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The two of us have a problem. And the problem is you.

Wednesday June 22nd, 2016

In every workshop on intercultural awareness we get to speak quickly about ‘culture bias’. We have certain expectations about the cultures we deal with, often based on past experiences or the well-known stereotypes. All Germans are rigid. All Americans are superficial. And all Dutch are direct (true!). And expectations about other cultures are hardly ever formulated neutrally: our opinions are biased. We find our own way of working usually smarter, more efficient or more effective than the way-of-working of the Germans, Americans or Indian. This is called ‘cultural ethnocentrism’: we are better than they are. So when cultural issues play up and work and communication is disrupted, deliverables are late and strategy fails, we blame the other party for screwing up. Our assumption is: “If only they would work more like we do over here, we would not have a problem…”

Good intentions

We are reasonable. We have the right intentions: the other party is the problem that should be overcome.

When your counterparts in the back-office in India do not deliver on-time, we apply this thinking. We are reasonable. We have the right intentions: India is the problem here.

Breakthrough in everything is a result of changing perspective. Change the perspective in this situation. You now live in India and you are now part of the Bangalore workforce. You are going through traffic from hell each morning to reach the office, only to find out that more mails have come in from Europe asking for updates, clarifications and analysis. You are reasonable. You have the right intentions. So you start to work immediately on distributing project updates, host discussions to clarify any open issues in the project and provide the analysis the internal customer from Europe did ask for. Europe is the rigid, inflexible party now that wants to work according to their own processes, no matter what. We in India are reasonable and have the right intentions: Europe is the problem here.

I once worked with a European management team, very frustrated about ‘these idiots in India’. All the complaints that I often hear about India came up. I then challenged them to do a thought experiment: “Let’s assume the Indians do have good intentions”. I know it’s just a thought experiment, I say with a smile: let’s assume they have good intentions. Assume for a moment they do not get out of bed in the morning, mumbling to themselves: “Let’s see how we can frustrate the project even more today.” Let’s assume they have the right intentions: then why do they do what they do?

Bad character

This is often a turning point in the discussion: we start analyzing the situation from the India perspective. They must have a good reason for acting the way they do. Let’s try to understand. And then quite often appreciation comes up: hesitantly in the beginning, appreciative in a later stage.

The core strengths model of Ofman is a good help here. I apply it often in a cross-cultural context. The model tells us that when we overdo our strengths, they become our pitfall. The cure for this is the positive opposite to our pitfall: a development action. And when that one is overdone, we have ended up with our allergy.

Apply the model first from a European perspective: our structured approach is our strength, when overdone however we become rigid and inflexible (this is indeed how Indians often perceive us!). Our developmental challenge is to be more flexible. But we should not overdo this: we then become so flexible that we come across as unstructured and chaotic: our allergy. India is right in our allergy, a reflection of true strength to provide structure.

Comparison

From the India perspective this works the other way around: their strength is to be flexible, and their pitfall is indeed to become unstructured and chaotic (an allergy of the Dutch). Their challenge is to bring more structure in their processes, without getting into their allergy: becoming rigid.

This is where our learning should start. Let’s appreciate that both of us have good intentions, and that both of us have unique strengths. Structured people and flexible professionals can be very complementary, provided you communicate openly and constructively. Let’s also recognize that we both have developmental challenges: to complement our flexibility with providing more structure, and to complement our structured approach with more flexibility.

I’m convinced we’re not that different: we both have good intentions, and should just learn to be more… well, a bit more like our allergies. Then, when the two of us have a problem in the future, we do not finger-point. We sit down at the same site of the table, and address the challenges with our mutual strengths. After all, we are both reasonable. We both have good intentions.

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