intercultural businessmen, cultural misunderstanding, cultural awareness

Why Cultural Awareness is Crucial for Global Business

Your sales presentation has just concluded. You have a good feeling about it. This is the first time you’ve done business in this country – on this continent, in fact! – but no matter. You gave your very best sales presentation, the one that always scores when you’re at home. You eagerly await the client’s reaction. But there’s no reaction. None. Only silence. The young, energetic guy you pitched to finally tells you, “Thank you. We will let you know.” The older guy sleeping in the corner, the one you ignored, stands up and everyone follows him out. The meeting is over.

You go back to your hotel room and wait. And wait. The answer never comes. You call, many times, trying to get an answer before your flight leaves that evening. For some reason nobody is taking your calls. Finally, a week after you’ve returned home, you receive a terse email, “Thank you for your presentation. We have decided not to do business with your company.”

What went wrong?

What happened? You gave your very best presentation. When you’ve pitched clients at home using this same presentation, prospects have been eager to sign contracts with you. Why didn’t this client react the same way?

The problem is, you may never find out. Because what went wrong was most likely based on something you don’t know and couldn’t possibly recognize. Was it that you focused on the wrong target? Was it your presentation? Too long? Too short? Not enough information? Too much? Was it that you wanted to skip the lunch they offered and get right down to business? That you also skipped the dinner invitation in favor of getting right back to your home office? You don’t know because you don’t know. You’re not culturally aware.     

When doing international business, there are certain things you must know. The basic business information is not enough; you also need to develop cultural awareness.

Cultural awareness

Appreciating that individuals from different cultural backgrounds have different cultural norms, practices and expectations seems like a nice-to-know social skill. The reality is that this knowledge is vital if you want to be successful in international business. Awareness of cultural differences isn’t simply about making people feel comfortable with good manners at the dinner table. Or knowing when to bow or when to shake hands. People from different countries and different cultures have their own ways of doing business. At work, they react to inputs and suggestions differently, they communicate differently, and they make decisions differently. Being aware of these differences is crucial to doing global business.

What are cultural differences?

Cultural differences exist in virtually every human interaction. You will experience these as differences among the individuals you interact with. Even your good friends might have different perspectives, interpretations, understanding and behaviors to yourself. This is an indicator of cultural differences, which may stem from influences such as racial difference, local or family culture, or historical influences. The key is that you will notice the person’s perspective and habits are different from yours.

In the workplace, you may experience a struggle with either colleagues or clients. You want to perform a set of tasks, and you know how to do them, but sometimes colleagues or clients insist on things being done ‘their’ way. It seems that no matter what you say or do, they keep on doing it wrong!

At the international business level, these differences can be magnified many times over. An international client, in some cases, may not feel heard and respected, even though you have been trying your best to communicate with them. Moreover, he or she has the luxury of simply rejecting your proposal if they feel disrespected. The most frustrating part is that you may not even know why they rejected your offer.

Why become culturally aware?

Research shows (KPMG, 2012) that poor appreciation of cultural differences and communication can lead to a loss of potential business by as much as 26%. Additional research by McKinsey (Diversity Matters, 2015; and Delivering Through Diversity, 2018) has shown measurable positive financial performance in companies which take active measures to manage cultural differences through diversity. Lastly, had our salesman in the opening anecdote been culturally aware, his client may have been just as eager to do business as his clients back home.  

By recognizing the cultural differences and becoming more culturally aware, the differences no longer become a source of conflict or poor results. On the contrary: we can learn how to leverage these differences to improve work processes, create business excellence and improve overall performance. No longer will you wonder why the business deal went wrong

How to become culturally aware

Developing cultural awareness is the basic foundation to courses offered at ELM Graduate School through our partner BRIL.Solutions. To find out what your level of cultural awareness is, and how you can improve your intercultural business skills, contact us for more information. 

For more information regarding our course offered 12 – 13 June, please refer to our website: Intercultural Business Skills – open course.  
Leo Salazar
29 April 2019
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


I’m encouraged when I find real-world examples of finding value in differences. It reaffirms my belief that we are doing good work, the right work, in helping companies do better business through valuing cultural differences.

