In my first encounters with the Philippines, I was surprised by how often people asked me about my meals. ‘Have you eaten?’ This included during conversations online. I learned, over time, that the question arises out of an economic context in which food is often scarce owing to high levels of poverty, and a cultural context in which the health and well-being of one’s neighbour is considered important. It means the question is literal and it calls for a literal response. If I answer ‘no’ while I’m there physically, I’m likely to be offered and given a meal; even if the person who’s asking is poor.
Rudo Kwaramba, a Zimbabwean colleague, explained a similar dynamic whilst working together on an assignment in Uganda. I had been invited there to help an NGO address a key challenge: that managers in rural community-based projects were, apparently, bad at addressing poor performance. Rudo reflected: ‘In wealthy countries, if you can’t earn an income or lose your job, your government provides you with financial support; if you become injured or unwell, your health system or insurance covers you. In poorer countries, people can only look to each other for support.’
It means that, in such contexts, to establish and maintain positive relationships with one’s extended family and neighbours is essential for survival. It also means that to support the health and wellbeing of one’s neighbours is critical too. There is a sense of radical interdependence, a pragmatic-ethical need, that drives cultural behaviour. Against that backdrop, we discovered that managers who were living and working in the same communities as their staff felt unwilling and unable to address poor performance – in case it damaged the network of relationships. It was the core issue for them.
This insight moved the culture-shift question in the work from a simplistic-transactional, ‘How to change the performance management system’, to a deeper-relational, ‘How can we hold honest conversations that don’t harm community?’. It proved transformational. As I focus back on South East Asia, I notice that as some countries have grown in wealth, they have experienced a corresponding shift towards individual-orientated cultures. It's as if: the richer I am, the less I need you. ‘Have you eaten?’ is often retained, yet as a simple greeting, not as a literal inquiry or as an invitation to a meal.
So, I’m curious: what have been your experiences of working cross-culturally? What have you learned?
‘Vision without systems thinking ends up painting lovely pictures of the future with no deep understanding of the forces that must be mastered to move from here to there.’ (Peter Senge)
Huyen Tran definitely stood out as a star performer, paradoxically owing to her awareness of team systems and dynamics. While most others in this global INGO – like in so many other organisations at the time – were fixated on identifying individual differentiating capabilities in order to recruit for, develop, reward and retain them, Huyen, a humble and thoughtful HR leader in Vietnam, observed that those individuals we regarded organisationally as 'great' rarely worked or succeeded in isolation.
This recollection came to mind at a, ‘Working with Teams as Systems’ seminar this week. Sue Powell, the trainer, commented on a growing body of research that shows how fields including leadership and coaching are shifting their attention from individual development towards team development. It’s something about noticing the reality, paying attention to risks and valuing the potential of inter-dependence, whether that be between individuals, teams, organisations or wider stakeholders.
What we notice – and not – and what sense we make of it is a recurring theme in Gestalt psychology and social constructionism. If, for instance, we live and work in an individual-orientated culture, we are likely to notice the individual and attribute success or failure to their own effort and skill rather than to, say, the cultural, contextual and relational systems of which they are intrinsically a part and which form the essential backdrop – and, thereby, critical field of influence – for their success.
What we and others consider as success will vary from context to context, culture to culture, time to time. Who or what contributes to that success or, conversely, lack of success is the key question here. As a leader, OD or coach, how well do you notice and work intentionally and skilfully with the dynamic inter-plays between individuals, teams and their environments? How far do you recognise the impact and influence of your own presence, behaviour and actions on systemic fields too?
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