Sunday, December 11, 2011

Europe without the UK?

The future of Europe is integration. Not cultural integration, but economic, fiscal, legal integration. The challenge will be to develop this kind of integration, while simultaneously preserving the diverse identity of different cultural groups, which are even more numerous than the countries involved.

Cultural diversification will increase, and that means that among the 27 nation-states which form the EU, we must recognize that there are over 40 different cultures.

However, these 40-plus cultures can share the same legal framework, the same fiscal policies, a single retirement plan, and the same currency (why not?).

In order to do that, people will have to accept a loss of sovereignty, of course! It is no surprise that the country which scores highest in Individualism (UK) has the greatest difficulty in accepting this loss of national sovereignty... Plus, the UK is a "low-Power Distance" culture, and not as likely to accept a central authority based elsewhere.

From a cultural perspective, it is only natural that France and Germany are leading the push for EU integration. For the French (and other high Power Distance countries) there is no problem in accepting strong authority. They can even accept it AND value Individualism simultaneously. Perhaps this is the best example of the values underlying an integrated EU, this co-existence of high-PDI and Individualism.

For the Germans, the driver is order. The EU needs to be better organized. It makes sense to have a common currency, common fiscal policies, a common legal framework, etc.

For the Dutch and Scandinavians, the key is "leveling". If all stakeholders are heard, if there is a relative balance among members of the EU and all opinions are taken into account, then why not?

The UK are the only Anglo-Saxon culture among EU members, and they risk becoming isolated because of that. Being an island doesn't help. However, all sides stand to lose more than gain from an EU without Britain and Britain stands to lose the most.

Perhaps the discussion should be about the reasons why Cameron has decided to withdraw from the treaty agreed last week. Was it about Britain or was it about the banks operating in the UK?

Even "The Economist" has clearly stated this was about the banks.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Comment on "Three Ways To Overcome Career Anxiety" by Daniel Gulati on Harvard Business Review

Interesting article, touching on the issues we discussed on a call with AIESEC International on Wednesday...

The article, of course, is very biased by culture: don't forget HBR is very culture-biased, with all the pros and cons this entails.

The three issues mentioned in the article are typical of the problems young Americans face now. Are they also faced by people in other cultures? Perhaps yes, to a lesser extent. The problems are felt with greater intensity in the "Contest" cultures (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) because the culture of these countries emphasize that life is a competition, and you have to be a "winner" in that competition or else be considered "a loser", a failure. This basic concept can be very motivating for young people, because it simplifies the complexity of life. It boils everything down to one thing: being successful, as measured by making a lot of money.

The problems arise later in life, when people who have made "a lot of money" find themselves feeling empty and lost... Many turn to psychotherapy, but many more turn to drugs, alcohol, religion or other forms of dependency. The problem is that the "Contest" cultures (Anglo-Saxon) do not provide deep, long-term answers to existential questions. Actually, these cultures hardly recognize the existence of existential questions in the first place!

The three issues

Gulati identifies three typical issues that are specially difficult for American youths:

1) large companies are not safe options anymore - after the Enron and Wall Street busts, belonging to "the biggest" companies is not synonymous to "having it made"; Gulati emphasizes the "safety" aspect, but I think he is a bit off track in this aspect. What motivated young Americans to work on Wall Street (or on big corporations in other industries) was not "safety"--if that was the case, youngsters would aspire to work as civil servants. The real motivation was (and still is) "success" in that competition that life is supposed to be.

2) social networks increase anxiety - comparing yourself to peers and competing with them is reinforced in "Contest" cultures, though you may also find it to a lesser extent in "Network" cultures like the Scandinavian and Dutch, plus a few others in Europe;

3) too many options - as we discussed, people today need to find a sense of meaning/purpose to guide their choices. Making more money than your neighbors does not provide spiritual gratification. With so many options available, what's to guide a young American in making choices (when the culture tells them it's all about competing and WINNING!)...

So the three issues identified by Gulati may be important issues across cultures, in different parts of the world, but they are especially relevant in "Contest" cultures because they are magnified in these environments.

Advice given

The three bits of advice given by Gulati are "spot on":

1) de-emphasize prestige and compensation (easier to do in other cultures, more difficult in the "Contest" cultures, as it means swimming against the current);

2) start experimenting - this is a great advertisement for AIESEC! Go abroad, experience other ways of doing things, other forms of learning, find out which things touch you deeply, emotionally, look beyond the "Contest" perspective;

3) Spend time defining your passions - It's all about answering those two basic questions: who are you and what do you want? The "AIESEC Experience" should help people find those answers.

