Frequent negative perceptions of the dangers of a “can-do” attitude

It is fascinating to observe the gap between the “wow-we-can-do-it” crowd and those from other more realistic cultures who observe this attitude.

I do not propose that can-doers change, yet I would like to share  observations about the way that  can-doism is perceived in the acutely diverse global workplace.

1) Arrogant. Many folks see can do-ism as snake-oil mind over matter, and as such, they see can doism as mitigation of difficulty via over reliance on self.

2) Superficial. When obstacles are very complex and appear insurmountable, can doism is seen as high on action and low on thoughtfulness and caution.

3) Lip Service. Since can-doism is often associated with cultures whose optimism is seen as “phoney”, can doism is seen as lip service to a normative way of expressing oneself.

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Dealing simultaneously with the need for speed and coping with acute diversity- 4 tips

Information technology, the predominance of Western culture in many global organizations, the necessity of “time to market”, and other factors accelerate the speed of organizational life. Commitments are aggressive, competition is cut throat; speed is strategy. Were Darwin alive, he would have written a book about Organizational Darwinism.

Global organizing means exposure to “acute diversity”, not the diversity of skin colour and other relatively “minor” differences often referred to  by folks who deal in diversity within the US and Canada. By acute diversity, I mean a lack of a shared language, opposing and clashing cultural values as well as very different and opposite  views of organizational life.

  • Amala keeps her cell phone constantly because she believes she needs to be available to her clients all the time. She comes late to meetings because time is not a valuable resource. She texts  her family members during meetings because work and family are a simultaneous mix; she works 7 days a week. Amala is very opinionated but rarely expresses her opinions because she does not believe she can input his boss’ faulty direction. Amala ignores process because it “does not reflect the way the world works”. Amala will stay with her company for decades. Amala comes from an area in India where her “accent” is hard to understand in a phone call.
  • Fred works 5 days a week. Fred shuts down his phone in meetings and Fred is punctual. On the basis of personal expediency, he will express himself when he disagrees with his boss  “up to a point”. Fred follows process to a T. Fred will stay with his company until he gets a better offer with a shorter commute. Fred speaks one language, English, and he has never left the States, except for a trip to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.


So, if business moves so quickly and people are so different, what does that mean for dealing simultaneously with the need for speed and coping with acute diversity?

It means that the speed will accelerate the differences between people. Speed accentuates conflict, forces direct communication and pushes for rapid resolution. Speed forces people to accommodate one another, but destroys trust needed for long term sustainable relationships.

So, 4 tips for coping with speed and acute diversity.

1) Don’t assume a shallow “can do” attitude. Acknowledge the problems and difficulties. “Can do” is a deadly enemy of acute diversity.

2) Build and foster relationships instead of just expediting tasks.

4) When you visit other locations, stay for a weekend or two. Make friends with the people you work with. Establish a context where you can “exchange favours”.

4) Be very patient when things are very different. Slowing down often makes things speed up. Not saying anything may be more useful than speaking up. Showing humility in face of great challenge may be more useful than being arrogant by trying the same tactic again and again.

Suddenly, after you slow down, things will pick up on their own. Sounds weird, but it happens. It is just counter-intuitive.

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An aggressive organizational culture as seen from within

As we saw in the last post, Canadian Doug and Israeli Yael created a company known for  aggressive commitments, and despite slips in delivery dates, clients were compensated by “over delivery in quality and features” which delighted their clients.

They paid very very well, and drove their staff hard. People worked 14 hours a day; no one even paid lip service to work life balance. Cell phones were expected to be on all the time.

The company had  a semi official motto which said “we make a religion out of our problems.” Company meetings were brutal; all the issues were always at the center of the table, and communication was brusque and aggressive. Very often, there were tears and outbursts of anger in the daily meetings.

