The author depicts how cultural differences can have an impact on the successful outcome of professional meetings and how this issue can be overcome.
While working as an English teacher for a language school specialised in business and management, I served as an interpret for one of my students, Mr Roberto, the head of security of Sonae-Sierra, during a round of meetings he had with a British security consultancy firm.
This episode describes a working group of international nature (Portuguese and British teams) gathering for a specific and temporary task, the assessment of a security system. This was a group with a high conflict potential, and they underwent some classic problems of cultural differences, leading to a communication problem, that didn't allow either part to totally profit from the occasion.
Sonae-Sierra is a leading Portuguese company touching many sectors, among which that of shopping centres. Following the Madrid train station terrorist attacks of March 2004, and fearing that the malls could also be targeted, they wanted to undertake an assessment and consequent upgrade of their security standards and procedures.
The English of my employer not being very good, he asked me to assist him during these meetings for he considered them of an utmost importance. I took part in the 3 main meetings as the linguistic link between both parties.
On one side, the two British security consultants, Mr Stevens and Mr Burns, who had a high reputation and were considered the “best in the market”, judging from the comments I heard from the Portuguese securities. They had a strong and reserved behaviour that seemed to reflect their skills, but also made them look much too reserved. On top of that, they didn't speak any Portuguese, which made them look suspicious (Linares, 1999).
The consultants' task was over an already implemented and running security system, designed by Mr Roberto, who had a military background as a former marine security technician. Being an ex-military, Mr Roberto enjoyed quite a lot of respect and admiration from his peers in the company and the people working under him. Furthermore, he was on the verge of retirement. The security regime (of which he was quite proud...) was his masterpiece.
The relevance of this problem is that what was supposed to be a clear task turned into an ambiguous situation of which not enough profit came to neither side, for the British team didn't get well referenced and did not attain the full of what was expected from their employers, while the Portuguese team didn't get their security checked in the way they had expected, thus needing to call for a second opinion.
In the first meeting, a Monday morning, I followed Mr Stevens and Mr Burns through their first visit to one of the malls, Mr Roberto couldn't join us (there was a supervisor replacing him) for he was busy with another mall that was soon due for the opening. We only got word that he wouldn't be coming about 10 minutes after the appointed time. There were some ironic and generalise remarks on the typical “time issues” between Anglo-Saxons and Latins.
Throughout all the meetings there was never a thorough preplanned layout of how the visits and security assessment would run. The only thing that was planned was that the visit would be taking place on that specific day. Once the consultants arrived, the visit would be improvised, not always taking place in the same way. This fact seemed to annoy the consultants who had come with a very detailed program and expected things to run on a specific schedule and according to a specific procedure.
At times, some attitudes were quite assertive from both sides. The incapacity to directly state some facts (it was indirect because it always passed by my translation) made it look like things were being taken seriously, neither by the British nor by the Portuguese sides.
I had the impression that Sonae's security regime had been established gradually, as the shopping centres grew up. Many things didn't seem to be standard procedures, but rather tailored measures for specific problems. Some procedures existed only in a single mall and wouldn't be found in any other since the other malls still hadn't experienced any such problems. This fact seemed to be unacceptable for the consultants, while perfectly understandable and obvious to the Portuguese counterparts, though.
During the visits, the working styles were quite distinct. The Portuguese part seemed to be organised hierarchically while the British one showed a far greater level of autonomy, not only because they were only two, but also because they expected more autonomy from the many Portuguese assistants that they met along the way. These never took any decision without first consulting with Mr Roberto.
Soon after the start of the first meeting both parties were already gazing at each other with suspicion. Both parties had a clear notion of their cultural differences, but instead of exploring the advantages therefrom, they rather justified their stereotypes and acted in a closed way. Globalisation seems to make people think that they know foreign cultures but often they just remain in the stereotype level. (Linares, 1999)
At stake was the soundness of Mr Roberto's scheme, and consequently his reputation. The meetings were marked by several clashes, and resulted in Mr Roberto's disappointment; he didn't like the verdict and eventually called for the opinion of a second security consultancy firm.
