The positive intentions behind negative perceptions
Tuesday May 09th, 2017
Tuesday May 09th, 2017
Last week was the launch of my new program ‘Working with Europe’ for two groups of NXP/Freescale employees in Austin, TX. I love the US. I always love to be back there. And although I visited various states and cities in the US over the last few years, they’re all different. And there are similarities. And different habits and intentions drive the misunderstandings. Somehow, the differences always stand out. Looking into a different culture through the lenses of your own culture is like looking in a mirror: the differences tell you a lot about yourself.
Below shows a couple of pictures taken in Austin. The taxi sign tells you the release of bodily fluids in the taxi is forbidden (I didn’t even think of it when entering). The entrance sign of the company tells you handguns are not allowed within the building (this caused some discussions with security, obviously, when they saw my collection). To assist the people in my trainings, not only were there plenty of food and drinks, but also a variety of medicines and bandages (people were wondering what kind of training they had signed up for).
Let’s start with these perceptions. One of the nicest exercises in the training is working with these perceptions and deriving positive traits from it. Step 1 to ask the Americans about their perceptions of Europeans, in this example the Dutch. Things that frequently came up were lazy, resistant to change, inflexible, overly structured and direct/rude. An interesting observation to make is that people formulate the perceptions usually negative or use negative formulations, rather than stated as neutral facts. The term ‘lazy’ is negative, and when I challenge people for the observable facts they have to rephrase. This is step 2. Here ‘lazy’ becomes ‘They do not answer calls outside their office hours’. And ‘resistant to change’ becomes ‘They prefer to stick to well-established processes’.
Step 3 is to look for the positive intentions behind the negative perceptions. Now participants need to get under the skin of the Europeans, figuring out what positive intentions are behind the unnuanced impressions. Behind ‘lazy’ is a positive intention: to ensure you spend enough quality time with your loved ones, and to protect the quality of your life. And behind ‘resistant to change’ is a positive intention as well. It is the drive for quality. Europeans want to avoid disruptions and uncertainty, such that the highest quality can be achieved.
When this has been analyzed, we move to step 4. Given these positive intentions, what are the impressions the Europeans have of Americans. The perception ‘lazy’ is a result of the desire to spend enough time at home. If this drives your behavior, you will think of Americans as ‘stressed workoholics’. And the perception ‘resistant to change’ is a consequence of your drive for high quality. If this drives your behavior, you will think of Americans as ‘reckless cowboys’. And indeed, these are often the qualifications that will come up when asking Europeans how they perceive Americans.
What does this have to do with warning signs in a taxi, pills for workshop participants and forbidding handguns. Well, a European could describe these observations as a sign of ‘overly caring’ or even ‘pretending you care’. And that in a country where most people wear handguns and are in bad health. Now what is the positive intention behind these observations? What to think of ‘caring about the well-beings of customers and clients’, and ‘regulating life with laws and guidelines to protect employees and clients’?
Often Europeans fail to see these positive intentions behind the stereotypes they know of Americans, and vice versa. So I dedicate a significant amount of time to this discovery during the workshop. This comes on top of the 7 dimensions of European-American culture and the do’s and dont’s for virtual working and remote communication.
If the workshops would result in only one learning point for participants, I hope it would be this one. Stereotypes are often unfair, negative generalisations. You can easily find exceptions. And the positive intentions behind these deserve to be discovered.
And they make up for nice pictures. In the meantime I already booked my next trip: in October I’m back in Texas, Arizona and California.