But why did Yael and Doug design the company as they did? In over a hundred hours with them, I managed to understand that their belief system as  detailed below. This belief system explains their company culture.

a-Building and running business in a highly competitive environment is like boxing. “THAT is no country for old men”, wrote Yeats. In other words, the tough win and the weak get the cr-p knocked out of them. The company and its people  need to be a winners: innovative, flexible, fast, fast, fast and faster. And they also need to be resilient and absorb a punch.

b-Speed and flexibility cause intense conflicts to surface; dealing with these conflicts politely or cordially makes no sense. There is a need for timely resolution, i.e., the task becomes more important than peoples’ feelings at that particular moment. Members of the organization need to “fight for” what they believe in. The system should be not optimized, but there should a constant struggle between competing dichotomies, like `first to market`and feature rich“.

c-Meetings where priorities are worked out are like boxing matches. Each side advocates its own interest and hits hard.  If you chose the right people, this creates great decisions because committments are very aggressive, yet do-able. Compromise happens because people respect one another…..the psychology of a tough neighborhood.

d-Putting up a fight for what you believe in means you care. It is easy to trust people who care. It is harder to trust people who are expedient and do not advocate for what they believe and are viewed as “phoney`or wimps”`, or both.

e-Trust between worthy opponents needs to be leveraged to create very strong relationships out of the ring, which are leveraged and tested in the ring.

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The toilet, the living room, the kitchen & cultural differences

Doug McNeal (Canada) and Yael Bar-Yoav (F, Israel)  studied together at McGill; many years later they reconnected and established a successful software company  which develops and deploys cost effective software security solutions for small businesses (between 2-50 users). (Readers of this blog already know I as well  studied at McGill).

Their business grew in North America and Europe. Doug drove the Sales and Marketing and Yael drove a strong core product with sector-related applications with phenomenal time-to-market speed.

Their company is known for aggressive commitments, slips in delivery delivery dates compensated by “over delivery in quality and features” which delights its users.

The company has paid huge bucks yet they drive their staff hard. They have  a semi official motto which said “we make a religion out of our problems.” Company meetings are brutal; all the issues are on the table, communication is brusque and aggressive yet excellent relationships made this all doable; the relationships “smooth over” the immense pain caused in these meetings. (Very often there are tears and outbursts of anger in the daily meetings).

I knew Doug and Yael from McGill. Doug and I skied together while Yael and I knew each other from an Israeli association group. Ten years ago they hired me, following 5 unsuccessful attempts to break into the market in Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia.

I flew to Asia and I spoke to people with whom they had worked and I quickly learned that the company culture did not fly in APAC.

I told Yael and Doug that they need to do to adapt their corporate culture to the Asian market. Communication must be less aggressive; there must be more room for discretion in dealing with limitations and failures. “Face-management” must be factored in to the way meetings are run. They pushed back on me for more than an hour when I gave them this feedback. Then I lost my cool, and used a metaphor which was uncalled for since we were eating  at the time.

“Every home has a toilet, a living room and a kitchen. You cook in the kitchen, you watch TV and socialize in the living room, and you rid your body wastes in the toilet. The folks that I have spoken to in Asia believes that in your company, there is confusion between what goes on in the toilet and the living room. In other words, things go on in the living room that should go on in the toilet, and to make it worse, when someone goes to the toilet, the door is left open for all to hear and see. Your company has too  much public aggression, too many perceived insults and no where to hide because no one’s face is ever saved. So great local talent does not want to work with you. Thus you brought in expats who do not understand the market, and fail.”

Yael choked and said, “I got it”. Doug told me that “as usual, Allon, you are clear”.

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5 tips: Dealing with cultures where strong opinions are expressed and people constantly negotiate

Most cultures try to separate between facts and opinions as well as between discussion and negotiation. However, there are many cultures where facts and emotions mix all the time, where discussion and negotiation are intertwined and where very strong opinions are expressed as a matter of course, in all stages of social intercourse.

And, there are other  cultures where there are different rules for insiders and outsiders; the insider group leverages on relationships whilst trading favours and the outsider group needs to play hardball when dealing with insiders.

In both situations, the question arises on how to deal with strong opinions and an atmosphere of constant hardball negotation.

5 tips on how  be more effective in dealing with situations like these:

1) When someone says “No”, choose to hear is “not now”, “not yet” or “test me to see if I mean what I have said.”.

2) If someone raises their voice, listen to the content and try to block out the style-related noise, which can be distracting.

3) Negotiate as well, all the time.  Make ridiculous demands, and then back off. Look at this like a game, or like training a dog to yield.

4) When encountering a very strong opinion that you may want to challenge, try saying “You are wrong”….then explain. This will get the other side’s respect and admiration!

5) Do not follow “process” or protocol, because you will be seen as weak. Process and protocol  do not provide protection  in cultures like these.

Play hardball; people will trust you and respect you more for it.

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When diversity and cultural training address the wrong issues the wrong way

Charles is a product expert /evangelist in a North America based company. Charles owns adapting the specs for each specific market where his product (to be released in 6 months) is to be sold.

