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.