quantity is one of the most important jobs that a leader or manager must do. And it often is not easily done when working in one culture, but complications are magnified in a multicultural setting.

2 Kinds of Motivation

Motivation is usually divided into 2 types: extrinsic (outside of oneself) and intrinsic (inside oneself.)

The rewards gained from extrinsic motivation will “push” an employee to do tasks that he would normally find boring, unlikeable, or even disgusting. These rewards may be something as little as a smiley face on a daily assignment written by a 3rd grade teacher, to all-expense-paid vacation for meeting a large sales goal, a raise in salary, or a job promotion. Often, people think of these as financial rewards, but they can include many other things such as notoriety, fame, parental or coworker approval, etc.

This varies by culture. As an example, lets think about parents wanting to motivate their child to do better in school. Extrinsic motivation in the United States and other Western countries would typically be to provide an external reward (an ice cream cone or more TV time) for better grades. External motivation in a “shame and honor culture” (like some Asian and Middle Eastern cultures) would be to criticize, scold, or punish the child for disappointing grades. For an excellent TED Talk on the subject, you can watch Dan Ariely.

Intrinsic motivational rewards are positive feelings received from the task itself simply because the employee enjoys the work. My wife is intrinsically motivated to solve Sudoku puzzles. Me…not so much.

Where Culture Meets Motivation
As if motivating employees wasn’t hard enough in one culture, it is greatly complicated when dealing with multiple cultures. I only have time to share 2 today.

1. Choice– More choice typically is very motivating for employees from individualist cultures and generally decreases motivation for those from collectivist cultures.

2. Competition– Having a more competitive environment will usually motivate individuals from individualistic cultures while it normally will demotivate workers from a collectivist culture.

For the multicultural leader, we must think through the important issues of motivating our employees of different backgrounds. It’s hard work, but the “rewards” (intrinsic and extrinsic!) are great.

The Banana Verses the Banana Pepper

Banana and Banana Pepper-smallI was shocked every day when it came to the multicultural event of eating lunch. It was my first job and I was only a young teenager. I worked washing trucks for a meat packing company and several of the employees were Mexican immigrants. As a white suburbanite, I was used to pretty bland food and my new friends were used to very spicy food. I never got used to seeing them put hot sauce on every bite of every kind of food they ate. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw one guy put a drop of the spicy condiment on a banana. It makes me smile to think about it even now.

This series is about multicultural leadership and we have looked at communication issues and     trust issues so far. Today we’re going to talk about human resource (HR) policies.

We can only scratch the surface here, but these are just a few important areas to consider when developing HR policies for multicultural teams and businesses.

1. Corporate culture versus local culture- For a multinational corporation, one important aspect is creating a corporate culture across the entire enterprise. If (probably more likely “when”) some of the corporate culture issues clash with local culture, which one takes precedence?

2. Employee relations- How deeply and and how people interact is somewhat determined by culture. This will effect relationships between employees when they come from different cultures. One example is handshakes. In America, a firm handshake is considered essential for making a good impression. In the Arab world, handshakes are very loose. How to reconcile the myriad of cultural differences that effect employee relations is important to consider.

3. Family practices- Family systems in different cultures vary immensely. Working spouses, maternal/paternal leave, vacation policies, and childcare are only a few of the major considerations. I remember sharing with a friend from another culture that 2 of our sons work at the same bank in the USA and he replied, “That would not be allowed in my country.” In China, I would often talk to spouses who were raising their child by themselves because the husband or wife was studying overseas for many years to benefit the extended family, while I know of few Americans who would make that kind of sacrifice. This shows the greater importance of the extended family in China and the nuclear family in the USA.

4. Career planning- Culture effects career planning in many ways. It is well known that an American will move a great distance away from their family for a relatively small bump in salary while and Indian will not be willing to move to another city or country for a much larger salary.

These are just a few of the problem areas that HR managers face in multicultural settings. They are serious matters and have great impact on any business or team working across cultural boundaries.

What’s the Worst Way to Win the Nobel Prize?

leukemia-dreamstime_5630117-smallDr. Robin Warren and Dr. Barry Marshall, who won the Nobel Prize in 2005, were convinced that the H. Pylori bacteria was responsible for stomach ulcers when most of their colleagues were convinced that stress was the problem. To prove their point, Marshall drank a dose of of the bacteria that they had collected from several stomach ulcers and proved their point. That is one way to be a leader and change culture. Let me just say I’m glad I study culture and not ulcers!