As Gulati rightly points out, it's not about finding "that one answer" (another "Contest" culture trap is to seek that "ONE" answer, like "one ring to rule them all"...). Life is more complex than that.

Be satisfied with two or three valid answers and learn to live with them as they change and evolve over time. Be more flexible and less normative. (Hofstede's 5th dimension of culture). There is more to learn about that from the Asians and Latin Americans than there is from the US and Europe.

The fact is that today, as we transition from 2011 to 2012, you can connect with anybody else on the planet... But can you connect with your inner self? That is what you will need to do in order to find out who you are and what do you want. That is what will guide you in making career choices and life choices.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Culture in the News #6: The Murdoch Farce

The rage in the UK seems to be about the phone hacking (invasion of privacy) rather than about the fact that Murdoch has been corrupting police, news media and politicians all the way up to Downing St. 10... This is linked to a very high Individualism score in the UK, which accounts for the invasion of privacy being considered more of an offense rather than the millions of pounds in bribes payed out to government officials.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Culture in the News #5 "Canadian miners go on strike against Brazilian mine owners."

Not only Americans make blunders when managing people in foreign countries. In this case, it was Brazilian managers struggling to manage an American workers' union which branches out into Canada, as reported by the IHT on Jan 15.
After reading the half-page news item, you can see that the issues at hand are pretty straight-forward. The Brazilian owners (global mining company Vale, largest in the world) propose two things: 1) changing the pension plan from "defined benefit" to "defined contribution" (Hardly revolutionary--all pension plans have been moving that way for the past 20 years and all newly created plans are "defined benefit"); and 2) putting a cap on a bonus plan linked to the price of nickel (Again, this is plain common sense: the plan has a "floor", it's only logical that it should also have a "ceiling", though the parties involved will negotiate endlessly over the amounts to be set).
So what's the big deal?
Culture. (Surprised?)
Curiously, reporters asked the people involved whether different management cultures (Brazilian an Canadian) were the issue. They all denied it... As the saying goes "fish are not aware of the water they are swimming in". To an outsider, the culture issue is obvious.
The workers complain about the way management is behaving, and that has driven them to harden their stance. "The other owner, you knew where they were coming from" said Chris Shrower, a millwright. "These ones just want to show us that they're the boss."
Management is behaving in a way that is typical in Brazil (high Power Distance culture). They are no longer opening the books to the union, like the previous owners used to do. Such transparency is virtually unheard of in high Power Distance cultures, though it is often practiced in low Power Distance cultures like the US and some Northern Europe countries. They are making decisions at the top, with little or no involvement from the workers. This is normal behavior in Brazil (high PDI), but perceived as offensive in the US/Canada (low PDI).
It's interesting to note also how language reflects culture. The expression in English is "to make a decision". This implies doing something, making something. It also implies the possibility of making something with others, doing something as a group.
In Portuguese the expression is "to take a decision". This implies that there is something on the table and someone has to "take" it. Should the union be allowed to "take it"? Heavens no! (from a high PDI point of view). It is the responsibility (and the privilege) of management to "take it".
There are power struggles between workers and managers in all cultures. In a "mono-culture" environment such struggles take less time to be worked out, because the parties involved understand where they are coming from. In a cross-culture environment the struggles may last much longer than expected, because the expectations on both sides are frustrated, due to lack of understanding of where the other party is coming from. The strike in this case is lasting six months...

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Swiss Vote (culture differences in the news 4)