Charles lives in a culture where his utmost loyalty is to his career, and Charles could easily walk away from his company for a 20% raise, especially if the commuting time is less. Charles does not believe the company is loyal to him; Charles believes that in another recession “I would be thrown to the dogs without an afterthought.”

Jaya (male, Indonesian) is an account manager in Jakarta. Since Jaya’s mom is British, Jaya speak perfect English. Jaya has always worked for “foreign firms” and managed relationships with the Indonesia based clients. Jaya sees utmost value in the local  relationships he has with his customers. Into his relationships, Jaya “plugs in” the product of the company for which he is working.“Today I will sell them something; when I change companies, I will sell them something else”.  Jaya must always be seen as highly credible in the view of his customers, who have a very low tolerance for half-cooked, just released products, since customer service is done out of a regional hub in Taipei, which is too culturally and geographically removed.

Charles wants to visit a huge Indonesian client to push his product. Charles does not want Jaya to be in this meeting because “Jaya throws too many blocks”.

Jaya has emailed corporate that if Charles visits this Indonesian customer without his presence, Jaya will leave the company the same day. Jaya does not trust Charles, who “flies in, makes promises, flies out, and  leaves me to manage the mess.” Jaya believes Charles can quit “tomorrow”, so Jaya does not trust the product or Charles, which are one in Jaya’s view.

A solution was found! Charles took part in a webinar on “how to behave at a client visit in Indonesia”. Charles learnt that Indonesians generally do not show enthusiasm. He also made a note that he was expected to remain calm. This was his major takeaway.

Charles’ visit was a disaster and Jaya quit. And this is what happens when our training addresses the wrong issues, the wrong way.

Cultural and diversity training needs to address matters of process design, business assumptions,  as well as  provide employees with mutual dependencies in specific situations a protocol for interaction. The training needs to be tailored made, and  driven by business needs.

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How to listen to what people are not saying-and get them to talk a bit more freely. 5 tips

In many cultures which favour discretion and ambiguity to save face and maintain harmony, it is often important to hear what people are not telling you explicitly, and get them to open up nevertheless.

Here are 5 tips on how to do this.

1) Listen closely for key words like “may” or “could”. If Jules asks Som if the marketing plan is good and Som says, “it could succeed”, Som has severe reservations. If Fred asks Miyazaki if the client is excited about the feature and Miyazaki says that the feature “may” interest the client, Fred should best ask Miyazaki, “what else needs to be done to improve our chances”.

2) When you encounter an evasive answer, or when you are getting an answer that has nothing to do with the question you have asked, that is the answer. There is no need to push anymore.

3) Learn about local body language. There are smiling “no”s in Thailand, “yes”s which are “no”s in Japan as well as  long answers which MEAN “no” in many parts of India. Watch for loss of eye connection and other culture-unique body language.

4) Ask the same questions in many ways. “Is Bill a good product manager”? If you had to chose between Bill and Marc, would you choose Bill to be product manager ? Would you choose Marc to be product manager ? Who would be best product manager in the clients’s view? You may get many different answers which are non consistent. And this in itself is a finding, indicating that “there is a problem I do not feel safe discussing with you.”There is no need to push anymore.

5) Use “future” scenarios. So, if you have asked how is Chuck as account manager and not yet received  a good answer, try asking “if Chuck were to leave, who would you chose as account manager”?  Then say, “in the future, would you choose between Chuck or X”. People will feel more free to discuss what has not yet happened.

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Superb trust-creation skills in an acutely diverse environment


Many managers who come from a western based HQ focus on clarity of vision, clear roles and responsibilities, a functional structure and good people skills to get things done in “offshore” sites. Often, they rely on an expat or local who has spent time and/or was educated in the country where HQ is located.

In an acutely diverse global organization, this is not often not enough. A huge level of trust must be established in order to get useful information, which otherwise would not find its way to HQ.

Let’s look at Simon, a product manager for a cutting edge software product which will enable very  complex insurance and banking transactions via a Smartphone in traffic via noise cancellation and accent-elimination.

This software has huge value in the developing world, where there are many dialects and where financial institutions are hundreds of kilometres away. Simon has noted that there are no Sales and no leads whatsoever in South East Asia. For 6 quarters, not one lead has been produced that was worth anything. The only news Simon got was that “it is too early in the game”.

So, Simon went to South East Asia for 2 weeks.

