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Joy Wilson

Spectrum Training services

Learning and Development Consultant

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Cultural Lip Service


History is littered with examples of organisations that have underestimated the strength of cultural conditioning paying superficial lip service to cultural integration and this has resulted in failures in strategic alignment, communications and delays in execution of plans which impacts returns on investment.

This story describes an example of one organisation in the engineering sector who failed to consider the local culture, the impact of the application and appropriateness of their existing policies, and the leadership skills required to operate successfully in the environment.

Situated in the Middle East where the local population consists of Arabs Palestinian, and Lebanese races. The expatriates connected to the project and the parent company originated from Europe, and USA. The plant was situated in a fairly remote location and almost all employees were from the immediate neighbourhood. The arrival of a multinational company offered considerable opportunity to the local community

Let’s take a look at the culture before we examine the impact of culture crimes

In this region, there is an elaborate system of identifying others by social class, rank and position within the family, clan, or tribe. A person is identified as someone‘s child or a father belonging to a particular family. Ibn or Bin means son of and Abu means father of. The same applies to women Bint means daughter and Umm means mother. So, the identity of an Arab is collective and not individual. The Arab male has responsibilities as head of house. Arab culture values group rights little value is placed on the needs of the individual and much more emphasis is attached to the needs of the group, hence the word private as we westerners understand it does not have an exact Arabic translation. While the concept of privacy exists in the Arab world privacy does not imply personal or individuated space, and this is evident in the need for inclusion it would be quite normal for a westerner to arrange a confidential meeting with his host in the Arab world only to find the room full of family, colleagues and neighbours.

Honour and dishonour are important factors that influence the behaviour in this culture Public behaviour is influenced recipient of the communication so, there is a tendency to express or communicate messages upon other people‘s perceptions. Before getting down to business at a meeting it is important to exchange pleasantries, and accept your host’s hospitality. The western style of going straight into business is considered impolite here people will do business with you because they feel good about you.

A thorough understanding of Arab culture and society is achieved with a little basic knowledge of religion, Islam, and its founder Prophet Mohammed whose recitations called for all to rid themselves of their sinful ways and to worship only one God as the true God whom he called Allah. The Prophet called for social reforms, caring for those who could not care for themselves, and encouraged giving personal wealth to charity. His followers were forbidden to drink alcohol and eat pork. The five pillars of Islam are, Profession of faith, Prayer, Almsgiving, Fasting and Pilgrimage to Makkah. Prayers are offered 5 times a day facing towards Makkah at daybreak, midday, mid afternoon, sunset and nightfall.  The holy book Qur‘an is the infallible word of God.

Factors Impacting the Operation

The project had multiple shareholders in the financial sense and stakeholders with an interest in the environmental and social impacts of the project and this included those in the local community.

There had been a history of instability at the plant including a high turnover of managers and stakeholder disagreements. Originally I was brought into the project to deliver training and particularly to impact the “attitude” of the workforce. It soon became apparent that training alone would not provide the fix for this broken culture.

There was a HUGE divide between the managers employed by the parent company and local employees. Ignorance created perceptions of each other which added to the mounting conflict based on cultural differences, corporate policies and the impact of some operational practices on the local community. To be fair both sides had been poorly prepared and perhaps greater understanding may have been achieved with a little thought to community initiatives, training, and/open days. Both sides were now alienated from each other.

 Culture Crime Scene

 Corporate policies had been thoughtlessly applied without any adaptation to the culture and some were completely insensitive, sufficient to cause unrest amongst the majority group that they impacted.

·  Previous managers had discredited several employees and these judgements had stuck like glue while others closer to those managers had been promoted beyond competence, although there was little idea of what relevant competencies for those roles were, the incompetence demonstrated was alarming.

·  In this remote community money was the significant motivator; of course it had been in short supply previously and individuals focused on the here and now, so, concepts such as promotion, prospects and job satisfaction were perceived as ineffective motivators, however this organisation had no structure, and no succession plan, and therefore had no real idea of the positive effects of recognition, job security, or promotion.

· There were different perceptions of priorities, with one group generally expatriates apart from their families driven by targets and achievements and another group valuing religion, family and community which play such important roles in life. Therefore local employees were perceived as lacking commitment corporate goals.

· The different perceptions of time caused huge frustration,  western managers were simply uncomfortable with this sense of timelessness things did get done in their own time but this cultural trait was interpreted as “poor attitude towards work”

· In this region many work routines evolve around religion and time for prayer. While foreign managers acknowledged that religion was important to people, they frequently scheduled meetings to coincide with prayer, and demanded the services of drivers to drive them to leisure activities during prayer times on Fridays and other holy days

· The importance of religion and the belief that the more religious a person is the more sincere and hard working an employee will be was a serious bone of contention. The perception of the managers was that such an employee should keep at a distance because that sort of behaviour was extreme.

· Use of the word inshallah after an agreement confused the western managers who saw it as the equivalent of a westerner saying “I’ll try” and perhaps leaving room to fail.  Managers were unsure whether the job would be completed or not.

· One manager ruled that annual leave could only be taken for 3 days or more any request for leave less than 3 days would be refused. The Arab make is head of house, and generally escorts family to hospital appointments, doctors, and dentists. The impact of this ridiculous rule was that absenteeism figures shot up because people needed but were prevented from taking a day off to attend to family business.

· Many of the expat managers were forced to work on Fridays to enable them to align with their parent company, suppliers and advisors in other parts of the world.

· The western managers were irritated when the Arabic language was used between people at meetings they saw this as an insult.

Learn the Lessons

I could go on and on contributing to this crime scene – maybe I should write a book!  

The key to cross-cultural business success  is understanding your  business partners enoughto make essential cultural adjustments and adjustments are required from both parties.

A practical rule is that business transactions should favour the cultural norms of the social infrastructure on which they primarily rely. Us westerners sometime have the impression that business is a self-contained activity, in reality it depends radically on pre-existing cultural mechanisms to get anything done. If business is to tap these resources, it must respect the culture that provides them.





Author Profile Picture
Joy Wilson

Learning and Development Consultant

Read more from Joy Wilson

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