Culture and sore shins: Tom Peters On Excellence

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A DUTCH doctor managing a clinic has a 'frank discussion' with a Chinese subordinate who has some readily correctable shortcomings. The Chinese doctor, who sees his boss as a 'father figure', takes the criticism as 'a savage indictment' and commits suicide. The problem, says Fons Trompenaars, a Dutch business consultant, is this: 'American and Dutch managers do not understand the principle of losing face.'

Trompenaars' book, Riding the Waves of Culture, is a masterpiece. Based on meticulous quantitative research, as well as some 900 seminars presented in 18 countries, it claims that most US management theorising, by the likes of Peter Drucker and Tom Peters, is next to useless.

'It is my belief,' Trompenaars begins, 'that you can never understand other cultures . . . (Thus) I started wondering if any of the American management techniques, with which I was brainwashed during eight years of the best business education money could buy, would apply in the Netherlands, where I came from, or, indeed, in the rest of the world.'

The heart of the book is seven chapters filled with anecdotes and statistics dealing with fundamental premises that make up a culture. The author begins with the 'universalist' v the 'particularist' schism. Universalists (eg, at the extreme, Americans, Canadians, Australians, Swiss) believe in 'one best way' - a set of rules that applies in any setting. Particularists (Koreans, Chinese, Malaysians, at the other extreme) focus on the peculiar nature of a situation.

Say you are riding in a car with a close friend who has an accident in which a third party is injured. You are the only witness, and he asks you to falsely testify about his driving speed. Universalists won't lie for him. Particularists will.

The difference becomes more pronounced if the injury is severe. That causes the universalist to take his belief in the rules even more seriously. But this bigger problem increases the particularist's sense of obligation to his buddy - and his willingness to tell a whopper.

(Trompenaars acknowledges that, within a country, attachment to any given cultural trait varies widely. Nonetheless, the quantitative differences among nations are profound: in the case of the accident, for example, 74 per cent of South Koreans would stick up for their pal and lie, compared with just 5 per cent of Americans.)

At the end of each chapter, Trompenaars sums up: Universalists doing business with particularists should, for example, 'be prepared for 'meandering' or 'irrelevancies' that do not seem to be going anywhere; moreover, one should not take 'get to know you' chatter as merely small talk - it is the main event to particularists.

Particularists doing business with universalists should be prepared for irrational and professional arguments and presentations ad nauseum, and should not take 'get down to business' attitudes as rude.

Then there is the 'collectivist' frame of mind v that of the 'individualist'. He lists the US and Canada again at the extreme as individualists, with Egypt and France at the other end. Collectivists dealing with individualists in, say, contract negotiations, should be prepared for quick decisions and negotiators who make commitments they will be 'reluctant to go back on'. Individualists working with collectivists must tolerate 'time taken to consult' and negotiators who 'can only agree tentatively, and may withdraw (offers) after consulting with superiors'.

The difference between those who show their feelings (Italians, for example) and those who hide them (no surprise - the Japanese) is also profound. Trompenaar's advice to the taciturn; 'Do not be put off your stride when (emotional people) create scenes and get histrionic.' Fat chance.

Other distinctions include how we accord status - through achievement v through ascription (ie, based on family, age). And how we manage time - past v future orientation. Add it up and you despair by the time you finish this treatise.

Trompenaars' solution: 'We need a certain amount of humility and a sense of humour to discover cultures other than our own - a readiness to enter a room in the dark and stumble over unfamiliar furniture until the pain in our shins reminds us of where things are.'

I think such a sense of playfulness is on target. My experience says that it's OK to make blunders in other cultures. What is not OK is cultural arrogance. If you come to another's turf with sensitivity and open ears - what the Zen teachers call a 'beginner's mind' - you're halfway home.

Moreover, I think Trompenaars is correct when he says we will never 'master' anybody else's culture. This means that keeping a beginner's mind - in perpetuity - is a must for successful and less stressful dealings throughout the emerging global village.

TPG Communications