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On managing cross culturally

Albert Schram VC
Dr Albert Schram when vice chancellor of the PNG University of Technology

| Extract

VERONA, ITALY - Despite having lived in four different developing countries outside Europe for more than 12 years, when I became president (vice-chancellor) of the Papua New Guinea University of Technology I realised I faced many challenges in trying to understand how and why people there were behaving in specific manners.

It turned out to be almost impossible to eradicate traditional concepts of leadership which revolve around status, rather than working together towards concrete objectives and a vision.

For PNG traditional leaders it is not necessary to have a vision or to do anything, and at the same anything they do, even the most heinous crime, will be forgiven.

This is called locally the “big man mentality”. Many seemed to value my approach to leadership, but at the same time, they felt uncomfortable with certain elements of it.

PNG is the culturally most diverse country in the world, with 800+ languages beating Nigeria and India in the number of languages and cultures.

A survey of a sample of 149 students at the university revealed that there were 66 different languages. If they had been incapable of communicating in English or Tok Pisin (the national lingua franca) they would not have been able to communicate with three out of four people in a random encounter of meeting someone who spoke the same language, a wantok.

Before going to PNG, and in preparation for my new role, I managed to read several anthropological and historical studies and learn about a number of cultural patterns, while acquiring some basic understanding of fundamental anthropological concepts and approaches.

Facing so much cultural diversity, however, it was not feasible for me in a few years to develop a detailed understanding of each culture.

In order to understand how people behaved, therefore, I focused on personality and values. Some simplified form of the big five personality characteristics OCEAN (Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeablenes, Neuroticism) was most useful.

These personalities are deeply rooted in motivations to fulfil a Maslow-like hierarchy of needs. In some form or other these personality dimensions hark back to Carl Jung, and even further to Medieval European and Hindu philosophies.

I found that at times, in the workplace they can be refined by looking at additional personality characteristics such as Pro-Activity or Curiosity. It is rather straightforward when building a team to ask all members to answer questions that give an insight into these personality characteristics.

Analysing my colleagues' personalities was helpful up to a point because many colleagues displayed a stunning lack of integrity, and seemed to believe that lying and stealing from the white man was somehow OK.

Truth-telling, for example, will not be common, when people of different races are considered generally inferior or superior. Oddly, however, these same people professed themselves to be devout Christians.

Apparently, many struggled tremendously with the concept of a moral absolute or a rule that was the same for everybody, which does not exist in tribal societies where everything depends on someone's status.

In order to fight some preconceived or stereotypical ideas employees had among themselves, I also used this insight that personality and values trump cultural characteristics.

One day, I asked one executive why he never spoke with his colleagues who had a similar responsibility. After a lot of excuses, finally he admitted that being from a coastal area, he found it hard to talk to a highlander.

The preconceived idea is that coastal way of communicating is layered and roundabout, while the highlanders tend to communicate directly and value action over words.

I suggested, as an alternative explanation for his discomfort, that it might be a matter of personality: he was more relational and his colleague more grounded. He said nothing in return, apparently refusing to accept an explanation outside the cultural domain.

There were fundamental problems when exercising leadership and management, in the sense of getting the rights things done properly. The whole executive team displayed a stunning lack of self-reflection or learning.

I made management books available for the team and scheduled coaching time, but they never took advantage of this. At a training session, for example, one executive requested training on how to give feedback or bad news. The trainer explained a simple scheme to follow, and then we went for a coffee break.

During the break, several executives complained that sending their secretaries to training was useless because they seemed unable to apply what they learned in the workplace. After the coffee break, the trainer did the exercise with each of them, and not a single one of them followed the scheme. This, however, did not cause any reflection or discussion.

It became evident that my colleagues when exercising leadership or management were hampered by concepts, values, and behaviours inherited from a traditional tribal society.

While tribal societies have developed effective survival mechanisms, they have been less successful in adapting to rapidly changing environments. A practical, goal-oriented approach is lacking, in particular, the capacity to learn and quickly adapt behaviours.

The lesson learned from these experiences is that, in the end, culture does not drive behaviour. Personality and personal values do.

I understood that culture is relevant, mostly in terms of how people communicate, but that personality characteristics and a person’s values will play a more important role. Culture is rather the packaging or the veneer, and not the software of the mind.

When relocating to a radically different society, there are only three options: to confront people with different behaviour, to complain about them, or to conform and adapt. Evidently, conforming is the best long-term strategy.

Regarding cultural adaptation, there are two misunderstandings: first adapting does not mean you have to throw overboard your own culture. It merely means you have to explain why you do certain things and ask your colleagues if they can accept or tolerate this.

Secondly, adapting does not mean all your attempts as a manager at changing behaviour, or doing some cultural innovation should be surrendered.

Most traditional or tribal cultures, for example, exhibit a strong resistance to change, but when change is a necessity, change leadership must be carefully exercised.

Similarly, when a lack of punctuality or absenteeism is rife, discipline must be restored in a working environment, no matter what the cultural concepts about time.

If you take this approach, managing inter-culturally can be most gratifying. I am grateful I was “adopted” by so many different societies, and I would like to think I took away something positive from each of them.

Since I took the initiative to relocate voluntarily, I always felt responsible to learn and develop an “interface” with the dominating culture around me.

Most of my life, I have found that my broad academic training in history and political sciences were of little concrete use in conducting practical affairs until I was faced with such a complex society as Papua New Guinea.

The skills I had acquired during many years of study in critical thinking, truth-finding and problem-solving became vital for navigating a highly challenging and complex environment.