In this series of posts we have been talking about how to become better leaders of multicultural teams. In my last post, we looked at 5 things that can break trust in multicultural situations and today we are going to look at how we can build trust.

Remember that trust is the foundation of all human relationships and must be cultivated and developed. One of our main jobs as multicultural leaders is to create an atmosphere where trust can develop between ourselves and the team and between team members.

Trust is ultimately an ethical issue. Not only do we have to maintain high ethics to build trust, but we have to be aware of what ethics are involved in the various cultures of our team members and live ethically according to each of the cultures involved. How is this done? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Study- Learn and try to know as much as you can about the cultures of your team members and what their idea of ethical behaviors is in their context and culture. Ask questions and be a student.

2. Dialogue- Take time during team meetings to address these issues where they conflict between cultures of team members. Bring the issue to light and try to help everyone on the team understand each other better.

3. Be Agreeable- Help the team members agree on a common team culture that supersedes each individual team members’ culture and see that everyone commits to live up to the standards of the common team culture.

4. Release- As a leader, we can lead by example and let go of aspects of our culture (which are important to us) that cause problems and pain for other team members. That is true leadership. We also need to release control of how we think others should act according to our cultural framework.

5. Be Vulnerable- In every culture I can think of, trust is built by being vulnerable and “real.” As leaders, we don’t need to hide our faults and and our failures, but we need to be transparent and open to share our defeats as well as our successes. For some reason, most people have the idea that we build respect by never appearing to have problems and failures, but the opposite is actually true. By sharing our defeats, team members are drawn to us in a greater way.

In the next post, I’ll talk about how we can be better leaders in the area of human resource policies as it relates to multicultural contexts.

“That’s Me!”

Discussion-dreamstime_1466208-smallerI was conducting a seminar in Egypt for multicultural leaders and dealing with the subject of cultural differences. The audience was almost completely North American and Western European (individualistic cultures) and I was sharing about how people from collectivists cultures tend to think and interpret the world differently. During one of the breaks, Carlos, one of the few Asians in the room, came up to me and said, “Man, that’s me! That is totally the way I think”

Differences in interpreting the world around us are just one of the difficulties we face in multi-cultural leadership. The current series is about how do be a better multi-cultural leader. Part 1 was an introduction, Part 2 was about high-context and low-context communication.  Part 3 and   Part 4 were about direct and indirect communication. In Part 5, I talked about the importance of trust and things that break trust, and today I will share some specifics as to why cultural differences create trust problems.

Quick review: Trust is the foundation of all human relationships and can take a long time to build and be quickly destroyed.

So for today our question is: how do cultural differences make building and maintaining trust even more difficult? Here are a few reasons.

1. Communication is harder. In this blog from the past I talked about communication differences between cultures. These differences can be seen as withholding information which is known to break trust (from my last blog.)

2. Ethics are different. Different cultures tend to view relationship and responsibilities differently, which can lead to misunderstandings about honesty and dishonesty. As we discussed in the last blog, this can break trust.

3. Western reliance on contracts and non-Western reliance on relationships. Westerners value contracts in a business relationship and non-Westerners value relationships. For non-Westerners, the relationship is what matters, so agreements can change as the relationship changes. Not wanting to have a contract or not abiding by the written contract can be seen as deceitfulness and unreliability to Westerners– something that will break trust.

4. Leadership values and styles. Leadership and management styles differ greatly between cultures. Westerners working for non-Western managers tend to feel controlled by management and want more independence. Non-Westerners working for Western managers usually want more guidance, instruction, and oversight than the Western manager is willing to give. Both situations destroy trust.

5. Different attitudes toward time. Some cultures are “clock time” cultures in which appointments are governed by the clock and tend to be exact. Other cultures are “even time” cultures and starting times tend to be very loose according to the clock. This is a problem because lack of promptness or precision in deadlines and meetings often destroys trust in Western people’s thinking.

These are some important issues to think about and deal with in multi-cultural leadership.

Next time we will talk about how the leader of international teams can build trust among members.