  • He learnt that the local sales force believed that the product was being presented as more mature than it really is.
  • Simon also learned that the 6% churn rate of engineering staff in R&D was seen as very frightening and as a sign that the product may not be released at all.
  • Simon learnt that the pre sales material was too flashy, not detailed enough, and “tailored to a market where marketing people make the calls.”
  • Simon learned that engineers from HQ had visited clients and treated the clients rudely.
  • Simon learned that if a certain client was wined and dined  treated appropriately, there was business to be done….now.
  • Simon’s final piece of learning was that several visitors from HQ joked about the local sex trade and their escapades, which caused huge shame and anger.


Here is how Simon learned all this:

  • He came for a long visit.
  • His meetings were often unscheduled. He established contact informally, joined people for lunch, invited them into his cubicle to yak, and had no time constraints.
  • Simon asked for help and promised no harm would be done from any information which would be shared. Simon acted un assumingly.
  • Simon did his homework, and made it clear he could not fooled. He did this ever so discretely, saving peoples’ face at all times.
  • Simon spoke to people whose English was very poor, even if took hours and hours to get a grasp of what they were saying.
  • Simon wrote nothing down when he talked.
  • Simon listened for hours on end, and also heard what was not said.
  • Simon approached delicate issues in a round about matter, avoiding direct questions.
  • Simon read a local paper in English every day and knew what was going on. On hearing that the King was ill, he wore a pink shirt, which is the colour of healing.
  • He never criticized the traffic or the crumbling infrastructure that he encountered at times. He came to work from the hotel on the subway, often with people from the office whom he met on the train.Simon showed by actions that the loved the location, the language, the culture and being with the people.
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Cultural Humility

If you behave with Cultural Humility, this probably means that upon entering a diverse or acutely diverse organizational situation, you have the following knowledge and skills:

1) Awareness about your own cultures’ assumptions and limitations.

2) Awareness about the way that your culture may be perceived by other people with whom you are interacting.

3) A mindset that says ” My way of looking at things and/or doing things may not be appropriate.”

4) A willingness to see reality though other peoples’ lenses to as not to impose your own way of interacting.

5) A willingness to try out different ways of interacting.

Two examples of people without and with Cultural Humility

Product Manager John came to Thailand for 3 days to promote the product for which he was responsible. John came in at 0900 am and convened a meeting to get “right down to business”. He talked quickly for 45 minutes heaping lavish praise on his product, and asked “if there were any questions”. No one answered him, so he said, “I am going to go one by one and I would ask for your honest assessment how we can “make this fly here in Thailand.” .

He pointed to the youngest lady at the left and said-you go first.”

John has no cultural humility.

Fred, another Product Manager, came to Thailand two weeks later. Fred is aware that the Thai market is cost sensitive. Fred came to gather input on what features can be compromised to drive costs down. Fred knows that bragging about his product makes the Thais feel extremely uncomfortable. Fred also knows that he needs lots of face to face time with people to find out what they suggest. Fred knows that asking people to speak out in meetings is not the way to gather input, especially if they do not trust you. Fred knows that it is not acceptable for a local office to tell HQ folks what to do.

Fred came for two weeks. The first few days he had easy going, face to face meetings and got to know the people. He made them feel comfortable.  He told them “I am in no hurry”. That built trust. Fred joined the folks at lunch supper and even on weekends. Fred built trust.

Fred got high quality input from the sophisticated local team. Fred showed cultural humility all the way.

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3 critical success factors of working in acute diversity

In the next few posts, I shall relate to what are some of the critical success factors in “working across” acutely diverse cultural borders in global organizing.

1) Cultural Humility:  This means that “my way may not be the “right” way, or even “the only way” to get things done.

A mindset of humility enables stepping back and observing one’s own behaviour as part of the obstacle course which needs to be hurdled in order to be effective in acute diversity.

2) Superb trust-creation skills : “Work gets done by building trustworthy relationships at every possible juncture and in all directions;  leveraging these relationships gets things done.”

People with superb trust building skills view relationships as organizational “net worth”. Folks with this skill set assume that relationships (not only organizational design and  role clarity) are the key enabler of effectiveness in acute diversity.

3) Patience: “Haste gets you no where in acute diversity” is a good rule of thumb.

Acute diversity is a tough nut to crack and “apparent” resolution” of issues is easy; the “real McCoy” takes longer. A quarterly 5 day tour of “remote locations” to “get things moving” is severe self deception.

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