Tools for leaders to examine their own culture preferences and how it may differ from others with whom they are working.
Donna Rae Scheffert is President of Leadrship Tools and a management and leadership consultant with twenty-eight years of experience working with individuals and groups for higher performance. Helps groups who want to improve upon their culture and mutual understanding for high performance.
When leading a multicultural group, it is important for to be aware of the norms, beliefs, and values that the participants bring with them to the setting. These norms, beliefs, and values not only shape identity but they also affect perceptions, attitudes and assumptions. These aspects of individuals and groups are typically not visible and yet, they are extremely important to take into consideration during the planning and facilitative processes.
While the following material isn’t exhaustive in inter-cultural values, it does provide the impetus for leaders to begin examining their own world view and how it may differ from others with whom they will be working.
In societies where individualism is valued the ties between individuals are loose, people focus on their own accomplishments and everyone is expected to take care of him or herself and their immediate family.
So, it’s not uncommon to see “self-help” sections in book stores. In fact, the English language dictionary lists a composite of the prefix “self” in more than 100 words – such as self-reliance, self-discipline, self-improvement, etc. There is not an equivalent in most other languages.
People volunteer in community organizations for example, as a way to advance their careers, or to get something in return. Individualism plays out in decision making as well and is seen as the most efficient method – versus consensus and the group making decisions. Individualist societies think people should take credit only for what they have accomplished by themselves and admire those who are born poor and believe that through their own sacrifice and hard work, they can climb the ladder of success. Being singled out for individual accomplishments is highly prized.
The opposite perspective is collectivism, which is the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups. From this cultural lens we find societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families where people interact, provide protection and support and never question loyalty or something in return.
With emphasis on the group, there is a strong sense of shared accountability and responsibility. Through this cultural lens, it is embarrassing to be singled out and individual accomplishment and initiative is discouraged and even down played. People will sacrifice for the good of the group and giving credit to everyone is more important than individual praise.
These two world views are fundamental to all societies and play a key role influencing other values and norms within a cultural framework.
In the United States, for example, there is a belief that all people are “created equal” and therefore have an equal opportunity to succeed in life.
That means, in theory, that there is equal status for all people which demonstrates itself by informal relationships with the people in positions of authority, such as being on a first-name basis with the boss.
Status is earned by achievements and what an individual has accomplished in life. The only way to get ahead is based on merit. Status must be won and it can also be lost.
There is also an unspoken assumption that all individuals have a right and responsibility to fully participate in the public domain and to share their ideas. (Gardenswartz & Rowe).
From this value perspective, it is perfectly normal that anyone within a community has the right and responsibility to fully participate in community decisions, no matter what their rank or status is within that environment.
However, seven-eighths of the world feels quite differently. Rank, status, and authority are seen as much more desirable by them and give them a sense of security and certainty.
For people from many cultures, it is reassuring to know, from birth, who they are and where they fit into “society.” One’s station in life is in part an accident of birth and despite what a person achieves in life, there is a status or hierarchy that comes with a family name and groups of which one is affiliated (Culture Matters & Facilitation Resources). This position cannot easily be lost.
It’s not surprising then if people come from a society where they have a low status that they are less apt to fully participate in a community dialogue or to be instrumental in the decision-making process.
If facilitating a community decision-making process when there are differing world views on equity and hierarchy, it’s important to take that into consideration and pay special attention to working with the key authority figures in more hierarchical populations.
Another way in which cultures differ is how people perceive and use time and how that affects interpersonal relations as well as decision making. Edward Hall (Culture Matters) has described time into two differing poles, one being monochronic and the other polychronic
People with a monochronic orientation see time as a given, with schedules, deadlines and can be divided into increments. Time can be quantified and there is a limited amount available. The needs of people are adjusted to fit the demands of time. It’s very common for people to have to pull out their date books, PDA’s, or some instrument to check if they have time to fit someone or something into their schedule.
Contrasting is a perspective that time is the servant and tool of people. Time is something that can and needs to be adjusted to suit the needs of people and more time is always available. People are never too busy and often do several things simultaneously if circumstances require it.
It is not necessary to finish one thing before beginning another or to finish business with one person before starting with another. Being “on time” is relative. So, for example, when facilitating if one of the ground rules says “Start on time” it’s important that everyone understands and agrees with what that means. It may be useful to say for example, “We will begin at 7:00 p.m. Clock time.”