The latest example appeared last week, in a podcast interview that Vox-founder Ezra Klein conducted with distinguished economist Prof. Dani Rodrik,  It’s a fascinating conversation, one that challenges you to look at the world of trade, finance and economics differently. There is one passage in particular that caught my attention. At 00:26:00 the following exchange occurred (excerpted for relevance):

[Ezra Klein] People look around and they say, you know, “Wouldn’t it be great if we all just became more alike? If we all just moved down the path towards enlightened technocratic rule together?

Okay, pause here for a moment. It’s statements like this that have me shaking my head in grave disappointment at the podcast app on my smartphone, “No. No. No.” Mr. Klein went on:

And something I see in your work is a real emphasis that, No, countries are different. They have different cultures, they have different needs – there is much more that we don’t understand about them that economists like to admit. I see you as making an argument for an economics that has much more appreciation of difference and how little we understand about what makes different countries work differently, and, as such, places a lot more value on the institutions that allow them to continue working differently. Is that a fair reading both of you and of your critique?

Prof. Rodrik’s response is one for the ages:

[Prof. Rodrik] I don’t think that there is a single, ideal way of running an economy or organizing a society. There’s no one-to-one mapping between what markets need and how you can organize these supporting institutions. So there is huge multiplicity in terms of how can do these things, reconfigure these things, and still achieve outcomes that are broadly prosperity-producing. The range of variation that we observe – it’s probably tiny compared to what we could have. In some sense we ought to be much more imaginative and courageous in terms of thinking about how we can reconfigure our systems. The notion that we’re all sort of converging on an identical model of capitalism is not just empirically and historically wrong, but also counter-productive to the deployment of that kind of imagination. Which is our only chance of saving ourselves because of where we are right now.  

I admire Prof. Rodrik’s curious and searching approach to economics very much. I find it healthy and eye-opening. In fact, and he says it as well, I also believe approaches like his are necessary to future survival, economic as well as societal.

Throughout developed capital markets, namely the US and Europe, there seems to be a great deal of fear that the world is changing and the only way to deal with the change is to put up walls, construct barriers. Among the current ruling classes there is fight to the death to keep things, not as they are, but the way things were and, in the popular imagination at any rate, have always been. Brexit, Trump, autocratic rule, tariffs and trade barriers are not only futile fights against the inevitability of change, they also limit people to the possibilities of what could be. As Prof. Rodrik puts it, by focusing on the comfortable models of the way we’ve always done things (supposedly), and to only consider one ‘right’ way of doing things, is counter-productive to finding new solutions.

What are these new solutions? There are two publications I’m currently reading that may provide some clues:  

China’s Cosmological Communism: a Challenge to Liberal Democracies by Didi Kirsten Tatlow of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS – Berlin). Makes a convincing case that the future may belong to the Chinese.

The Dawn of Eurasia: On the Trail of the New World Order by Bruno Maçães. The author weaves history, diplomacy and travelogue to give a convincing view of a new world that has China as the driver.

You can find the podcast between Mr. Klein and Prof. Rodrik here: The Ezra Klein Show – What economists and politicians get wrong about trade

A transcription of the passage excerpted above can be found here: The Ezra Klein Show – Prof. Rodrik, partial transcript

No Fishing Poles - sign

‘No Polish fishermen’ sign removed after outcry

There has been much ado around Billy Evans, the owner/manager of Field Farm fisheries, who decided to ban Polish “and other Eastern bloc” fisherman from using his farm-stocked recreational fishing ponds near Oxfordshire (UK). After hearing that “there’s Poles or somebody stealing fish,” he erected a sign at the entrance reading: “No vehicle access. No Polish or eastern bloc fishermen allowed. No children or dogs.”

Mr. Evans stated, “I do not tolerate thieves, wherever they come from,” he said. “I will stand up for what I believe in. If they want to call me a racist for stopping thieves coming on to my property then that’s what they’ll do.”

Especially angered has been Radoslaw Papiewski, 35, from Doncaster, who said his fellow anglers had told him about the notice. He said, “This disturbing sign should have never been displayed as it clearly discriminates against people from Poland and other eastern European countries.”

Race-baiting? Or misinformation?