Finally, dealing with such sensitive topics as culture, personality, and values, a cookie-cutter or a one-size-fits-all approach will not help.

Specific training on recognising personalities and values, culturally determined patterns, and how to coordinate and communicate effectively will do much to make your international experience a successful one.

In our consulting practice, therefore, we developed specific personality and culture related tests, which will deepen your understanding and help you to develop a successful approach to dealing with culture in various management situations.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Is it possible to run a large modern institution like a university using traditional leadership forms?

The obverse question might be, is it possible to impose modern concepts of leadership on a traditional based leadership in a large institution like a university?

The short answer to this second question should be yes. Modern concepts of management and leadership are standard practice in large and small corporations in Papua New Guinea so why not in universities too?

Everyone in a corporation has to accept the premises on which the corporation is run. If they don’t they are quickly shown the door.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that traditional concepts, especially when dealing with the public, are not taken into account in corporations. A corporation would be silly not to take cultural factors into account when dealing with its own staff and clientele.

In Papua New Guinea the key cultural factor is the prominence of the communal over the individual. Everything else flows from this concept.

This means that anyone in a leadership role has to be motivated by the communal good. Individual interests are subsumed by this rule.

A traditional bigman accumulating wealth is not doing so solely for his own benefit. That wealth will eventually be distributed to his community. His reward will be the status he achieves from his largesse and the reciprocal obligations he accumulates by his actions.

Once that status is established such an individual is then expected to provide leadership for his community.

The form of this leadership is not authoritarian however. It does not endow the individual with carte blanche to make decisions that affect the community. Nor does it give him a right of veto. His role is solely to lead the negotiations that reach a communal consensus on an issue.

This doesn’t preclude working towards visionary ideals. A good traditional leader who is visionary will be able to lead his community towards those visions. There are numerous examples of this happening, both historically and in the present. Many past traditional leaders are remembered for their visionary approaches.

There is nothing formally hierarchical in traditional leadership patterns in Papua New Guinea. There might be aspiring leaders but their status is exactly the same as anyone else. Despite claims to the contrary everyone has equal status, including men and women, when it comes to making decisions. If you have a good argument you will be listened to. You may be derided but what you say will be taken into account.

That’s how it works in a traditional setting. It’s not how it works in a western style corporate or institutional setting. Everyone knows this. If you have a leadership role in a corporation or an institution you play by the organisational rules.

Just as a bigman subsumes his individual interests for the common good of his community a leader in a corporation or institution has to subsume his or her traditional concepts in the interests of the organisation.

Just as status comes from the bigman’s role so too does status come from holding a leadership position in a corporation or institution. This is a common factor no matter where you go in the world. Status is a big motivating factor for most of humanity, no matter where they live.

At the same time the possibility of the loss of status acts as a powerful brake on extreme actions by a leader. Leaders, in any culture, can only get away with crimes for as long as their communities tolerate them. This fact applies even to the most oppressive, cruel and corrupt leaders. Sooner or later they will come undone.

A leader who tries to force new concepts onto his community or workforce, no matter the cultural context, is always going to have a difficult time.

For one thing people don’t like change. For another they are generally good at sorting the useful out from the useless. No matter where you are in the world modern human relations management theory is always a hard sell. It is particularly not a good idea to try and foist this sort of stuff on a troubled or dysfunctional organisation.

A leader has to take those he or she leads along with them when making changes. This requires laying an extensive groundwork and, crucially, being sensitive to people’s concerns about those changes. You can’t rush change.

You can’t divorce a person’s cultural background from their behaviour, character or personality. Human beings are a complicated mix of many influences, some of them genetic but others that are derived from their lived experiences. Nature and nurture both influence how a person develops. This is true for ordinary people as much as it is true for people in leadership roles.

Anyone who delves into their own character will realise this. Characteristics going back many generations are evident in most people. Whether you are Engan, Motuan, Irish or English you will exhibit characteristics related to those origins.

Albert contradicts himself when he says, on the one hand, “It became evident that my colleagues when exercising leadership or management were hampered by concepts, values, and behaviours inherited from a traditional tribal society”, and on the other hand, “The lesson learned from these experiences is that, in the end, culture does not drive behaviour. Personality and personal values do”. He can’t have it both ways.

By making these statements he is running very close to being racist, not overt racism, but that nasty brand that implies cultural inferiority.

In this sense he says more about himself than he does about the people he is criticising. The only conclusion one can draw is that despite all his preliminary research he was out of his depth in his role. This is very unfortunate because he is clearly an intelligent man with good intentions. As Garry says, perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to parachute him into the job in the first place.

It is never a good idea to parachute people without prior cultural exposure into influential roles in Papua New Guinea. That so many organisations continue to do that is amazing given the sorry records of failure that accompany such an approach.

Garry Roche

Having read the extract “On managing cross culturally”, and myself having had many years of experience at governance and administration level in a PNG University (DWU Madang), I can only say that my experience was very positive and was quite different from what Albert Schram describes as his own experience.

While dealing with academics can always be challenging, in general I enjoyed the experience and came to know many good people.

At the same time, if I am correct in understanding that Albert had not worked in PNG prior to being appointed president (vice-chancellor) of the University of Technology, then I can understand some of the difficulties he faced.

It may have been a mistake for the government to 'parachute' someone into such a demanding role.

Philip Kai Morre

I read Dr Albert Schram's article conscientiously and I agreed with a few points but do not agree with most of his points.

Albert you write paternalistically like a master describing servants. I am sure most readers will not agree with you.

Joe Herman

Your premise of your argument is bit dubious, Albert. Please give PNG a rest.

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