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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.”

I’ve been a bit disturbed by the general tenor of the conversation on the LinkedIn group ExpatWeb (members only) the past week or so. The opening question was, “Cross-cultural training: waste of time, money and efforts?” The reaction from the cultural professionals was, of course, unanimously “NO!” with a host of reasons why not. Most of these reasons I use myself, seeing as we all reference the same research materials.

That was predictable.

What was disturbing were the answers from businesspeople. The ones who eventually are, or are not as the case may be, our clients. Their responses were all, to a man: “Yes!!” that cross-cultural training is a colossal waste of time, money and effort. Some of the responses were telling:

  • “Absolutely [cross-cultural training is a waste of time]; time better invested in a nice holiday!”
  • “The most expensive consultant can give you cross-cultural coaching in Spain about communicating with Arabs, but a good Arab friend can give it to you over a nice meal and a few drinks…”. I assume he means non-alcoholic drinks.

Of course my immediate response to these businesspeople is to quote Donald Rumsfeld *, of all people, about “unknown unknowns”. In other words: they don’t know what they don’t know.

 

My co-trainer with client @deBaak, 12 October 2010

Vin Morar, Intercultural Entrepreneurship Expert Extraordinaire!

 

But much better would be to let my client from the past couple of days do the talking for me. This client sent 23 managers to De Baak to follow a 2-day training in Intercultural Communication & Negotiation. The client has managers who deal with professionals from across the EU as well as, less often, the Americas and Asia. My colleague Vin Morar and I performed a quick inventory at the beginning of the course which uncovered the following culture-related problems:

  1. Multiple cultural interpretations of meeting agreements
  2. How to relate/associate with “distant” cultures
  3. Gaining a consensus from a large number of organizations
  4. Gaining a consensus from a large number of diverse cultures
  5. Gaining a consensus from a large number of individuals
  6. Gaining commitment / involvement of all the cultural positions
  7. Overcoming language / physical / technological barriers

By the end of the course I can confidently state that the participants increased their understanding enormously, as well as being in a far better position to recognize and deal with intercultural difficulties in the future. But that’s not the point of this post.

The point is: there are very distinct problems endemic to this particular organization, and I suspect many many others, that heretofore have gone unrecognized as having a cultural origin. These problems can benefit enormously from an increase in knowledge, expertise and tools to deal with cultural conflicts. How that should be approached and what possible concrete tools the participants gained from this particular training will be addressed in a later post.

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* I’m aware that “unknown unknowns” are well known postulations in epistemology and decision theory circles. But it’s more fun to quote the then-Secretary of Defense when he stated, “There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns; there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

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Leo Salazar

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