Mr. Papiewski is not your random angry Pole. He is project manager for Building Bridges, a project aimed at integrating fishing communities from mainland Europe – much of which allows anglers to keep their catch – with anglers in the UK, where fish must be returned to the water. He helps educate non-British anglers about the difference between the laws governing angling in mainland Europe and those in the UK, in an effort to ensure they abide by British rules. The purpose of British laws requiring anglers to return their catch is to improve conservation and prevent the depletion of fish stocks.

The upshot of all this is that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has become involved and has threatened legal action unless the sign was removed. A huge public outcry has ensued, and Mr. Evans has been demonized as a racist. “My family has been threatened,” he stated. All around bad feelings, a divided community, and potential bankruptcy, due to legal fees and the closure of the business.

An alternative route

So let’s imagine what might have happened, had Mr. Evans attended a course in intercultural communication from BRIL.Solutions and had been culturally aware. Let’s look at it objectively:


Non-English fisherman, specifically those from Eastern bloc countries, are (allegedly) catching fish and keeping them rather than returning them carefully to the water, as is custom (and law) in the UK.

Let’s now look at two possible decision paths leading to a solution. The path on the left is the one Mr. Evans is now on. The path on the right being after he attended a course from BRIL.Solutions.

No Fishing Poles! (1)

What’s so ‘intercultural’ about all of this?

You might say, this is all well and good, but isn’t this a simple information and communication problem? What does culture have to do with any of this? A fair question, so let’s explore it.

As a fisherman myself, I understand the position of the Polish fishermen. There is something fundamentally satisfying about keeping and eating your own catch. It fulfills a primal instinct in being able to provide for yourself, your family and your community. This may be especially true in Poland, where cultural values around traditional masculine roles are ranked medium-high and, combined with high power distance (see Hofstede cultural dimensions comparing Poland and the US), may lead Polish fisherman to feel that leaving his catch behind is threatening his role in society. A man is the boss of his family, and is expected to provide for his family, while his wife prepares the meals and looks after the children. To come home empty-handed after a day of fishing means failure. He’s not fulfilled his role as head of the family.

In the UK, especially in stocked ponds like Mr. Evans’, fishing is seen as more recreational, more a hobby. Something to do with the kids on the weekend. There are few, if any, societal implications with fishing. It’s fun; a lark. I can imagine that Poles see the British attitude as a colossal waste of time.  

Secondly, you might think, “Reaching out to so many people, organizing meetings – who’s got time for that?” Indeed, the culturally aware path requires a heavy up-front investment. But look at what the alternative course of action results in: an alienated community and a failed business. Either course of action will result in costs of some sort. Why not invest the costs up front and have a positive, value-building outcome?   

The story of Mr. Evans’ fishing hole is but one example of many where there’s lost value due to a lack of awareness of intercultural differences. It pains me to see potential value-building gone to waste. Not to mention the human side of this story, the feelings of exclusion and rejection. The opportunity to build, create, bring together and encourage mutual understanding was squandered, in favor of divisiveness, hard feelings and more misunderstanding. 

I can be a bit of an idealist, but wouldn’t it be wonderful (not to mention more value-building) if we could approach all of our challenges with openness and willingness to learn, especially about others, before we go erecting signs, walls and barriers?


“I firmly believe that whether you’re building a company or leading a country, a diverse mix of voices and backgrounds and experiences leads to better discussions, better decisions, and better outcomes for everyone.”

In the week following Republican candidate Donald Trump’s loathsome proposal to stop all travel in and out of the US based on religion, until “we figure out what’s going on” with “terrorism,” there have been a number of voices raised in protest. Finally. Trump’s brand of nationalistic fascism is nothing new,  and we’re seeing a resurgence of it around the world as crisis and change make people afraid. But Trump has hit a new low for Americans, at least since Japanese-Americans were interred and stripped of all possessions and dignity in the panic following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December , 1941.

One of the most eloquent voices is Google’s CEO Sundar Pinchal, who speaks with the voice of experience and authority. It’s worth the read for anyone who is concerned about allowing everyone from different cultures the possibility to be respected and to perform their best.

Let’s Not Let Fear Defeat Our Values.