The Swiss vote banning minarets is not at all surprising, when you consider: 1) Swiss culture scores 58 on Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI) in research; 2) the campaign against the minarets portrayed the "invasion" of Muslims as a terrible threat, mimicking the style of Nazi propaganda against Jews, and the reaction was "a vote of fear" (in the words of the French foreign minister); 3) research shows that the Swiss score low on Power Distance and high on Individualism, meaning they tend towards decentralized government and are resentful of any federal government initiatives, which they tend to see as an interference on local autonomy. Since the federal government was against the minaret ban, the natural attitude of the population majority was to be in favor of it, expressing their counter-dependence to federal authority; 4) research data also show the Swiss culture as being "normative" and focused on "what you are not allowed to do", so a ban is always quite appealing; 5) research shows the Swiss strongly valuing performance over caring for others, so the appeal about "freedom of faith" falls on deaf ears: it's about working hard and conforming to the norm, the rest is less important.
The polls prior to the vote painted a different picture. Most respondents said they would vote against the ban. This is misleading when the issue at stake is discrimination. As demonstrated during the presidential election in the US, people who discriminate do not admit in polls that this is what they do. There is a fear of expressing their discriminatory attitude in polls, because they fear being discriminated against for expressing an "anti-social" attitude. So people lie in polls and discriminate when voting. It happened in the US, it happened in Switzerland. There seems to be a "Swiss Connection" emerging with the US.
A huge debate has been revived all over Europe about discrimination. The findings of Hofstede's research (culture changes very little, very slowly, over centuries) are again confirmed: there was strong discrimination in many parts of Europe, a century ago. There still is. The irony is that, previously, it was against the Jews. Now, it is against the Muslims. Jesus Christ would be ashamed of these "false Christians" who are so hateful and intolerant of their brothers.
Moderates and advocates of freedom should not be silent or indifferent to what is happening. The silence of moderates allowed the rise of Nazism and Fascism almost a century ago. Let's not allow that tragedy to be enacted once again.
Fear breeds on ignorance. Stereotypes breed on ignorance. We need to foster knowledge, information, education, learning, interaction. Those are the only ways to avoid a slippery slide towards destruction and chaos. We need to promote cross-cultural understanding and build bridges across cultures. A bridge has just been bombed in Switzerland; let's re-build it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Culture Differences in the news 3

In the International Herald Tribune today (Nov. 25), David Brooks writes that the debate in the US over healthcare is actually a debate about values... Indeed! Perhaps the coin is dropping at last.
The people inbedded in a culture are the last ones to realize the underlying values that shape it, so it is no wonder that Brooks says that the values in question are "vitality" and "security". Actually, he is not that far off the mark. Research shows that the dilemma in the American culture is between "performance" (and the status assigned to it) versus "caring for others & quality of life". It is what Hofstede labeled as "Masculinity" versus "Femininity", two terms that most Americans have issues with, because they immediately link them to "macho" behaviour and "feminist" issues.
Research shows (not my opinion, nor anybody's opinion, this is simply research data) that the US culture scores higher on "performance" over "caring". No wonder it has taken them so long to adopt universal health care (and the discussion is not over)... In the American culture, performing and being a "winner" is much more important than caring for others or than leading a life of quality rather than quantity. It's all about competing to win.
By contrast, the Dutch and Scandinavian cultures (according to research) favor "caring" over "performance", and they've had universal health care for many decades.
Brooks urges Americans to "make a choice" about what kind of country does the US want to become, and he puts it bluntly about choosing between becoming more "vibrant" as an economy or providing more healthcare. He talks about having to decide between allocating funds either to stimulate the economy or to care for "the elderly" and "the vulnerable".
If you look a bit deeper, however, you can see that the US has actually managed to have the worst of all worlds: its healthcare system is the most expensive in the world AND it does not provide full coverage. How come? How is it possible that The Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, and even England (an Anglo-Saxon culture like the US) are all able to provide universal healthcare, yet at a lower cost?
Perhaps because America has unwillingly combined the worst bits of "savage capitalism" into its current healthcare model. By allowing a lot of freedom to private enterprises, which in the US culture (more than anywhere else) means "making the most money at the expense of all else" because "performance" and "the bottom line" is all that matters, America has created a "monster" in which healthcare PRICES are artificially high. Prices are not exactly the same as costs.
Yes, in theory it is possible to extend healthcare to everyone in the US AND to lower the overall cost. However, this would require to rein the healthcare companies who are making too much money in the current situation. There lies the hard part of this dilemma, because it goes against the cherished value of freedom of competition in a free marketplace. Many people in the US fail to realize that "freedom to compete" should not be equal to "freedom to rip off" the population who have a health concern. "Ripping off" means overcharging, but it also means over-prescribing, over-testing, prescribing testing and treatment beyond what is really needed.
The right-wing shouts "rationing", but there should be a way to reconcile this dilemma.
The American culture will not change. OK, maybe in a hundred years, when there are more immigrants living in the US coming from other cultures and they have influenced the way children are being brought up. So we can discuss it again at the beginning of the 22nd Century.
In the meantime, the US has to find a way to reconcile its moral preference for "performance" with the need to provide at least minimum health care for the masses. You don't have to go very far. In South America, most countries provide low-cost, low-standard universal health care. And the wealthy are free to be ripped off by the providers of their choice when they want high-standard medical services. It is socialism for the poor majority and market capitalism for the rich minority.
However, this collides with the American value of "equality". In the US it is not morally acceptable to have a "privileged minority" entitled to better medical care, co-existing with an "underprivileged majority" that has no access to that. This makes it more difficult to reconcile the dilemma between "performance" and "caring".
The paradox is that, over time (in the past 30 years), income distribution in the US is becoming more concentrated, while in Brazil (for instance) it is becoming less concentrated (see "The Economist" of last week). Perhaps in the 22nd Century the situation will be reversed... The US will have a "de facto" unequal society, while in South America people will enjoy the economic equality that was a 20th Century ideal.
Actually, that is not very likely. Culture changes much more slowly than in a century. What IS likely is that the US will eventually adopt a healthcare system that will continue to combine the worst of "savage capitalism" with the emphasis on "performance", thereby increasing prices and overall costs, leading to a slow deterioration of the American competitiveness and "market share" in the global economy. The US will still be one of the large economies on the planet, (second to Europe) but less dominant than in 1970 (when Europe was still fractioned) and more interdependent with the BRIC countries.
Like in the rental car ads of the seventies, the motto will shift from Hertz ("We're Number One, we're the best!") to Avis ("We're Number Two, we try harder!").

