“Meeting somewhere in the middle”: just another cultural bias-revised

For almost my entire professional life, I have been bridging acute cultural differences with my clients and coaching other consultants how to do similar work.

Some of the cultural gaps (UK-USA; Germany-USA; France-UK) are challenging but bridgeable via mutual adaptation on the part of both sides and some basic emotional intelligence.

However some of the cultural gaps are phenomenally large and immensely challenging. US-Japan, Thailand-US, Philippines-Israel, Japan-Mexico as well as all post merger integration work come to mind.

Probably the most frequent question I am asked by people I coach is “how do we bridge these gaps and meet somewhere in the middle”.

My answer is that meeting somewhere in the middle is just another western cultural bias.

Some cultures are more flexible (Dutch, Scandinavian e.g.) whilst others are more  rigid and self centered. Some cultures value meeting in the middle/compromise whilst others see meeting in the middle as weakness. Some cultures look at their way of doing things as the right way (US), others look at things more pragmatically, whilst others have their way of doing things embedded in religious or ideological context.

Meeting somewhere in the middle is rarely the way differences get bridged.

Working in  acute diversity means living with lots of pain, constant attempts at mutual adjustment, power struggles and constant misunderstandings.

Building solid personal relationships, making the right staffing choices, not over-relying on process, possessing a good sense of humour and acquiring cultural humility do the trick, NOT meeting half way.

My latest article emphasises other western biases of OD.


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On chutzpah-חוצפה-cheekiness

The goal of this post is to illustrate that perceptions of  what is cheeky behaviour, aka chutzpah, vary from culture to culture.

The Hebrew term word chutzpah (חוצפה) is used to describe overstepping the boundaries of accepted behaviour.It has been translated as gall, excessive audacity and cheek. I will use the word chutzpah and cheek interchangeably in this post.

  • When a culture emphasizes that authority needs to be obeyed and people need to do what they are told, anyone who does not defer to authority is seen as cheeky. Thus, many Asians perceive the behaviour of many Anglo Saxons, Germans, Scandinavians and Dutch to be  cheeky.
  • When a culture emphasizes believes that if “ I do not overstep my role because systems are faulty, I am betraying what good corporate citizenship, he will be seen as cheeky by others who do not share that belief. .Thus, Americans, Canadians and Germans tend to see Israelis as cheeky.
  • When people in one culture keeps opinions/thoughts to themselves, people in less discrete cultures as seen as seen as cheeky. Many Thais observe American organizational behaviour as being cheeky, since American staff will express their “opinions”, speak out in meetings, ask questions and not be outwardly overly deferential to authority. Clearly, the Thais have their opinions as well, and they are no less critical of authority; yet keep the Thais keep their organizational opinions to themselves.

Here are two real mind boggling cases on chutzpah/cheek that I have dealt with in the last year.

  • An Israeli asks his Indian counterpart to change priorities for the next 2 hours; his Indian peers says, “I need to ask my boss”. When the Israeli counters “Why”, the Indian saw the Israeli as very cheeky.The Israeli saw the  Indian as “hiding behind his boss”. The Israeli read the Indian behaviour as obtuse cheekiness.
  • Germans often see Israelis as cheeky since the Israelis deviate from plans, making “cowboy” behaviour into an ideology.  When as Israeli encounters a German who is following the plan, the Israelis may see this as a major abdication of responsibility and even chutzpah, because the Germans are seen as righteously implementing plans, even if they are wrong.

It is interesting that the Israeli worker sees almost everyone as less responsible that the Israelis are. The reason for this is that an Israeli worker/manager believes that

  • doing what you are told is probably the wrong this to do
  • procedures need to be questioned all the time
  • conflict of ideas bring harmony
  • overstepping your role is brings positive results

I facilitate several workshops a year on fostering trust and the cheek/chutzpah issue is a major trust maker/breaker in global organizations where people have an intense mutual dependency.

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Overuse of the word “trust”

The term trust is overused; trust means too many things to different people. In the global workplace. The term trust is thus rendered useless, for all intents and purposes.