I follow Anthony Iannarino, international speaker, author and sales leader, at his blog The Sales Blog. Every Sunday he sends his loyal followers a newsletter in which he gives tips, advice and encouragement on how to improve one’s sales technique. Often these newsletters are supported by personal anecdotes and insights and, combined with Anthony’s reliable, personal response to inquiries or feedback, I have the feeling of a personal sales coach in my corner.

Anthony’s most recent newsletter was titled, “How to stay productive in a time of crisis.” Having suffercrisis-public-relationsed more than my share of crises, I read this newsletter with particular interest. His tips centered around three points:

  1. Make an exhaustive list of what has your attention.
  2. Determine your longer term goal.
  3. Determine your priorities now.

I missed something crucial in this list: being honest and realistic about your situation. Nobody likes to disappoint, and we all do our best to continue to deliver results despite our circumstances. But there comes a point where we have to be honest, both with others as well as ourselves, about our situation, come to terms with it and, most importantly, communicate it clearly. In small crises (illness) and large, evaluating and communicating honestly keeps expectations realistic.

The challenge for L&D is that most of the corporate control and measuring systems have been set up around the 10%. Extending L&D’s reach to enabling (and evaluating) the 70% requires something that, unfortunately, many learning professionals are just not very good at: knowledge of the business.

Ignorance of how the business works is of course not exclusive to L&D. As Geary Rummler and Alan Brache stated in their opening statement of their watershed “Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space on the Organization Chart,” “Many managers don’t understand their business.” I would venture to say “most” managers don’t understand how what they do fits into the larger strategic picture of the company and its industry. And since we all know that learning only really occurs when being applied in a relevant environment, that the learners see for themselves how their new knowledge and/or skill makes sense in the larger picture, it’s essential that L&D facilitate this learning in a useful, applicable manner. Too often, the LMSs and other “learning support systems” grossly hinder the relevant learning process rather than assisting.

Your list is a good start, but I always come back to one of the most important principles of being a good facilitator: you’ve got to speak the language of your client. This also means using the tools that they use. Designing their own courseware? Yes, if this is something that fits into their skill sets. Internal social media platforms such as Yammer? Yes, but only if Yammer is already being actively used. Introducing new tools or systems must have a compelling, relevant and clearly demonstrated payoff, otherwise you’re wasting everyone’s time.

Thinking About Learning

Warning: Nothing I’m writing about below is new or disruptive.

In the L&D world in recent years there has been a growing advocacy around changing the way we understand how learning happens at work. There’s a steady movement moving from instructor led and presentation led learning as a default to creating and cultivating more natural ways for people to share information.

With technology now at the forefront of giving people new ways to connect, share information, knowledge and practise we’re seeing a real move to technology becoming an enabler of better working and better learning.

The 70:20:10 model promotes thinking around the efficacy of learning mechanisms. 70% of our learning at work happens through on the job activities. 20% happens through peers and social based activity (also includes coaching and mentoring activity). 10% happens through formal training programmes and courses (including e-learning).

It’s easy for people to get caught up…

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The estimable Charles Jennings published an article yesterday in which he quotes a recently published survey by Lumesse, a presumed talent development company based in the US (Texas and Florida) with a heavy presence in South America. Charles begins:  

“The results of yet another 70:20:10 survey were published recently. The researchers (possibly on work experience) declared that “50:26:24 is the average learning mix in most companies right now”.

“The report of the 50:26:24 survey went on to say:

‘It’s widely accepted that the 70:20:10 model is the most effective learning blend for business, but getting to that perfect mix can be a challenge. It’s early days and we’ve got a long way to go, but when we crunched the first numbers on our new study, we could see that the current average mix of training in the L&D industry is actually:

  • 50% via ‘on the job learning’
  • 26% through ‘informal training’
  • 24% from ‘formal training’”

Charles goes on to pooh-pooh the findings, rightly so, by emphasizing that the 70:20:10 formula “is not a recipe to be used slavishly,” and, in fact, is not about the numbers at all. He says, “The numbers are a useful reminder that the majority of learning occurs through experience and practice within the workflow (the ‘70’), through sharing and supporting others, conversations and networks (the ‘20’),  and that a smaller amount of overall learning occurs through structured training and development activities (the ‘10’).” Further he says that the whole point of 70:20:10 is to emphasize the importance of informal learning.

