Culture – Reality or Excuse?

Arab Business Meeting

If Culture (with a capital C, to differentiate it from the culture – lower-case c – of any organization) is the framework that describes a person’s fundamental beliefs, then it must be real. However, if Culture is variable, can it be anything other than an excuse for a person’s actions? We know that an organization can change its culture: organizations actively seek such a change by changing their existing leadership. Can individuals change their Culture so easily?

Influential authors, from early researchers such as Hall, Hofstede, or Minkov to more recent authorities such as House et. al., Trompenaars, or Hampden-Turner, agree that Culture at a country level is not generalisable to the individual: how as working managers and leaders should we assess and respond to Cultural effects (national frameworks)?

Which Culture is relevant?

The Middle East has approximately 200 nationalities working in the region, with the UAE, for example, containing examples of almost all of these nationalities in their workforce. This variation in Cultures continues to affect the identification and development of Emiratis for leadership and management roles in their own country – whose Cultural profile(s) do we use?  This situation also begs the question, “If we have a unique Emirati Culture, should we insist that everyone working in or benefiting from the UAE adopts this Emirati Culture, with everything that that decision implies?”

There are managers and leaders in the Middle East who consider this need to comply with a local Culture to be unreasonable, and yet these same managers and leaders, when asked what model should be used, appear to have no issues with claiming that their own model is the preferred one. Current managers and leaders in the Middle East can easily identify these models as originating from the Cultural mores of Western nations, and, if challenged, will explain that Western nations are more advanced or more sophisticated in their organizational development. Certainly, much of the research material, formally and informally available, derives directly from the teachings of Western schools or organizations, but if we insist that Arabic employees adopt these Western mores are we not committing the very act that we wish to deny our local colleagues?

Conflictual or Consensual?

Managers and leaders can examine the issue of Culture to establish whether the Western and Arabic Cultures are so different: if there is no identifiable difference then the question goes away. Muna (2003) established in his early research that there was a major difference in Cultures between the West and the Middle East. He labeled this difference as “conflictual versus consensual”, and stated that the West adhered to the conflictual label while the Middle East was consensual in its approach to business (and to life generally!)

In essence, this difference established that how a leader approached a problem was at least as important as how that leader resolved the problem. As a Cultural issue, it required that the expatriate manager, defined as anyone in a country other than his or her own, should understand that communication, and the level or absence of context contained within that communication, was a significant contributor to the success or otherwise of any interaction.  What might appear straightforward at first glance, though, becomes more complex when we realize that much of the education and learning that managers and leaders originating from the Middle East have undergone has been in Western environments; including, in many cases, years of living in that Western environment. How much of the original Culture has been sublimated by the overseas exposure, and how much Culture has been permanently altered only to be subsequently presented by the returning learner to the original Culture?

Communication is the Key

Managers and leaders have access to concepts such as high- versus low-context Cultures (Hall, 1976), as well as a number of other well-defined cultural dimensions.  These include the 5 dimensions of Hofstede and Hall (1984) and the 9 (or 18 if you consider the two subdivisions of each of the authors’ dimensions) of House et. al.’s (2004) GLOBE study, which are available as aids to reduce Cultural misunderstandings. What is common to many of these dimensions is the part that valid communication plays in resolving, or avoiding from the outset, a variety of Culturally based misunderstandings.

Just such a situation arose when a previous colleague asked me to intervene as a professional coach to prevent a recently arrived senior Western expatriate from being repatriated in disgrace, a situation that carried both political and economic consequences. This expatriate, a highly qualified engineer, had made openly disparaging comments at senior management meetings on what he saw as the incompetence of a young local manager, a manager whose family name assured him of a place at the senior table. At my first meeting with the expatriate, he forcefully emphasized that he would not lower his standards for anyone, and I willingly agreed with him that that was not the answer.

The situation was resolved within weeks once the expatriate accepted my advice that, instead of publicly attacking the inexperienced local manager, he should casually drop by the office of the local manager the day before the weekly meeting. During this informal meeting, the expatriate was to enquire if there was anything that he could contribute to assist the local manager to prepare for the upcoming weekly meeting. The expatriate moved easily from opponent to mentor once he realized that the level of professional competence he had personally attained made him an ideal candidate to raise the standards of everyone he met, rather than to constantly compare himself and his Western model with that of his local colleagues.

Not Right or Wrong, just Different

The expatriate manager changed the tone, the content, and the delivery of his communication, although he still, naturally, was using his own language, and, by so doing, he changed the entire experience for himself and his local colleagues. Far from leaving early, he brought his family over to the UAE and they all enjoyed the remainder of their time there.


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One Comment;

  1. Tamer Elogueil said:

    Thanks Dr Barry for the article “Reality or Excuse”. It is quite a hot topic i believe a lot of orgnaisations in denial to the impact of culture on its performance. i believe the experience captured in the article is an ongoing matter in this region organisations, and it more relates to lack of knowledge, skill and experience of the hired young managers more than relating to the cultural differences. Being here in the region for over a decade, cultural diversity and cultural dimensions (Hofstede) do exist and have detrimental impact on the organisation performance though it is not necessary viewed and tangible by external stakeholders. shifting between two organisation in Dubai, showed me a huge difference in how things done due to the massive shift i had from one organisation run by 90% expatriates and second organisation run by 90% local force. I can assure you how things are analysed ,identified and the decision making process takes place is completely difference and culture factor plays almost 70% in this. the standing out differences can be seen based on Hofstedes’ dimensions e.g. Power distance, masculinity and uncertainty avoidance. i see that the difference in those 3 dimensions are enough to impact any organisation performance.

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