For example, here is a dynamic between Germans and others with whom they work:  Follow the process and I will trust you; when I trust you, I will follow the process.

Or another example seen between Chinese and Americans: Mr. Wu and Mr. Smith sign a 40 million dollar deal. Then Mr Wu asks Mr Smith to hire his son for a year so that the son  can get a visa to the US. Smith does not trust Wu because he is corrupt. Wu does not trust Smith because “I just did him a favour, and he won’t even help me with my son”.

There are of course many more examples of words which lose their meaning in the global workplace; in a previous post I elaborated on the term  respect.

I have spoken over the years I have been consulting with thousands of people who do trust one another, and I have developed ten statements which operationalize what trust is. Here in the public domain, I will share 3 of the ten.

1) We represent one anothers’ views when the other party is absent.

2) We implement what we decide upon.

3) We assume positive intent.

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Culture and Lesson Learned Methodology

Within most global organizations, the same version of a “Lessons Learned” (LL) methodology is blindly used with all populations, despite the cultural and behavioural factors which inhibits the  effectiveness of the  lessons learned methodology.

Three  examples will suffice.

1) Let’s take the example of Holland, Germany, Israel and France where criticism can be well valued.

During the process of LL, overly positive statements may even be  seen as “ducking out”;  dwelling for too long about what went well is as boy scout-ism from which little can be learnt. The result of lessons learned in these cultures  is a list of things that went wrong, why and what needs to be done differently by whom the next time.

2) In many parts of Asia, public negative statements about things that have happened are avoided to enable save facing.

During the process of LL, communication will be oblique, indirect and low keyed and one will need to understand what was not said. Apology, humility and a promise to try harder next time are the publicly shared lessons learned that can be generated within these cultures.

3) In the US and Western Europe, the overdosing on politically correct can obfuscate lessons learned because the lessons, once learned, need to be cleansed linguistically.

Clearly all 3 cultures are ill suited to apply the same  lessons learned methodology.  Yet LL methodologies originate in western corporate headquarters and as such are based on one flavour suits all.

An interesting and value creating role for an OD consultant is to interpret the cultural script of a lessons learned exercise . Herein is a vast secret code which is fascinating to decipher. 


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When communicating with a non confrontive culture, how to ensure that real agreement exists? (revised)


Many cultures shun confrontation of any kind in the work place, the most extreme examples being Thailand and the Philippines, as well as many other places in Asia, the Middle East and South America.

In these cultures, verbal agreement is given to show respect, give face, preserve harmony and avoid embarrassment.

So how does a Westerner go  about verifying if the verbal agreement being expressed is more than just “being polite”?

1) A very close and trusting relationship will inevitably over time enable you to get more “meaty” input.

2) Use a third party. If you have spoken to X and are not sure what she thinks, ask Y if X agrees with you or not.

3) Ask the same thing in many ways. Assume for example, that you have spoken to X to inform her that product documentation will be available only in English, and X must “manage the customer for at least a  year” until local documentation is available.  X has given an apparent yes.  To make sure, ask X, “Will the client think our company is arrogant?” “What are the risks?” “How will this impact your credibility”? “Please tell me risks I am not seeing”? “Would you prefer I change my decision?”

4) Listen to what is not being said. For example “that could work” is different than “that will work”!

5) Is body language affirming what the words are saying? If X is looking down or away from from you whilst agreeing, you have your answer.

6) Do not use cell phones or emails to verify understanding of complex issues. Be there in person.

A helpful glossary: 

  • This could work may mean-this won’t work.
  • I need to think about it, but it’s a good idea- may mean-rubbish.
  • I will do, may mean- I will do albeit I don’t agree.
  • Not bad, may mean- piss poor.
  • Yes, may mean-No.
  • Please explain, may mean- No.
  • Ok, may mean, -it’s your dime.

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The Religion of Transparency is not universal

OD, HR, cross cultural specialists, change managers and coaches often promulgate the importance of transparency in organizations.