Charles is all het up regarding this survey. I can understand his reaction: Mr. Jennings is considered one of, of not the, foremost promoter of 70:20:10, and when someone gets it as wrong as Lumesse clearly has, I’m sure it hurts.   

My reaction to Charles, however, is as follows: 

Whenever I read the conclusions of just about any survey, I’m reminded of the landmark study that Dr. John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist at Stanford University, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2005 regarding published medical research, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” The title is self-explanatory, and we’re talking well-funded, ostensibly carefully constructed research here. If you extend Dr. Ioannidis’ conclusions to a self-styled, uncontrolled, voluntary online survey . . . well, let’s just say I wouldn’t take the “50:26:24” results too seriously.

Dr. Ioannidis’ study: “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”
The New Yorker article regarding his study: The Truth Wears Off
The Atlantic article regarding his study: Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science

All make for enlightening reading.

G4S plc, based in London, is the world’s leading international security solutions group, which specializes in outsourced business processes in sectors where security and safety risks are considered a strategic threat. G4S employs over 620,000 people in more than 25 countries and is the world’s second largest private sector employer. Company turnover is roughly divided half and half, with 47% coming from Europe, and the other 53% divided between N. America and developing markets.



In addition to the challenges of managing a large, diverse and globally spread organization, the organization is in a process of change:

  • Locations in NW Europe and S/SE Europe have been brought together only in the last 2 years;
  • Companies located in Belgium, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Finland have all had their Cash operations, which constitute roughly half of G4S’s global business, integrated also very recently;
  • The exit of longtime CEO Nick Buckles. Ashley Almanza, a very recent arrival at G4S as CFO, and new to the security industry, was promoted to CEO in his place.

Because of rapid growth and these shifts at the top of the organization, investment in leadership development had been put on the back burner in recent years. An attempt had been made to begin a European Leadership Program a couple of years previously, including selection of many suitable candidates, but was cancelled before it could take place. The current list of candidates was prepared in December, 2012. Because of both internal and external stability and employee satisfaction, it was very important to many stakeholders (candidates, their charges, HR, upper management, among others) that the current program begin as scheduled.

European Leadership Program

In order to design, develop and deliver the program, Regional Human Resources Director – Europe Peter Agergaard was looking for a new external leadership development company to partner with. He wanted something new, creative and different, something other than the standard management development program with its emphasis on cognitive knowledge and skills training. Preferably something with more strategic relevance, personal development and real-world application  Additionally, because of all the recent worldwide acquisitions of smaller security companies, he wanted a program that emphasized the values of G4S, namely an open, creative, proactive organization which a transition from a man-hour provider to a solutions provider. The key of the program should be to transform the leadership of G4S from problem solvers to change agents with a shared vision.

De Baak was present on a list of 10 possible collaboration partners based on its strong reputation in the Netherlands, where many of the top management is located.


After an initial round, De Baak was selected as a short-list candidate and invited to Amsterdam to present ideas for the European Leadership Program. A very productive co-creation session resulted in a program that met the requirements. Some of the unique features of this program were:Image

  • Action Learning: 4 strategically important projects would be defined that would act as a platform for learning, as well as providing business results for the company at completion. The projects would be based on the classic Reg Revans formula for Action Learning: P + Q = L, where P stands for programmed knowledge, Q for the structured questioning process, and L for learning.
  • Online collaboration: given the fact that the course participants in the program, and their repsective Action Learning project teams, were geographically spread across Europe and the Middle East, a method for supporting synchronous project collaboration was needed. The existing tools within G4S (WebEx, the “Hub,” as well as internal knowledge bases) seemed to be adequate for this support.  
  • Upper management support: each of the Action Learning projects would be supported by mentors who would work directly with the team, and a project sponsor from upper management who would be the “owner” of the project, responsible for implementing the end results.
  • Employer branding: part of the success formula for leadership development programs is visibility within the organization. Letting colleagues know that the company is investing in their personal development is a significant motivator. Therefore, giving attention to the program through internal marketing channels was also a feature of the program.
  • Flow from and to existing management/leadership development programs
  • Entrepreneurial methods: by encouraging the participants to seek out resources both within as well as outside the organization, as well as linking the Action Learning project to all levels, the course helps to support the entrepreneurial development of the participants.   

