Voice Over - More About Cultures Plural

Yeah, I’m still banging on about organisational culture. Please read the previous entry to catch up as honestly this is one long blog spread out over several weeks.

If we’re trying to drive a single set of beliefs into a larger group, we need to actually step away from the organisation itself and see whether there is anything in the broader culture within which it is embedded driving attitudes and behaviours. When we look at the way our people respond to stimulus and behave at the work place, how much can we attribute to the company and how much must be put into the frankly ‘too hard’ bucket of society writ large. You can’t easily change a person to be something entirely different from their friends, family, and social group; Every single aspect of the average employee’s day from the moment they wake up to the game of cricket they play on the weekend is going to work against you making that change sticky.

This is easiest to explain with an example. At my current company in our three thousand some odd people in New Zealand, I’d say one of the universal behaviourial norms to which we all agree is this: Mute the line when we have Aussie headquarters on the line then engage in a game of “What the f* are those wankers talking about now?” However, this isn’t company culture. This is an expression of a very long standing cultural norm in New Zealand and Australia; They are best mates and bros only when the world is watching and otherwise fight like a big strong hulk of an older brother and his faster, snarkier little bro. It also expresses classic New Zealand passive aggressiveness. This is, after all, the country that pioneered the single most passive aggressive phrase in the world, “Yeah nah.” I strongly suspect that if I asked people on this distro who work in other NZ companies which collaborate with Australian teams if they too play Mute and Ridicule, there would be a collective “ah yeah nah, but… you know… Aussies mate.”

As we established a partnership with a company operating out India and the Philippines, we built an entire programme of work around mutual culture understanding. You can take multiple-day course gain cultural literacy about our Manila co-workers. They in turn go through a weeks long cultural immersion so as to understand our Kiwi customers. Yet we have literally nothing to help Australia understand their Kiwi peers or vice versa. AU builds entire frameworks and project programmes which 5 minutes after landing on our islands are universally acknowledged as absolutely absurd and impossible to implement. Like… literally impossible at every level. And here’s the thing, I honestly can’t tell prima facie if these things are truly stupid ideas… or just stupid for New Zealand. It’s clear that the cultural gulf is bigger than the Tasman.

Yet here we go. Apparently as a strategic goal for the next few years we are tasked to create One Company across four countries. Now grant that ‘build once, use everywhere’ is sound strategy for most categories of widgets. It doesn’t, however, pass the stink test for people. And why we are able to accept that our Indian and Filipino partners are going to need something custom for their cultures but can’t grok the need to do the same for our Kiwi-Australian partnership is baffling and/or simply racist. We do not have one culture. We have at least four distinct cultures each of which are going to bring to the table an entire palette of deeply embedded norms that are absolutely not negotiable because within the walls of the company, they are not in our circle of control. So, any aspect of that target future company culture that you want to be truly multi-national needs to already exist in all four countries. Anything that isn’t already there… particularly anything that is a complete Hard Pass for one or more of the countries… needs to be off the table.

Recommendation: Design your target state organisational culture to be complimentary to existing embedded social norms.

Corollary: If designing a target state for multiple countries, focus on those norms shared by all of the cultural groups. Which is really frankly just another way of saying last week’s recommendation, you don’t have one culture so stop pretending you do.

The essence of cross-cultural communication has more to do with releasing responses than with sending messages. It is more important to release the right response then to send the right message.” ~ Edward T Hall