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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Is it not natural to say “I don’t understand”?


Many Western managers are truly shocked when Asian and Mid Eastern  folks feign understanding. “Now what’s the big  deal to say “I don’t understand”. Why do I have to figure out that I am being misunderstood?”, asks many a Western-educated boss.

There are many reasons why it is not universally accepted practice to admit lack of understanding. Here are the top 6.

1) Showing lack of understanding needs a context of trust. If I do not feel safe, I need to keep my guard up.

2) Showing lack of understanding shows weakness, and in the business world world, weak people get screwed.

3) It is not my role to say I do not understand. It is my boss’ role to ensure that I understand, and he needs to do so with compassion.

4) My peers may make fun of me if I ask a question of understanding, because they think I am showing off.

5) My accent makes me shy.

6) I feel deep embarrassment admitting limitations of any time publically due to face saving needs.

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How culture impacts perceptions of performance

This post will document how cultural differences can create a huge gap around the issue of what is the appropriate way to fulfill one’s role.

I have chosen one case study, one Israeli, one German and one American.


An Israeli project manager overseeing the deployment of an infrastructure project in the field of telecommunications now realises that part number 43 has not been ordered; the part will cause a huge delay in “go-live” and negatively impact total project revenue by 5% due to penalties.

All procurement goes through a very well regulated purchasing process, totally controlled by IT technology. “Procurement by the book” of part 43 will take 6 months. Part 43 is needed in two months.

Shai, the Israeli project manager will order  part 43 “outside” of the procurement process (from the same vendor always used)  and issue an email ok’ing to the supplier that the supplier will be paid in full. The Israeli project manager must avoid having a “rosh katan” (small head); avoiding rosh katan means “it is not only important to do YOUR OWN piece, you need to see that the entire job gets done. Obeying orders and following process is a poor excuse”

Johanna from Dusseldorf is Compliance Officer on site. Her role is to ensure process compliance and contract fulfillment. Johanna sees a conflict between process compliance and contract fulfillment, so she has emailed her American boss, asking for his guidance. Johanna has provided a very detailed description of the problem, along with a recommendation of sticking to process at all costs  and having those who erred “face the consequences”. Johanna firmly believes that process compliance is more important than any specific project. Johanna believes that she must only do HER job.

Kevin is the American who managers Mr Cowboy Shai and Ms Rigid Johanna. Kevin believes in process, tainted with pragmatism. He certainly does not like the way that Shai operates, but Shai always delivers. He is glad he has a watchdog like Johanna, and he does not want to demoralise her. Kevin will ensure Johanna that he fully supports her, and “at the same time” ask her to sign off ex post fact, promising this will be the last time. Shai will be publically castigated and yet, he will get a bonus for delivering. Kevin believes in pragmatism.Doing one’s role means being mature, pragmatic and expedient. He does wish Johanna and Shai would have talked between them, but he has given up on this long ago. He does wish all parties would adopt his pragmatic view of doing the job and moving on.

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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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Why companies hire …and fire consultants-a case study (revised)

Very profitable companies’ choice of consultants often reflect the distinct pathology from which they suffer.

Company A sells cutting edge products which enable improved digital marketing to the Financial Services industry sector.

A’s product releases are very buggy and need ongoing bug fixes, yet clients continue to buy A’s products because they provide competitive advantage.

A’s commitments to its client are exaggerated. For example they recently promised push advertising for incoming tourists within 3 months, although there is no way of providing anything whatsoever within this time frame.

Even within “A”, no one really knows what will be the content of the next release because their internal commitments between R&D and Sales lack credibility. As a matter of fact, company A suffers from constant friction between R&D and the Sales force, as well as from constant churn of project managers who loose credibility with the clients as deliveries slip both in quality and functionality.

A hires an OD consultant every so often, because the level of pain is as high as the level of profitability! A is very profitable.

Last week, all hell broke loose at a plan of record meeting, and it was decided that a consultant needs to be hired to “support growth”.

4 consultants have applied for job, each with a different set of values. One of the consultants has worked with A in the past. 