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Culture Differences in the News 2

Should people be vaccinated against Swine Flu? Apparently culture has something to do with the issue...
In the Netherlands (low Power Distance, high Individualism) only 25% of nurses have agreed to take the vaccine soon to be made available. The overwhelming majority (75%) are suspicious of any "government-led" initiative, according to Radio Netherlands. "“For a start it is very difficult to really protect yourself against flu. Every flu jab targets a certain virus. And there are hundreds going around, so you are not protected at all. The side effects can be really serious. And it seems like there is a lot of panic-spreading going on. It is only the pharmaceutical industry that stands to benefit from it," said Ute.
Nannet van der Geest, company doctor at a Nijmegen hospital, is not keen on compulsory vaccination campaigns like the one in the United States. Instead she believes in providing the medical staff with the right information so they can make their own choices.
These opinions are typical of cultures scoring very high on Individualism and low on Power Distance. People show less dependent behavior and value dissenting opinions.
Meanwhile, in Brazil (high Power Distance, low Individualism) people are complaining that "the Government is not providing enough medicine against Swine Flu and the vaccination campaign is coming too late!" Typical of the Brazilian culture is to consider that it is the Government's responsibility (whether Federal or Regional) to "take care of the population". The vaccination campaign is perceived as "needs to be compulsory, otherwise people will not take the responsibility to be vaccinated. They need to be told!"
Very different approaches are needed to design public health policies...

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Culture Differences in the News 1

Barack Obama (whom I admire) made the effort to go to Copenhagen and pitch for the Chicago candidacy to host the 2016 Olympics. He demonstrated how a culture bias can wreck the best of intentions. His plane landed at 7:00 AM. He spoke to the IOC at 8:30, and left for the airport soon after, taking off before noon. When the first voting results were announced, he was already airborne.
This was published by the International Herald Tribune: "former IOC member, Kai Holm, told the Associated Press that the brevity of his appearance may have hurt. Mr Holm called it 'too business-like. It can be that some IOC members see it as a lack of respect.' "
Obama acted in a typical Anglo-Saxon way, going straight to the point, and then leaving. He forgot that, out of 97 IOC members, less than a dozen come from Anglo-Saxon cultures. The vast majority of the world have cultures that value relationships far more than "the bottom line".
No wonder Chicago got the least votes of the four candidate-cities and was the first to be dropped from the competition.
Kevan Gosper, IOC member from Australia (one of the "less-than-a-dozen" Anglo Saxon cultures) said "I'm shocked. To have the president of the United States and his wife personally appear, then this should happen in the first round is awful and totally undeserving."
Well, well, Mr. Gosper: what would be more deserving? To have the president of Brazil personally appear and Rio be dropped? Or to have the prime minister of Japan appear and Tokyo be dropped? Or perhaps to have the king of Spain personally appear, and Madrid be dropped?
In Chicago, news anchors were questioning whether the IOC was "anti-American"... That is not the issue.
My dear friends, welcome to a multilateral world, the reality of the 21st Century is just beginning. America deserves the same respect as other nations, no less, no more. The Anglo-Saxon culture is as important as other cultures, no more, no less.
Bear in mind that the population of Anglo-Saxon, Dutch-Scandinavian and Germanic cultures represent 9% of the world's population. The remaining 91% are "Solar-System", "Family" and "Social Pyramid" cultures (Japan stands on its own, but that is another story).
No culture is "better" than another, but those belonging to cultures which are minoritarian in the world stage should at least try to understand what is going on in the other cultures. Or risk other unpleasant surprises in the years to come.