G4S selected De Baak as its leadership development program partner, based on both the strength of the proposal as well as the creativity demonstrated by the co-creation process. The candidates were informed of the selection and all preparations were made to have 18 course participants travel to Amsterdam for the first of three European Leadership Program modules.


One week before the first module was set to take place, G4S instituted a company-wide freeze on all “non-essential expenses,” especially travel and lodging. In practice this meant that the first module of the ELP would not be able to take place as scheduled, as the participants would be traveling from all points of Europe, from as far away as Israel and Kazakhstan. The first module was also planned to consume an entire week in Amsterdam, which meant considerable lodging and per diem expenses for the entire group. It was with great disappointment that Peter Agergaard contacted De Baak with this news.

Considering the importance placed on having this program begin as scheduled, the anticipation that the selected candidates had in beginning the course, as well as the considerable investment made in partner selection, program design and development, cancelling the ELP altogether was not a decision taken lightly. Instead, Peter decided to postpone the program, with the first module taking place well into the first quarter of the following year, which assumed that the freeze on expenses would be lifted by then. The danger of this decision is that it might be met with scepticism from the candidates, especially considering the history of planned programs being cancelled altogether. This scepticism would have exactly the opposite effect on the organization as intended by offering a leadership development program in the first place. Instead of boosting morale and motivation, cancelling the program would most likely lead to demoralization and demotivation, especially among the selected candidates.


De Baak proposed an interim solution to G4S: to begin the Action Learning projects as scheduled, but treat it as a “prelude” to the program actually beginning the following quarter. This solution would:

  • Demonstrate to the participants that, despite this setback, they are valuable to the organization and very much worth the investment in their personal and professional development;  
  • Start making progress on projects that potentially have significant business value to the organization;
  • Demonstrate to G4S at all levels that the HR department is flexible and creative in finding solutions in developing its people, despite setbacks;
  • Take advantage of the blocked agendas of the participants for the coming week they would otherwise have been in Amsterdam;
  • Begin generating returns on the significant investment already made in the development and design process of the program.

The challenges to this proposed solution were two-fold:

1) The Action Learning formula of P + Q = L would not have the attention it would have received during the first face-to-face module. P being programmed knowledge in the form of:

  • Listening, communication and coaching skills;
  • Working collaboratively and team management;
  • Intercultural differences and communication;
  • Developing themselves as leaders;
  • Questioning techniques and feedback methods.

2) Group cohesion and company-wide learning opportunities would be diminished due to a lack of initial face-to-face contact.

All of this would be exacerbated by attempting to run a project without a clear understanding of who your teammates are and what you have to offer each other. Nevertheless, it was decided that the benefits of the clear internal signal beginning the Action Learning projects would send, as well as the potential business-related benefits of successful projects, were strong enough arguments to begin the course in this manner.


This proposed solution, as well as G4S’s willingness to accept it, proves that the collaborative, co-creation relationship that was established early between De Baak and its client G4S has benefits that extend far beyond simple design of the program in the initial stages. This relationship has set the tone for a long-term collaborative relationship that extends into the delivery of the course itself. It is expected that this mutual respect and give-and-take from both sides will continue to benefit both parties long into the future. The projects are currently running and all of them appear to be successfully launched. It is expected that they will mainstream with the programmed knowledge offered when the formal face-to-face portion of the course begins. Not only will the participants have had significant contact with each other in the meantime, they will have built a store of shared experiences that can form the basis for cases over the entire course.  

Herd Behavior, Useless Meetings, and Solomon Asch.

An interesting blog entry from a Blanchard consultant. On the “uselessness” of meetings, his conclusion states, “When describing the attributes of an outstanding team member, we frequently include the word loyalty. Some well meaning leaders see candor and honesty as potential indicators of disloyalty—but actually, it’s the other way around. Pioneers should be honored, but frequently they are punished. Leaders should be informed, but frequently they are shielded. High performing teams are willing to tell it the way it is. This may be uncomfortable initially, but the long term payoffs are priceless.”

