Culture shocks

Decided to write on the third and last part of this series about some cultural differences in doing business and their manifestations.


Creatures of the hierarchy

Starting with an entry in Quora on “What things can you do in Israel that you cannot do in the USA?:

“Tell your boss that he’s an idiot and he’s running the company into the ground, and still have a job the next day.

Let’s add another quote, this was from a person I have met of western European origin that owned a small tourist shop a Greek holiday destination:

“Greeks are some of the best employees you could have being engaged, energetic, active but most of all trustworthy. The problem with then is that at some point they will come and tell you how to run your business.

I’ll contemplate on the whys, because might be the case for other nationalities as well. Let’s start with a loose translation about internal company organisation from a book about Greek economy, “The invisible chasm”: “Traditionally the cell of a Greek business unit is a boat. … When a crisis comes, usually in a form of a storm, everybody needs act individually saving themselves and everybody else present otherwise they whole boat sinks and all aboard die. It is common to listen to people swearing at their superiors, overlap if a functional vacuum occurs… Do whatever deemed necessary in order to get out of the situation. …

I can only assume that in Israel the same must be the case in the context of an army unit, or the traditional family living in distant countries among different nationals, the goyim. For a number cultures, hierarchy can be broken or bypassed at will when certain situations occur.

I painfully observed a completely different approach while working in the UK: People above me in organisational charts used to engage into general conversations while in relaxed everyday situations, the “how was your weekend” water-cooler talks. When faced with a crisis or when the stakes were high, a different pattern of behaviour emerged: Everybody would blindly listen and obey the leader, whose responsibility was to guide the company or their team out of the crisis. Then we would all be friends again and chit chat over a pint of beer.

I can only imagine how Rayn, head of a client face department, might have felt in the following situation, talking with me:

Ryan (looking stressed): “We need to do XYZ for ABC” (note: not “I want you to do ABC for XYZ”).

Me: Why?

Ryan: blah blah (one sentence explanation)

Me: Based on what you just said DEF is a better option than ABC, should we try DEF instead?

Ryan: I’ll get back to you. Bye.

Only that he never got back to me, but went instead to my then manager, Kevin. Next day Kevin came along:

Kevin: Hi, Ryan came to me yesterday…

Me: I do not understand why. He must have given you his arguments, which you will repeat to me along with your understanding of the situation. Yes?

Kevin: More or less.

Me: So based on the same inputs, I will provide the same response. Now I am additionally frustrated because he bypassed me and got to you.

Kevin: Ah, now it makes sense, what was needed was you to say “Yes”, not argue about his points.

Me: But we are in crisis mode, if I don’t know how he got to these points, I will have to ask for his input every five minutes. If on the other hand he provides his insight, then I will be able to guess his needs without disrupting him.

Kevin: I see… for the moment next time limit yourself to answering “Yes”.

I will omit the not so happy conclusion of this story. Let’s distinguish between the two approaches: Being behind schedule and in a bad place, my inertia was to break barriers, engage in direct communication, generally establish bidirectional information flows and synergy mechanisms. Ryan for the same reasons in the example above issued an order. Possibly inspired by a hierarchical understanding of the situation someone should lead (himself of course), so an “I need you to do this” approach was more appropriate. When my response was not the expected one, his gut reaction was — again — to follow they hierarchy this time through my manager. My guess would be that he would talk to me on the spot first. Finding my manager, then explaining his point of view even more, all that when in behind-schedule-stress mode just a waste of time.

What also should also be considered is the potential shock-wave delivered to Ryan: In his mindset everyone should be in “yes”-mode. Instead of that, he got a full spectrum challenging of his assumptions. In hindsight that should have been a huge “ouch” moment, a very negative surprise indeed …

It’s a one way street

The second thing that stroke me was the unidirectional flow of information from the top to the bottom, without any bottom-up information channels or feedback loops. Starting again with an anecdote:

My then manager was preparing for my first appraisal for which he had a meeting room booked. Once we sat, he told me that he had forgotten the forms in the printer. Five minutes later he came back with some printouts, which we started reading and filling out. I was listening patiently waiting to provide my input and counter-argue some of his remarks after his turn was over. After finishing the last paper, I replied with something like: “It seems that you forgot the remaining forms, do you want me to wait here or should I go and fetch them?”. “What remaining papers?” was his response with an imaginary cartoon-style question mark dangling over his face. “Up to now we have discussed about how I perform and what the company or you wants me to do or improve. There is nothing about how good you are as my manager nor about how happy I am working here or my career path. Isn’t that covered in the forms you forgot?”. Because people asked me, I honestly thought that there were extra forms without any intention of irony.

