Tag archives: culture

A Simplified Cultural Framework

“The crucial differences…are not biological. They are cultural.” Ruth Benedict, Anthropologist.

Understanding cultures is always a challenge. In today’s global economy, we have to work across different departmental, regional, national and corporate cultures.

Here’s a tool that should make it easier to meet this challenge.

Simplified cultural framework.

1. Communication styles – Direct or indirect? (adapted from Hofstede)

2. Personal drivers – emotional/functional?

3. Bureaucracy/Hierarchy check – the pencil test.

1. Communication styles.

1.1 Direct communication styles are favored by Western cultures. Direct communication gets to the point very quickly, sharing approval or disapproval very clearly.

E.g. One employee to his manager “It is now 1030 – time for tea break. The meeting will end now.”

For those from an indirect culture, they may view this method of communication as rude or confrontational. It is important to remember that this is not meant to be rude or confrontational but a method of expressing oneself. The benefits are that this method of communication make it easy for feedback and flow of information in a corporate setting.

1.2 Indirect communication styles are favored by Asian cultures. This style gives more subtle cues and hints at the desired outcome. This is in line with “saving face” of the recipient. When dealing with this style, one must be more alert to the subtle nuances and clues of the language. In a corporate setting, you will need to spend more time in meetings/negotiations. It would be better to have another person with you studying the tone and body language of the parties concerned while you listen to the words. Getting feedback would require extensive questioning. Some indirect cultures prefer one to one communication as a face saving method.

E.g. An employee mentions to his manager that the team hasn’t eaten breakfast and that is very hungry.

Another example is where the team member are silent when the manager implements a new directive. To elicit opinions, the manager should have one on one sessions with the team members. Here the questions need to be focused – allowing the other person to give suggestions to meet the end result.

2. Personal drivers.

2.1 Functional driven cultures tend to look at issues rationally in black and white. This is often common within the manufacturing industry (probably due to the heavy influence of by six sigma and kaizen).

2.2 Emotional driven cultures tend to look at  experiential and emotive things.

E.g. Purchase decision making – Shower gel. A functionally driven culture will look at price and whether the product cleans. A functionally driven culture will also tend to take shorter time in the shower.

An emotionally driven culture will look at smell and sensory perceptions in deciding to purchase the shower gel.

Within the culture, there may be items which are emotional and some which are functional. In some cultures, religion can inflame passions, while discussions on the work week and working hours are merely functional.

Questions to ask:-

a.Is the issue emotional or functional?

b. If emotional then is there an alternative around it? If functional, how can we address this?

E.g. A Muslim manager on an oil rig in Myanmar issued a directive that no pork would be served. That same afternoon, a call came from the minister’s department telling him that pork will be served on the oil rig. The manager had touched on an emotional issue. Pork was tied in with national dishes and national pride. His reports had not voiced their concerns directly (indirect culture) but as it was an emotional issue, they channeled their frustrations to the ministry. A better way to handle this would’ve been to have a short chat with the reports on a one on one basis, explaining why he wasn’t comfortable with pork in the galley. He should have sought their advice on the best solution. A compromise could have been a separate area designated as pork free.

3. Bureaucracy/Hierarchy check – the pencil test.High or low?

This looks at organizations and the levels of bureaucracy.

3.1 High level e.g. In one organization, we needed the signatures of 4 people to obtain office stationary. This organization had a lot of controls on its people. Common features include slow decision making as well as possible disconnect between the levels of management. When dealing with this culture, we need to accept the slower pace of decision making.

3.2 Low level e.g. In another company, not only did we have free access to the office stationary, we also had access to the very expensive corporate gifts for the CEO, which included Mont Blanc pens. Common features include an empowered workforce as well as faster decision making. When working with this culture, be prepared for swift decisions from lower levels of the organization.

I hope this framework proves useful to dealing with different cultures. Feel free to share your own experiences in the comment box.





Recruiting the private sector for civil service jobs

The Malaysian Insider recently reported that Najib wanted to bring in professionals to work in the civil service. Some of the criticism was that a lot of GLC executives relied on government sector contracts and were not performers in their own right. Another major issue is that the civil service has traditionally stood for lifetime employment. It was also one of the pillars of the Malay rights, with over 80% Malays in the civil service. The other 4 pillars were UMNO, the Royal Malaysian Police, the Armed Forces and the sultanate.

This brings us to the question of reforming the civil service. With a huge cost of RM41 billion, the only option to reform and increase efficiency would involve the following changes:-
1) Large scale retrenchment. Cutting salaries is not an option with the low salaries of the civil service. What is clear is that our civil service is clearly bloated with non-performers who believe that they have “a job for life”. Removing deadwood would be a very sensitive move, with potential political backlash. To deal with this, the government could implement retraining programs for the retrenched workers. Civil servants who don’t meet the standards set should be let go. Singapore has effectively done away with the job for life and non-performing civil servants get sacked. Implementation of retrenchment could be done via the group which would be more palatable given the communal nature of Malaysians. This was successfully implemented using A
ppreciative Inquiry with the Santa Ana Star Casino to downsize employees.
2) Pay for performance. The civil service clearly needs to implement a performance based remuneration system with objective measures. What they need is to have low basic pay but high performance bonuses for achieving clear benchmarks e.g. number of passports processed per day. This structure needs to be put in place at every level of the organization. Due to the Malaysian group mentality, what may be successful would be a group/team Key Performance Indicator.
3) Process changes. Most successful corporations today use a lean management structure. The civil service needs to rid itself of its hierarchical structure and adopt a lean management. This will aid process efficiency. Also, the civil servants should be empowered at each level to speed up decision making. All the processes currently in place will have to be studied to ensure that support the goal of the new and reformed civil service.
4) Leadership. This project would require a leader who is culturally aware, emotionally intelligent and with a tremendous amount of self resolve. He would need to divide his time into:-
a) developing the vision,
b) defining key strategies to achieve the vision
c) communicating the vision (rallying the troops)
His team would need to translate the vision of the new civil service down to every level – from the head to the tea lady. Every person in the organization should believe in the vision, find it meaningful and know what he/she has to do to help the organization achieve the vision. He may want to take a leaf out of Carlos Ghosn’s efforts in transforming Nissan.
5) Training. Each individual needs to know how to behave in the new way and this will require a combination of training and coaching.

While the intentions of bringing in private sector professionals may have been noble, it would also require the 5 steps laid out above. As with most businesses or transformation programs, the implementation is key. Private sector professionals alone will not guarantee a new civil service.