Another aspect of time is the aspect of time orientation – where is the focus – on the past, on the present, or on the future? Cultures that focus on the future and the improvements they are sure it will bring, means that they devalue the past and are, to a large extent, unconscious of the present. Almost all energy is directed toward realizing that better future. The future is planned for, looked toward, and hoped for.
At best the present condition is seen as preparatory to a later and greater event, which will eventually culminate in something even more worthwhile. Some cultures who are not future oriented see planning for the future as futile or even sinful and may easily have philosophical problems with this very United States characteristic (Facilitation Resources, Hills
Other time orientations include a focus on the past – or the time before now. It is a way of honoring and preserving traditional teachings, beliefs, and elders. The teachings of Confucius in China is a good example of a culture where the traditions of the sages and lessons learned are highly valued.
In the middle of these two views is a focus on the present, the here and now. The current situation is what determines where energy is exerted. What accommodations need to be made in beliefs and traditions to improve things at the present time? The past is not a guide and future implications are not considered.
For many, change is seen as an indisputably good condition. Change is strongly linked to development, improvement, progress, and growth. The idea that new is better, a better way can always be found or things can be improved up. And when someone says, “But we’ve always done it this way,” the response is, “that doesn’t make it right.” In the United States, change is considered positive because of the belief in the march of progress and the pursuit of perfection. Improvements move the people closer to being perfect and while traditions can be a guide they are not inherently superior. People are quite tolerant of taking risks and unpredictability.
Many older, more traditional cultures consider change as a disruptive, destructive force, to be avoided if at all possible. Instead of change, such societies value stability, continuity, tradition, and a rich and ancient heritage, none of which are valued very much in the United States. A society where change is something to avoid, find more comfort with a relatively predictable and certain future. For societies such as this, that means well-structured and predictable situations.
Many U.S. Americans may no longer believe in the power of fate, and they have come to look at people who do as being backward, primitive, or hopelessly naive. In the United States, people consider it normal and right that humans should control nature, rather than the other way around.
More specifically, people believe every single individual should have control over whatever in the environment might potentially affect him or her. The problems of one’s life are not seen as the result of bad luck so much as the result of one’s own laziness in pursuing a better life. Most Americans find it impossible to accept that there are some things which lie beyond the power of humans to achieve.
This is a sharp contrast to cultures where humans are seen as part of the environment, being in harmony with nature, and should disturb it as little as possible. In this regard, there is a belief that some aspects of life are predetermined, built into the nature of things. It is these aspects that may create limits and givens that cannot be changed but must be accepted – to be in harmony.
Life is a very large part what happens to a person (Culture Matters). If people in the community hold this perspective, they are going to be less likely to participate in planning and trying to control destiny. When people do participate, facilitators should recognize that questions about the wisdom of change and the impact on nature are likely to arise.
As a human-doing, the point of life is actually to do thing, be involved, and accomplish goals. Puritan beliefs of it being “sinful” to “waste one’s time,” “to sit around doing nothing,” or just to “daydream.” are a deep part of the dominant cultural beliefs. The top priority is getting down to business and focus on the task.
The belief is that individuals survive in the world because they get things done, generally on their own. Words and talk are suspect and cheap; they don’t put food on the table or a roof over your head. What is of most value is the practical and pragmatic over what is beautiful and inspiring (Culture Matters). This often plays out when funds for music or art programs are cut in the community.
The United States may be one of the few countries in the world where it seems reasonable to speak about the “dignity of human labor,” meaning by that hard physical labor. Here even corporation presidents will engage in physical labor from time to time and gain, rather than lose, respect from others for such action (Facilitation Resources).
On the other hand, a human being holds an attitude and belief that the point of life is to live and experience an understanding. Activity for activity’s sake is unimportant. Intuitive and creative thinking is most highly valued as compared to need the evidence and facts. Here the top priority is getting along with others; emphasis is on build human –to human connection.
"Recognizing that values will vary across cultures helps a facilitator to that not everyone holds the same things to be important, nor do they see the world through the same lens.
While gaining a better understanding of the possible variations in values still does not guarantee exactly what other value. What it does do is provide more possibilities of what may be valued by someone else and take those possibilities into account when facilitating multiculturally." (Schauber, 2002).
Leaders are encouraged to reflect on thier own values, see that multicultural differences exist, and work to improve culture for all.
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