After that I started asking around. It seemed that in most places that was the state of affairs. Things were different in some foreign based companies operating British branch. An counter-example would be my experience in Accenture, there were procedures for grading your manager in both a semi-anonymous as well as in formal fashion.

My opinion, without thorough research though, has to do with the concept of employment and how it is understood in different cultures. I tend to believe that in the US/Canada it resembles conceptually a contract: more or less two parts discuss on what each one offers to the other. Employee provides her skill, labour, loyalty, some restrictions on their lives etc. The employer provides the salary, job stability but also career path/trajectory, education, training as well as all some so called perks. With Google being the “king of perks”. It seems that there is an agreed deal. An employee breaking the “deal” find themselves fired. If the company does so, there has to be some justification, which was not the case in our last story.

In Britain and probably mostly in Europe it seems that employment stems from an improved version of medieval serfdom: Employer and employee agree to a salary and more or less that’s it. I haven’t witnessed in my employment in British companies things like: training programs, investment in skills even with something inexpensive such as books, or any significant perks an bonuses. Moreover once my job function changed without even communicating the changes with me in advance. One day I got to the office and I was told that I should be doing “different things”. When complaining that this was not aligned with my initial job description or what was discussed in the hiring process, the response was that I was right, but that the company was “evolving”. For me this was breach of contract, for my manager it was business as usual.

Late pivots

One of the many concepts described and popularised in Eric Ries “Lean startup” book is the “pivot”. Personally the term is related to a paradigm shift I experienced:

We were trying to raise capital for our then start-up at about 2009. When saying that we had pivoted, which we had, people were sceptic thinking that our initial planning was wrong hence the need for pivot. Some had suggested that we should not mention it but argue instead that our current direction was the initial one — a white lie. Later on, lean start-up methodologies caught up. After that tipping point, people kind of demanded us to have pivoted at least once as a sign that the company had gotten to the next level: Started with a hypothesis, tested it, got market feedback which changed our direction, so the whole proposition had matured.

There is nothing wrong with a concept getting traction and becoming part of the established paradigm. I could not understand why it took so long based that the idea was solidified across the Atlantic, expressed in English and generally a product of a similar culture. Why did it require an extra amount of years?

Conclusions

Euro-something

Summarisation of my “Culture shocks” and their consequences materialised while finishing writing this post. It seemed to me that coming to UK, I would get to an alternative version of the States, while I landed into an amazing -but nevertheless- European country. After years I made the decision to live here and call it “home”, but the brain has still not fully recovered from the initial shock and the partial disappointment.

UK dominated the industrial revolution and the globe. Industrialisation process involved capitalism à-la Adam Smith by building products and services for the masses on a massive scale, yet now UK prefers to maintain the existing state of affairs, discussed in “Business Relationships), as someone might expect from narrow minded Europeans.

Another realisation was how much of everything we do derives from our culture, origins and the society from which we were brought up. Be it organisational structures, company orientation and even software. There was the false assumption that in purely technical disciples, things would be more abstract in a mathematical sense while also internationalised because of … Internet. Maybe, the argument is best summarised in the following Andy Warhol quote:

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, …”

Maybe this is the core on why although theoretical foundations of computing have been laid here, US makes better software and iPhones.

In Defence of Kiske fields

Reconsidering the “Kiske field” post, now there are more questions than answers: Should UK IT companies hire foreigners? If so, what should happen with their different behaviour or approach on concepts such as hierarchy? Should the differences be accepted as enhancement and an attempt to diversify business culture and operations? Or should those people be educated on how to behave as part of their induction? Or should we just place them in the bottom of the barrel, and make sure that they will stay there without ever stirring up to the top?

That’s the end of this series of articles. Thank you for reading up to this point!