I want to get practical very quickly.
Interviewing in the East and in the West is very different. While in the West you can introduce yourself as a consultant and start bombarding the other side with questions, this is not possible or desirable in the East.
In the East, an interviewee will give information if there is a degree of personal trust, and if he feels his “opinion” does not make him stand out like a sore thumb, if he does not lose face, or if he needs not feel he is critical of someone in authority.
One of the first things one notices outside the “western world” is that there is an expectation that a consultant should be an expert; experts need to know and not ask so many questions. Asking too many questions is seen as “trickery” or “game playing” or “feigning weakness”.
I have been told time and time again: “you are asking questions me instead of telling me’!
Since OD starts with a diagnosis, it is very important to gather data, so the question arises, how do you learn about the organization without asking “too many questions”. And what are “too many questions”?
Here are some practical guidelines that I have found useful:
1 A diagnostic interview is not a one hour slam, bang, thank you maam. Diagnosis is a series of many meetings where a relationship is established and information starts to leak out. It takes a long time to diagnose in Asia, for example. I use lots of informal discussion to learn about the organization. I go drinking at night with the salary men in Japan; I take long lunches with lots of chit chat in Thailand; I listen to the gossip in a Singapore office. I build very friendly relationships in India. I rely far less on formal interviews.
2 An expert can get input from others, but this must be done with a lot of context: “I am trying to understand. On one hand, Ethan seems to get the business right yet I have heard that other things need some improvement, especially the way he talks to customers! Or I am wrong? Help me understand this.” The point here is that you need to put words into peoples’ mouths and then asked them to ok it or elaborate.
3 Often one needs to use external attribution to interview. Let’s say you want to know if the customer respects Ethan. You can say: “I have heard that the customer respects Ethan” and also “I have heard that Joe has a better relationship with the customer than does Ethan”. Using attribution, an interviewee can join a group and not stick out like a sore thumb.
4 Another useful tool is to use non-existent rumours and see what people say. “I have heard that the customer would do more business were Ethan not managing the account….but this may be wrong”. Then, just wait.
5 Another useful tool is to use futuristic events, because they have not happened yet and thus, there is no loss of face, so interviewees can speak up easily. “Management is thinking of giving Ethan a huge role as Key Account Manager in a new huge deal. Is this a good idea?” The expression of an opinion in this case is easier because nothing has happened yet, i.e., there are no face issues.
6 Yet another tool is to not to let go. Let’s say X says he does not know how effective Ethan is with customers, yet you need his opinion because he has critical technical input. It is acceptable to apply pressure as follows: “try to remember; I may fail if I do not have your input and the CEO would not be happy with me; I understand that you cannot answer me today. We can talk about this tomorrow”. Then, ask others what X thinks and confront him with that: “I heard that you are shy when Ethan makes technical errors at the customer site. Am I wrong? This manipulation (which would rarely work in the West) works wonders…and you make a smile. You have become a “persistent” expert”.
7 Try as much as possible to discuss, and not ask questions. There is much more openness to discussion than to questions, where answers are needed.
8 If accents are hard to understand, apologize profusely for not being fluent in your interviewees’ language. Then use a whiteboard, and ask him to write words you do not understand. Do not give up because this shows lack of respect, even if it takes all day. I have sat with Koreans and Japanese for 7 hours each on an interview I could have polished off in an hour in Canada or Israel.
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