Transparency is seen as a higher form of being, someone we should all strive for. Transparency is almost a religion for many professionals who support present day organizing. Transparency is almost seen like the English language-the only way to do business.

The only problem is that transparency is not universally valued, by any means.

Here are a few different points of view which “compete” with the Religion of Transparency.

1) “Muddy the water and catch the fish”. In other words, ambiguity, not transparency, enables things to get done.

2) Discretion, not transparency, is what is needed to deal with delicate situations.

3) When the reality does not look good, make sure that reality at least looks good; this is done by face saving.

4) Transparency is Religion of the oppressor, who supports  our being open….and then controls us.

5) Transparency is a frailty of the present ruling elite. They did not get to be elite by being transparent however.

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When to avoid enthusiasm (revised)

In some cultures, the use of enthusiasm to inspire, engage and motivate make sense. Some, not all. Not even most. Beware.

The use of enthusiasm to inspire, engage and motivate certainly cannot be applied  universally.

It is very hard for wow-wowers to acknowledge how punishing cheer-leading and wow wowing can be to those people with different cultural assumptions than those cultures which wow wow.

Here are a few indications where enthusiasm needs to be curtailed.

1) In detailed driven cultures, enthusiasm is seen as lack of attention to details, and this glosses over the “real issues” critical to success. (Japan, Israel, Germany)

2) In cultures where cynicism as opposed to optimism is an inspiring force. (FSE, Eastern Europe)

3) In cultures where excess verbiage may be seen as noisy. (Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines)

4) In situations where enthusiasm is perceived as “asking ME to take risks” in an unsafe environment.

5) When the wowwower bearing good news flies in on Monday and leaves on Thursday.

6) In pragmatic cultures which emphasise that doing is more important than talking. (Holland, Germany, Israel)

7) In paranoid cultures, where exuding enthusiasm means “someone is lying to me” (FSU, China)

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Understanding the unique Israeli concept of Rosh Gadol (ראש גדול)-updated

Many Israelis have tried to explain to their non-Israeli coworkers what “Rosh Gadol” means. Both the explanation and “Rosh Gadol” itself often can cause bewilderment. The goal is this post is to explain Rosh Gadol to a non-Israeli audience.  I do hope this post will add more understanding to the term.

If you do not understand what a Rosh Gadol is, you will probably find working with Israelis uncomfortable, and managing them next to impossible. An understanding of Rosh Gadol is especially important to non-Israel based managers who need to manage the innovative Israelis with their Rosh Gadol, who get  love the innovation but get pissed off by their organizational behaviours.

Rosh Gadol means literally “big- head”. Israelis rely on human ingenuity much more than structure, process and other components which create systemic scalability. Rosh Gadol is basically the statement: YOU are better than the system; make it happen.

Organizationally, Rosh Gadol entails seeing the whole picture end to end, taking responsibility beyond your own role, and doing everything it takes to get the job done. Rosh Gadol also entails not following processes, taking shortcuts and cleaning up the mess later, challenging authority and telling other people how to do their job, acting first and asking permission later on.

An Illustrative Case of Rosh Gadol:  A customer service agent takes a call from a client who has lost his cell phone in New York and is asking for his phone to be disconnected. The rules state that the client must identify himself by 2 out of three means: ID number, last four numbers of his credit card and passport number.  However, the client‘s wallet has also been stolen so there is no credit card number or passport number, so the agent agrees to disconnect the phone based on the ID number alone, without asking his boss’ permission, against company policy.  “Lama li lishol”, asks the customer service agent; “for what purpose do I need to ask permission?” The boss automatically signs off on this post facto, praising the “Rosh Gadol” of his employee.

Rosh Gadol is not a universally accepted behaviour pattern in organizations, to say the least. It causes huge friction between Israelis and their Asian bosses. The Chinese view Rosh Gadol as a vulgar challenge to authority, Americans often see Rosh Gadol as a cowboy or hero syndrome. Interestingly, the practical Dutch and system-beating Indians appear to admire the Rosh Gadol concept.

