Business Book Review

Friday, October 27, 2006


Reading Suggestions & CONTENTS

“ ‘Universal’ rules inevitably encounter exceptions, but if we celebrate the exceptional, we can better revise and improve [the universal].”
“The diffuse and spontaneous flow of ideas that characterize complex, adaptive teams reaches the heights of excellence and quality only if carefully monitored and corrected by specific feedback.”
“[Sequential and synchronous views] can be integrated, as occurs when by synchronizing processes just in time, you ‘shorten the racecourse’ by way of parallel processing. … We called this flexible manufacturing or, in a market context, ‘pull strategy.’ ”
According to Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner, business has reached such a level of complexity that issuing directives is rarely effective today. Instead, leaders must “manage culture” by reconciling opposing values and then letting the culture run the organization. Thus, good leadership can be defined as the ability to resolve value dilemmas in such a way that contrasting objectives are reconciled and turned into a single system that learns from its own activities. The authors believe that leaders who recognize, respect, and reconcile value differences are more successful than leaders who do not. This “transcultural competence” represents “through-through thinking,” which goes beyond either-or thinking and, even, and-and thinking to synthesize seemingly opposed values into a coherent process.

In their research of successful leaders worldwide, Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner found seven major dimensions of differences, each with contrasting “value poles,” that best account for the major differences between national cultures. These dimensions are: universalism versus particularism, individualism versus communitarianism, specificity versus diffusion, neutrality versus affect, achievement versus ascription, inner-direction versus outer-direction, and sequentialism versus synchronicity. It is the authors’ premise that when these dimensions are polarized, dramatic, and sometimes, tragic, contrasts result. However, when they are integrated and synergized, transcultural competence is achieved.

With universalism and particularlism, the contrast is between the desire to make, discover, and enforce widely applicable rules, whether they are the rules of science, law, morality, or industrial standards, and the desire to be exceptional, unique, and unprecedented. The U.S., Finland, Canada, Denmark, and the U.K. rank high in this desire. In contrast, South Korea, China, Japan, Singapore, and France are all relatively particularistic. However, effective leaders know that these values are complementary and that the secret of creating wealth lies, not in making rules, nor in making the exception, but in integrating the two. This integration involves noting the exceptions and revising the rules, accordingly, so as to improve these rules and developing exceptional abilities by noting the highest standards and exceeding them. Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner found that “the capacity to reconcile rules and exceptions [correlates] positively and consistently with the capacity to reconcile several other dilemmas crucial to leadership and cultural effectiveness.”

With individualism (widely advocated in Canada, the U.S., Denmark, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Australia, and the U.K.), personal fulfillment, enrichment, expression, and self-development are exalted. With communitarianism, favored in India, Japan, Mexico, China, France, Brazil, and Singapore, the benefits accrue to the group, community, or corporation. In their extremes, both views hide the reality. For example, though Americans are individualists, they tend to create more groups for more reasons than most other societies. And, despite the fact that the main objective of these groups may be to advance personal interests, these personal interests have important group expressions. Thus, transculturally competent people understand that “individualism versus communitarianism” is a false dichotomy, and that wealth-generating solutions lie in the interactions between the values of the individual and the group. Good leadership nurtures individuals so that they serve groups in a process of “collaborative competing.” Accordingly, the authors found that the most effective jobs are those that allow everybody to work independently and give individual credit to the best team player, and those where neither too much individual creativity nor excessive “groupthink” is the norm.

Business cultures that prefer specificity, such as in the U.S. and the Netherlands, emphasize things, facts, “hard” numbers, and analysis. Cultures, such as Japan’s and Singapore’s are more diffuse, preferring relations, patterns, configurations, connectedness, synthesis, and “soft” processes. However, highly effective organizations develop ingenious ways to synergize both approaches. Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner found that the most effective work environments are those in which colleagues know each other personally and use this knowledge to improve job performance, as well as those in which coworkers respect each other’s work and are, therefore, able to offer each other help in private matters. It is the optimum situation in which specific and diffuse sources of knowledge are combined in either order: by commencing from a diffuse orientation and accommodating the specific, or by commencing from a specific orientation and accommodating the diffuse.

In the neutral-versus-affective dimension, emotions are either inhibited or expressed. However, the authors note that this dimension has more subtleties and variations than the others. There is strong disagreement concerning what one should be neutral or affective about. For example, Americans tend to be moderately affective, despite their Puritan origins, and will show enthusiasm for products, visions, missions, and projects. However, they are less expressive with each other. They approve of positive emotion, but not necessarily of negative emotion such as anger or grief. They will talk about how they feel in vague “therapeutic” terms, but will rarely show how they feel by actually exploding in anger or dissolving in tears. The British may use humor to relax an audience; however, Germans and the Swiss may view this approach as frivolous. And, the Japanese and Koreans will get drunk together as a means of revealing a desire for intimacy, while Germans prefer to express feelings of intimacy by baring their souls and sharing their philosophies of life.