The consultants

  • Consultant Bill believes that change is planned and managed. Bill’s approach is to work on process and structure to ensure predictability. Bill was not hired because he is “too much of an engineer”.
  • Consultant Constance believes that the ethical and moral fibre of the company are building blocks for its long term sustainability. Constance focuses on end to end transparency, both internally between departments and externally with the clients. She plans to plot out with A’s  CEO  how the firm will “say what it means and means what it says”. When the CEO read her proposal, she did not even get an interview.
  • Consultant Amir has worked with A for 9 years, under the previous CEO. Amir believes that OD is a midwife to change which happens. He is very eclectic and pragmatic in business matters and focused on “whatever works”; Amir believes that A operates in a competitive arena where its behaviour is largely logical and paid off. Amir works with the CEO on ensuring that A does not lose its competitive edge,without which A will quickly default into rapid decline. Amir does a lot of pain mitigation with the management and troops. Amir focuses on ensuring that everyone understood the hidden dynamic by which the entire system functioned. Amir worked a lot on understanding the thin line that exists between partial and deep chaos.
  • Consultant Robert believes that OD work needs to be non-disruptive and create a wow effect. He used to be a Training Manager in a large company before he was downsized. Robert took a course at a community college and got a diploma in OD. Robert proposed a series of 3 wow lectures on Stress Management, Great Teamwork and Engagement, as well as some personal coaching on individual effectiveness.

Robert was chosen for the job. He worked with A for 9 months. When A’s profitability was severely hit, his contract was terminated immediately  and HR was tasked with commissioning cost effective training webinars on positive engagement.

The moral of this story is that very profitable (yet decaying) companies with some pain often choose low level consultants who will work with the wrong population on the tactical problems, and when the shit hits the fan, they get it wrong again. Smitten by arrogance.

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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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Preparing Israelis to work with Canadians

Israelis often assume that Canadians are like Americans who live in a cold country, and some of them speak French. This of course is not a very useful paradigm with which to start to work with Canadians.

When preparing Israelis to work with Canadians, these are the main differences which I point out:

  • Canada is a very secular society. I prepare the Israelis that they will not find a lot of religious fundamentalists in Canada who marvel at those who come from the “promised land”, as they find south of the border.
  • I prepare Israelis that in communications, Canadians are not as explicit as Americans may be. Messages may be more subtle, and objections may be expressed somewhat mutely.Israelis tend to see Americans as not very confrontive, and I prepare the Israelis that the Canadians are even less confrontive. And I warn them that being “nice” is very Canadian, but niceness  does not mean agreement exists.
  • I warn the Israelis that an authoritarian style does not fly as well in Canada as it does in the States. I also warn Israelis not to brag about the military background in the more peace-loving Canada.
  • I tell Israelis that Canadians do not expect people to act like they do, because they realize that Canada is not the center of the world. Canada is very tolerant in this way. And I caution the Israelis not to be pushy.
  • Canada and Israel, I point out, are more egalitarian in nature than the US.
  • I also point out that Canada and Israel are far less politically correct, and the humour of both countries contains many examples of ethnic stereotyping, without people dropping dead and calling a lawyer; yet I warn them to exercise caution.
  • Many Israelis speak perfect French. In Israel, speaking French may have a perceived negative value, because it is indicative of hailing from a Middle Eastern background. I encourage Israelis to use their French freely in Quebec. I also prepare them that in interactions with the Quebecois, the management style may be slightly more authoritarian. Quebecois and Israelis may be more informal and fun loving after work, when things can get done as well.
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When people to whom you are consulting use their mobile phones

Several factors impact the constant use of mobile phones.


2-in certain cultures, one must always be available for customers (e.g., Japan, China, India, Israel)

3-in certain cultures, you need to constantly available for family (e.g., Israel)

4-business happens on-line and people are expected to be highly responsive.

5-technology is addictive.

Both during personal consulting sessions and in group sessions, I had allowed people to keep their phones on silent. And more and more, people started taking calls, or answering sms (text) messages or calling an admin to give instructions based on a text message/sms which had been received.

Subsequently , I started asking people to turn off their phones; in groups I would put the phones in a paper bag, and inevitably we would all be hearing ringtones or buzzing.

As of late, I no longer allow cell phones in a group session. I gather the cell phones and insist they are left outside the room and they are in OFF mode. If people refuse, I tell them they need to choose: session or phone. I am no longer a cultural relativist on this issue. I demand that there is no cell phone usage in group sessions I facilitate.

In personal consultations I am more lenient, but I tell the people I work with that use of the phones really annoys me.

I do not accept the fact that I am intransigent or old fashioned. I think it is the right thing to do. Often I use the fierce resistance to my 0 tolerance for cell phones as material to work on during the sessions, especially in companies in which people are very busy texting/emailing yet nothing happens. The Israelis call this hyperactive organizational impotence as“full gas in neutral”.

I have been fired twice for the “no mobile phone policy”, and as Edith Piaf sang, moi je ne regrette rien..

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