The reasons for such a problem were due to several factors. The fact that the security assessment was deemed necessary under the new policies followed by the company, a view that wasn't shared by Mr Roberto, created the initial risk factor. The old historic rivalry between Portuguese and British also became a fact. The lack that both parts seemed to have of intercultural competencies, dictated the clash. And the language barrier set the tone of the conflict, which not even translation could overcome.
Cultural diversity in international working groups is a commonplace of the modern organisational world. The problems that usually arise from that place are known. The potential for miscommunication is high, which in turn may lead to negative attitudes, such as mistrust and dislike between the individuals concerned, and, eventually, the perception that each part has regarding the other is corrupted by stereotyping. “Once we see someone as bearing a label we don't like, we stop listening” (Tannen, 1999). Consequently, the road to conflict is hardly avoidable.
Mr Roberto, not only followed the embedded values at Sonae-Sierra but also impersonated them.
His views were conservative and dogmatic, in the sense that one of the major values behind of his action was the importance given to tradition. He constantly spoke of procedures that had been successfully used for many years in the company with his usual sentence, “It has always been done like that”. The success of such procedures seemed to be a basic underlying assumption for the staff.
In all, Mr Roberto was a dominant personality with a clear theory of how things should be. The “role of the founder”, in Schein's (1985) words, at Sonae-Sierra was immense. Mr Roberto often had a quote, more or less in terms of validation, from a general philosophy of the company, a moral system strongly based in the traditions springing from the birth of the company. And obviously, in such an environment, authority was an immense value.
Since the structure was hierarchical and little space was given to individual action, Mr Roberto's activity was a bit over solicited. Thus, his time management was somewhat polychronic. During the security evaluation meetings, he would often have to split his attention between the consultants and some other task, instead of delegating someone to it, as mentioned by the British. In terms of time, there was a huge difference in attitudes between them. The British just couldn't accept the non-linear way in which Mr Roberto did things (Hall, 1984).
Mr Stevens and Mr Burns:
The Consultants were oriented according to the task they had at hands. Among their embedded values was the stress put in efficiency. They commented on the lack of autonomy that the security assistance in the many shopping centres showed in the presence of Mr Roberto, how that was totally inefficient and even counter-productive.
They were quite pragmatic. And the evaluation of the security system was a matter to be assessed in loco and practically. So they did not pay much attention to all the value of tradition going on at Sonae-Sierra.
When the British expected procedure, the Portuguese were improvising. This security assessment which was supposed to be a simple task became a highly ambiguous event due to the way in which both groups were behaving.
Sonae-Sierra's workforce and environment were structured in a strong and charismatic leadership way. Outsiders (like the British consultants) weren't immediately embraced. A whole ritual would be needed for that (Hofstede, 1980). And since the whole process was only going to last for such a short period, the clash was inevitable, I believe.
The Portuguese culture, just as other Latin cultures, emphasises collaboration, cooperation and conformity. Another conflict factor was due to the awareness by the Portuguese that the British team wasn't up to the same values (Rodrigues, 2003).
The subjective perceptions sustaining each of the sides boosted the previously made stereotypes that each had (Linares, 1999). From the Portuguese side, the Anglo-Saxons were seen as “the knights” of the best management tradition in the world. Not surprising since the field's major references in Portugal, just as worldwide, are of such origin. The effect of that in Sonae-Sierra's staff was driving them to a defensive stance. The Portuguese seemed to feel somewhat inferior working with these consultants, in part because they were being evaluated by them, and in part due to the prestige that the British team seemed to enjoy.
So, a natural reaction was to value themselves by denying the value of the other team. The “my way is the best way” kind of dynamic. Mr Roberto uttered in a specific occasion: “I'm not paying them to come here and perfect what I've done, rather confirm its quality”. This is, I believe, a symptomatic sentence of what was going on.
Since there was no successful communication being achieved, they soon started perceiving the other part in a rather challenging way, thus a competition followed, and so both parts “maintained their strengths” and no cooperation was possible. The context and specifically a power dynamic (who had the greater need to submit to the other) that was established throughout the meetings assured the maintenance of the conflict.