Monday, August 31, 2009

If you can't do anything useful...

A wise man dispenses advice to his son:
Go out and do something useful to make this a better world, my son.
If you can't do anything, become a Manager.
If you can't Manage, become a Consultant.
If you can't consult, write a book.
If you can't write a book, become a blogger!
...and keep me updated on Twitter.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Holding Your Liquor

There is plenty of advice available to teen-agers these days in terms of “drinking responsibly”. However, I find that none of it is as objective as it could be. Actually, most of it is rather confusing. No wonder most teen-agers pay little attention to advice regarding drinking, and the whole thing becomes a “you’ll have to learn on your own” kind of thing (which isn’t really very helpful, is it?).

To begin with, teen-agers notoriously aren’t very inclined to follow any kind of advice, specially the ones who call on them to “act responsibly”… They tend to think this kind of talk is lame, and it often has the exact opposite effect: teens will do precisely the opposite of what is being suggested, just to prove that they can feel independent and joyful when NOT acting responsibly, and that “acting responsibly” is for “squares” (I know that the expression “squares” went out of fashion a few decades ago, but bear with me.)

Therefore, let’s start by giving advice on how to “hold your liquor”, which is much more enticing than “acting responsibly”. “Holding your liquor” is about enjoying yourself, by drinking and not throwing up all over the place, spoiling the party not only for yourself but also for everyone around you. “Holding your liquor” means drinking smart, not acting like a bore. People who can hold their liquor are admired. People who can’t, are despised and pitied. People who “act responsibly” are considered boring party spoilers.

So let me be objective about it. Each person has to know their own limit, but usually you only find out what your limit is once you’ve crossed it (and made an ass of yourself). So here are some straightforward guidelines while you’re learning to test your own limits:

1. Don’t drink on an empty stomach, have something to eat before you start drinking.
2. Drink water or soft drinks alternating with alcohol.
3. Don’t mix your booze: if you start with beer, don’t change to whiskey, then to wine, then back to beer, etc. Stick with one kind for the evening, and respect the quantities below:
4. Respect these limits, if you’re male:
a) Two beers is OK; four beers is max (after that, you’re drunk)
b) One double whiskey is OK; two is max (after that, you can’t talk straight). This goes for all “strong” spirits like vodka, gin, rum
c) A glass of wine is fine; half a bottle is max (after that, you’re out)
d) Two glasses of champagne is OK; three is max (after that, your performance is affected)
5. For the ladies, the limits are smaller. It’s a plain fact that blokes tend to be able to drink more without it affecting them, as a general rule. There are exceptions, of course. Certain ladies will shame the lads in a drinking contest, but that is definitely not what you see in 90% of the cases. So ladies, look at half the amounts above to remain sober. If you go beyond half the prescription you are doing so at your own risk, and the consequences for drunken behaviour tend do be more severe for the ladies then for the men (right or wrong, it’s a fact in most cultures).
6. Speaking of drinking contests, don’t ever go into any kind of drinking game. These are truly stupid exercises which embarrass all participants, to the sadistic joy of the non-participating on-lookers, who cheer them on to their demise. You want people to have fun WITH you, not to make fun OF you. Plus, the game winners tend to wind up in hospital with a tube down their throats. Not worth it.
7. If you forgot how many drinks you’ve had, you’ve had too many. Stop and go home, while you can still remember where you live!
Learning something tends to be almost always enjoyable. Learning to hold your liquor can be enjoyable too. Just tread slowly and enjoy the scenery. If you go too fast you’re just spoiling your own journey.