Israelis who have not be properly trained see non Israelis who ask their boss for permission to do things as “rosh katan”, small- headed.  For example, an Indian engineer is working on a software bug fix. An Israeli customer field engineers calls the Indian because he needs his help on a a quick fix at a key client site. The Indian engineer needs to ask his boss first about what the priorities are. The Israeli complains that his Indian partner has no Rosh Gadol and is not trustworthy.

(Last week I worked with an Israel team and their Taiwanese boss. At the root of the issues was the Rosh Gadol issue, coupled with the desire of the Taiwanese boss for deference.)

It. is interesting to note that the Israeli Rosh Gadol is not only used to enable innovation. Israelis need Rosh Gadol for almost every aspect of civilian life, because of the crippling bureaucracy and widespread 3rd world-style corruption and cronyism. Things get done despite the system, around the system with Rosh Gadol, and plenty of relationship-peddling.

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Americans/Canadians react differently from Israelis to Asian face saving

The case:

An organization forced very aggressive numbers on its Sales force 4 months ago.

Wong from Beijing was asked today in a sales call about “meeting his numbers” this quarter. Wong gave lots of details, and then said he was “optimistic” about making the numbers. After the call, Wong told his CFO to “leak” that the Chinese office would not meet its numbers.

A North American manager’s reaction:

Wong lied. We are playing hard ball and this is no time to monkey around.

Wong is not up to managing in a first class global company. How can we trust him?

We need to get someone in that job who tells things like they are, someone who knows how to bite the bullet, take the heat and make the numbers happen at all cost.

An Israeli manager’s reaction:

Wong is trying to look good at the wrong time and in the wrong way.The way to look good is to refuse the quotas and fight the system

I wish Wong would have told me that we were forcing these high quotas down his throat. When I gave him these quotas, I tried as hard as I could to tell him that he can “push back” on me, but the trust was not there.  He should have advocated for realistic  numbers; this would have helped me re-negotiate something more realistic for him.

I need to build a more trusting relationship with him so he can help me fight the system.

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Preparing Canadians to interface with Israelis (updated)

I have spend hundreds of hours working with Canada based firms and managers about  working with Israel based managers and teams, especially Israeli R&D teams.

This cultural/ organizational interface is not an easy one; to keep the post short I have focused on the top 5 points I emphasize in my work with the Canadians.

1) Israelis are not “like my Jewish in laws, my Jewish dentist, or my next door Jewish  neighbours who happen to live in a war zone.” Israelis have a very distinct and unique culture; it is not useful assume that exposure to Canadians of the Jewish faith is applicable to the Israelis.

2) Canadians tend to be outwardly “nice”, valuing external civility. Israelis see less value in external civility  (none to be exact) when matters of essence are contentious. (Most issues are defined by the Israelis as critical because of their survival mentality), So listen to what Israelis say and try not to listen to how they say it. And make sure that you are not perceived as weak, because weakness will exacerbate their aggression.

3) Be aware of communication style differences. For example, when an Israeli says “No”, he is saying “not yet”, “test me” or “let’s see how committed/strong you are to making me agree with you”.It is not a definitive No.  And, be very direct and make sure the Israelis understand your point. (Can you do better on that deadline should be: your proposed delivery date is not good enough-make a better proposal).

4) Israelis make every effort to deliver. They will work extraordinarily hard to give you what they have promised. So you need fewer control mechanisms that you would with other remote vendors. Israelis push back on process and planning. Emphasize what you want and when you want it, and minimize what they see are “ritualistic” constraints.

5) Israelis, like Chinese and Indians, work best when there is trust. Foster strong personal and informal relationships; they work wonders.

6) Canadians are very politically correct; Israelis are not, albeit some pretend to be, for a few minutes. There is no need to bend over backwards not to offend anyone.

7) Canadians often frown away from being very emotional at work. Israelis do not. So if you are angry, disappointed or elated, you can show it.

8) Both Canadians and Israelis do not hide their hyphenated ethnicity, so feel comfortable.


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