Wise leaders make the greatest possible use of emotional range by operating in two contrasting realms. They use calculated reasoning, which can require that emotions be temporarily suppressed, and they use a “wisdom of the heart,” which understands that emotional expression can heal, inspire, enthuse, and comfort. The authors have found that the most valuable pathways to integration in this dimension are to think first and then let out the emotions at the right time, and to feel first and then think seriously about how to express this feeling to the best effect.

With achievement and ascription, the contrast is between being esteemed because of one’s success and track record, or being esteemed because of one’s potential, as it is measured by one’s age, family, education, etc. Immigrant nations (e.g., the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and Australia) tend to have strong preferences for achievement, as do Norway, France, Sweden, Ireland, and the U.K. Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, and Singapore are among the countries whose cultures ascribe status. However, they are not against achievement, they merely approach it differently.

Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner note that individuals from these different societies are often at odds when they first meet. When, for example, Americans first visit East Asia with a product or proposal, they automatically “put their cards on the table,” and talk achievement—the deal, the costs, the opportunity, the profits, etc. This is extremely offensive to cultures that ascribe status, for they seek first to know who people are, who they are related to and connected with, what their backgrounds are, and whether they are gracious, polite, and hospitable. Many hours or days may be spent on this kind of small talk as a means of establishing trust. However, these differences are just a matter of priorities. Americans believe that once they decide to do business with someone, and a deal is imminent, it then makes sense to get to know the person, deepen the relationship, and check references. In contrast, East Asian executives will only turn to business after a personal relationship has been established. Each accidentally offends the other by not understanding this sequence and by not recognizing that ascribing status and achieving status are complementary. The authors’ research confirms this, for they found that when people are trusted highly respected, heightened productivity and achievement emerge.

With control and effective direction from within, versus control and effective direction from without, the question involves whether it is virtuous to be one’s own person or to respond to one’s environment. Americans, with their tendency to plan and then make those plans work, to rely on ability rather than luck, and to prescribe taking control of one’s life, are joined in this strong preference for inner directions by Norwegians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Australians, and the French.

The authors note that no concept better reflects the grip of inner directedness on the American business imagination than inner-directed strategy (strategy designed at the top of the organization), but that this predilection presents a problem. Top managers are usually the farthest from those on the front line who must implement the strategy and farthest from the customer. In contrast, East Asian executives believe it is prestigious to be outer-directed. They listen while subordinates initiate hundreds of suggestions and strategies. This, however, is not to say that outerdirection is better, but that top management can create grand strategies out of the initiatives that emerge from the grass roots. The transculturally competent leaders Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner have studied integrate outer direction with inner direction. They do what Mintzberg calls crafting strategy—they carefully appraise the strategies that emerge from outside their immediate scope and weave them into a designed, inner-directed synthesis.

Time is perceived as a “race,” with passing increments (the sequential view), or as a “dance,” with circular iterations (the synchronous view). Whereas managers in America, Brazil, Ireland, Italy, and the Philippines take a sequential approach to time, managers in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, Sweden, and France take a mostly synchronous approach. The authors note that synchronous cultures have a logic of their own that typically makes their participants run late and then overstay their welcome in order to compensate for their tardiness: Synchronous people dislike waiting in line for service and would rather form into seemingly ineffective, time-consuming jostling crowds. They tend to interrupt the work of others and are easily distracted themselves, doing several things at once—another time-consuming practice. They “give time” to people they consider important, and if there is an ample amount of these important people, that causes more delay. Top people are given more scope to synchronize their face-to-face engagements, which means their subordinates must wait for them to arrive. And, synchronization is often symbolized by time-eating bowing, nodding, or exclamations of assent, as if everyone were on the same wavelength.

In contrast, people in sequential cultures respond to an “inner clock” rather to the individual. They hurry from one place to the next, never stopping to interact. They are so immersed in their work that they ignore people. They seem to want to stand in front or behind, but never side by side with others. They refuse to abandon their plans in the face of unexpected meetings. And, they are impatient with politeness. Because of these differences, each culture commonly views the other as being “rude.”

Although sequential time and motion studies have made valuable contributions to the efficiency of mass production, pure sequentialism dehumanizes the work force and its goals are short term. By the same token, though synchronous just-in-time and parallel processing have also affected mass production beneficially, pure synchronicity seems haphazard, inefficient, episodic, and lacking in purpose. Thus, transculturally competent leaders reconcile sequentialism with synchronicity in order to obtain the advantages of both, without the limitations of either—each corrects for the potential excesses of the other. The fast sequencing of industrial processes saves considerable time, but doing these processes in parallel and synchronizing them saves even more time. This, say the authors, is what modern manufacturing, as well as reducing time to market, is about: “ever faster sequences with ever finer synchronization.”


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