Another determinant factor was that the interaction was supposed to be a very short lasting one. Thus, it was easier for all parts not to bother getting involved and engaged. They couldn't really care for more than just getting things done so that each one could go his way.
At times, some attitudes were quite assertive from both sides, maybe as a way to overcome the uncertainty generated by the language barrier (Adami, 2007).
Both sides had a presumption of their own values. Mr Roberto was his self-reference. Sonae- Sierra's men's approach to security was based on an experiential method. They had been trying and using it since the shopping centres had opened, and they were self-assured of its effectiveness. But they were undergoing an evaluation to which they didn't agree on the necessity. The consultants' approach to security, on the other hand, was a very theoretical one.
According to Magallon (1997), Latins tend more towards mixing emotions and work, while the Anglo-Saxons are the opposite. Still by the same author, a reference to the level of formalism. The Portuguese perceived an excessive formalism in the British and interpreted that as unfriendliness. But, the British were only acting professionally. This impasse put the whole relation in a “conflict corner” since no sympathies were being exchanged.
For the British, the mission was only about conducting their assessment and delivering their report. This would be done neutrally, as would any professional team. But their “client care” awareness could have been improved. None of the groups made an effort to adapt to the other. Both groups were only going about their own functions. No attention nor care was given to managing the cultural differences at hands.
Thus, the meetings were marked by several issues that greatly deranged the communication dynamic of this group. The delays in the meetings, the misunderstandings regarding appointments,
the hardened communication due to the linguistic barrier, the very different working styles, as well as the quite different notions of technical aspects: “Portuguese style security” vs. “English style security”, the hierarchical trends vs the autonomous ones, etc.
As a main aspect of the solution, I would propose both groups to work on “building an atmosphere” before going to work (Holden, 2002). To try to establish a more friendly and personal contact, instead of just maintaining the interaction on a professional basis. This could bring the acknowledgement of each other's role and competencies, develop some empathy and flexibility, helping towards mutual understanding and consideration (Center for Intercultural Learning, 2000). Holden (2002) considers the issue of the creation of atmosphere as a fundamental task for the success of any cross-cultural management.
Since organisation, solutions, as well as problem identification, are all culturally rooted, they needed to “understand the culture to understand the organisation” (Schein, 1985). A better knowledge of the culture as well as of the individuals, could help them overcome issues of authority, hierarchy, and improve the relationship building.
Then to clarify each other's differences in terms of professional action, in order to try and avoid shocks deriving from working style differences (Salo-Lee, 2006). this could be done in some sort of an informal meeting or get together.
Bearing in mind the concept of an Intercultural Effective Person (IEP), in the sense of a development of an intercultural awareness and sensitivity, the adaptation skills of the individuals of this case should be fostered. Their understanding of the concept of culture, their self-knowledge and relationship-building capacities trained (Salo-Lee, 2006).
Following such general notions of an IEP, both groups could have benefited by having some general awareness of cultural diversity and how an intercultural agent should behave (Salo- Lee, 2006).
This case is about the encounter of two culturally different teams; an intercultural dialogue was taking place. Albeit, the values from both sides weren't being shared, probably due to some fear that whatever adaptation to the other side could mean a potential loss of self-values.
Presently, companies need to develop an ever acute intercultural awareness in order to survive in the unavoidably intercultural society in which we live. My point is that, in the case study at hands, both teams did not take such an obvious notion into consideration.
Although managers cannot predict every circumstance of an intercultural event, nor be able to control every situation, he must, nevertheless, upgrade his perception to the intercultural nature of the present. That will empower him to be able to create propitious atmospheres in whatever encounters he comes across. A propitious atmosphere means a level of preparedness that manages to deal with whatever circumstances.
While such skills aren't developed, and in the cases where some teams are beyond such skills, the use of a mediator for a more efficient management of the human resources must be seen as a solution. Not only can it overcome the language barrier, but also the cultural one.
Doing business must also mean being aware of human vicissitudes, and therefore work towards mutual understanding and not just look after one's own interests.
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