My response follows:

The reasons for meetings are highly contextual: on intended purpose, style of meeting management, level of personnel involved and situational urgency, as well as on company and national culture. Meetings in some countries are simply public confirmations of decisions already taken beforehand, whereas in others they may be truly necessary to gain consensus, and in still others a generator of new ideas through brainstorming. Or all three. In Dr. Asch’s research example, were the others around the table of equal social stature, higher or lower? Were they subject matter specialists and you are the only generalist?

“Truth” and “right answers” are almost never as clear-cut as Dr. Asch’s example. Nor are “high-performing teams who are willing to tell it the way it is” always the way to achieve results, long-, medium- or short-term. One person’s “candor and honesty” is another’s social faux pas or lack of respect, causing more damage than good. Don’t forget that any one person’s opinion is highly influenced by their own individual perspective, one that you may not necessarily share.

The best leaders, in my opinion, are those who leave open the possibility that they may be wrong, and are willing to “sacrifice face” in order to get to the more essential, more elemental shared truths. In Dr. Asch’s experiment, the true leader wouldn’t have given an answer at all, but instead would have asked “Why?” Why have you given an answer that I see as different? Why have you all answered the same? Am I missing something? It takes courage to ask these questions, and true leaders are those who display this sort of courage, instead of contrariness through “candor.”

An interesting experience over the weekend. In the course of last week a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door. Young fellows with an appearance that would be familiar anywhere in the world: white shirts and ties, short cropped hair, youthful. We had good conversation and afterwards I asked them if it was possible to join them in their service. As regular readers of this blog may know, not only am I busy with intercultural dynamics in businesses, I’m also active in interfaith activities. I’m slowly becoming acquainted with various faiths and their forms of worship.
Last Sunday was their gathering at the Kingdom Hall in Almelo. I was a few minutes late and even though the parking lot was full, there was nobody to be seen. The security gate securing the lot was shut tight, but a walkway fence was unlocked, so I walked my bike inside the immaculately kept grounds. At the main door there was, again, nobody in sight and I tried the door: locked. Even before I let go of the handle, though, a clean cut, smiling young man bounded towards me and welcomed me inside. On leading me into the building I realized why his timing was so good: he was sitting behind a bank of security cameras which monitored my arrival.
I was asked to wait in the foyer and was then introduced to a smartly dressed gentleman, my age. He asked me a few questions and after determining my intent was benevolent, showed me to a seat near the front of the main hall. A group of maybe 75 equally smartly dressed, freshly scrubbed churchgoers of all ages sat listening to a handsome young man giving a sermon. I glanced around the room and noticed that everyone there was neat, clean, good looking and well dressed. A diverse group, probably one of the most diverse gatherings I’ve ever seen in Almelo. The average age was somewhere in the late 30s, which is about half the average of the parishioners at our St. Georgius Catholic Church. I was joined by Wesley who was one of the young men who came to my door, and he stayed with me during the nearly 2-hour service.
It was very interesting, the service. After the sermon (which, I learned, is performed on a rotating basis by any number of fellow parishioners – apparently JWs believe in a very flat organization), there was an interactive reading of an article from “The Watchtower.” Parishioners were called on by a moderator to contribute, and most of the responses included relevant quotes from the Bible. What it lacked in spontaneity was made up for in thoroughness and preparation. Nearly everyone in the hall contributed at some point, from 5-year old kids to seniors well into their 70s.
Afterwards, a great number of people came up to me, welcoming me to their church. In addition to Wesley’s entire family (mother, father and brother), the most interesting was a family from Armenian background: they had just returned, 3-days earlier, from a month-long holiday in Glendale, California, where they were visiting family. A great number of Armenians in Almelo, including Anton who cuts my hair, have family in Glendale. The most interesting comment of the day came from Gert Hollander, the my-age man I initially met in the foyer. I told him my very positive impressions of the service while sitting on my bike in the parking lot upon leaving. He said, “You know, if more people were open, like you, and would experience our service just once, the overall impression of Jehovah’s Witnesses would be far different in the world.”
I guess the same could be said for all religions and cultures, couldn’t it? 

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Leo Salazar

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