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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.”

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The rule of the Kingdom of the Netherlands will transfer from Queen mother, Beatrix, to her son, Prince Willem-Alexander, on 30 April, in little more than one week. In preparing for the celebration, the State has commissioned various art and cultural works to commemorate the occasion.

Schermafbeelding-2013-04-19-om-10.49.06One of these works, the so-called King’s Song, has generated much negative commentary in the Dutch press. “Old fashioned drivel,” “schmaltzy,” and “forgettable,” are some of the more tame comments. Some commentators, perhaps full of Dutch courage, have even suggested that the composer be tarred and feathered, and worse. The critique has been so intense, and in some cases so personal, that the composer, John Ewbank, has resigned his commission. I’ll admit, my first reaction to the song itself was little more than lukewarm: “What do you people have against melody?!” was my first comment to my wife, who wisely holds her tongue against defending “her people” against my tirades. She knows I’ll eventually come around.

And come around I have. I came here to rant about the lack of diversity in the song’s text. To point out the irony that both the man who will be King and his wife who will become Queen – Princess Máxima of the Netherlands (née Máxima Zorreguieta Cerruti, of Argentina) – are both “allochtone,” of non-Dutch ancestry, yet there’s nothing explicit in the text about the diversity this country usually celebrates.

But then I watched the song’s accompanying video. I’ve been completely won over. I find the video a marvelous and genuine Screen Shot 2013-04-22 at 12.55.26 PMrepresentation of all sorts of diversity in the Netherlands. And without the “Coca-Cola commercial” artificiality, where you magically wind up with exactly one of each national type – exactly one Asian, one black, one Pacific Islander, etc. The King’s Song video shows all sorts of diversity in a broad variety of Imagesettings: white, black, asian, young, old, all socio-economic levels, rural/urban, handicapped, obese (the heavy guy munching on friet at the train station is my favorite – just your ordinary “kerel” enjoying a snack), LGBT (lots of gays!) – even a hipster! And what comes through when you watch the video is these people aren’t from any sort of casting agency, but are truly the people you meet every day in this country. Well done! Image

Okay, the song’s not the strongest. And, as they are now saying, if your goal was to unite the Dutch in their dislike of something – mission accomplished! But my lesson learned is what it often is in multicultural situations: before you pass judgment, get the whole picture. And remember, as always, that context is everything.

On the face of it, the Netherlands has a lot going for it. While it’s not particularly known for its spectacular natural scenery, it has a history of wealth, stability and well-reasoned politics. Well, recently anyway.

Despite this stable and reasoned background, the Dutch government is debating, today, whether to ban the wearing of the burka. Following closely on the footsteps of France (as they also did with the rejection of the EU constitution — ‘nuf said), legislators in the Netherlands are debating whether the burka can be allowed as an expression of religious freedom or be banned as a security threat and symbol of oppression of women and further (!) converting of Europe to Islam. Given the insecure economic times and perception among the majority populace that many of society’s problems are being caused by outsiders, guess which way they’ll go?

Enter Jitske Kramer and this reasoned and balanced look at the issues (cut/paste to your http://www.translate.google.com browser if you’re having trouble with the Dutch). A part of my comment:

“I see the burka-ban in the Netherlands along the same lines as the Sharia law ban in the State of Oklahoma in the US: a thinly veiled (pardon the pun) attempt to attack Islam by rabidly exaggerating a non-existent threat under the guise of ‘security’ or ‘cultural assimilation’.”

This Reader’s Comment, by Ismail Muhammad from Los Angeles, to a particularly narrow-minded editorial in the NY Times by Ross Douthat (in which Mr. Douthat, in short, portrayed historical

Next stop: Japanese internment camp, California, USA 1941-46

intolerance and the threat of discrimination in the US as “wisdom”), can be applied to many multicultural environments, including here in the Netherlands:

“I take issue with the idea that discrimination produces assimilation, and is excusable because it leads to unity. I’m curious to know your historical analysis of anti-black discrimination [in the US]. Discrimination does not result in assimilation. Assimilation is the result of being fully integrated into the native culture through the work place, social and government institutions, media, and popular culture. The more people are forced to recognize that they are different, the more likely they are to wield those differences as cultural weapons. In short, discrimination results in narrow-minded thinking on the part of the victim, who comes to see himself as irrevocably different and only finds acceptance in his own culture. This may even lead to dangerous interpretations of that culture, i.e. militant black nationalism, Islamic extremism, etc.”

It was a relief to read such a reasoned and rational view after suffering Mr. Douthat’s surprisingly provincial and black/white view of the world. There were many worthy comments, but the one by Mr. Muhammad I found particularly cogent.

This is, in my view, what is largely missing in the Dutch and broader European landscape: an accurate representation of  modern societies in “work place, social and government institutions, media, and popular culture.” Until this truly begins to happen, those who are new to the culture will continue to feel themselves underrepresented, ostracized, disenfranchised and “different.” It is not only up to them to make the changes: it is up to both the host society as well as the newcomers to reach out to each other.

[This was originally posted on an old blog of mine back in 2007. I’ve resurrected it for a recent discussion on “Chinglish”]

Do you think there might have been one person at the Volkskrant who thought this headline might be offensive?

Some background: the title reads, “Only in China do they not know Klouif.” The story is in connection wtih the Dutch football great Johann Cruiff’s 60th birthday celebration. By spelling it “Klouif”, the editors not only make fun of those who cannot speak the Dutch dipthong “ui” properly (sounds similar to the English “ow”), but especially the Chinese who cannot pronounce the letter “r”.

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