Monday, January 1, 2018

Building Cultural Self-Awareness

In a recent coaching session I had with an executive I will call Henry, we reviewed the results of 360-degree feedback interviews I had conducted with over 12 of his stakeholders (e.g., his boss, direct reports, internal and external customers) as well as the results of an anonymous survey. Like many very successful managers, Henry believed he was pretty self-aware, yet was surprised at some of the feedback he heard, especially from his direct reports in several Asian countries. While Henry saw himself as a “straight shooter” and open about his opinions, his Asian direct reports had a different impression. They described him as intimidating and as someone who argues too much without listening.

We know that self-awareness is an important component of emotional intelligence and for becoming an effective leader. For global managers, I would add that cultural self-awareness is also an important key to their success interacting with and getting results through others from various cultures. In psychological counseling over the past twenty years or so, there has been a strong emphasis in making sure that therapists are aware of their own assumptions, biases and values. Various assessments and training have been introduced to enhance therapists’ competence and their effectiveness (Roysircar, 2004). As Royscircar notes:

“Therapists must put their assumptions, values, and biases to scrutiny because they will resort to these anyway. They need to ask themselves how U.S. sociopolitical issues, such as prejudice against minority groups, communism, Islamic fundamentalism, immigration to the U/S., bilingualism, or those with visible physical differences and disabilities have affected their social views of people and whether these social views may be related to their theoretical orientation in professional practice.” (p. 660)

Similarly, global managers (especially those from the Western world) must also put their assumptions, values and biases to self-scrutiny since otherwise, they will resort to these unthinkingly. Their unconscious biases when dealing with others who don’t speak English very well, whose attire might not fit with what might be considered appropriate in a corporate setting, or whose physical mannerisms might be inappropriate in a Western setting will certainly affect their interactions with and judgments about these individuals.
According to Eurich (2017), there are two main categories of self-awareness: internal (understanding yourself) and external (understanding how other people see you). Her distinction is actually based on self-concept theory; psychologists in this field use the term objective self-awareness and subjective self-awareness respectively. Eurich argues that the two are not necessarily correlated but there is some evidence that these might be influenced by culture.
Cultural self-awareness is first of all about understanding your own culture, and acknowledging that part of your behavior (as some anthropologists claim, as much as 25 percent) may be due to cultural influences. This may difficult to achieve, especially for those who have never traveled, or who have not been exposed to cultural diversity. Hall (1973) and Adler (2008) have used the analogy of a fish that cannot imagine what it is like outside the water because it has been swimming in that environment all its life. 

The second aspect of cultural self-awareness is recognizing the differences between your culture and other cultures, especially when it comes to behavior in the work place. Gina, a manager for a global financial services company whose parents were Puerto Rican, recalled the excitement she felt when her company asked her to move to London for two years: “In my mind, London was just like New York. I had travelled internationally before and of course spoke English; I was set. I came to New York as a young child and growing up, thought it was the center of the world. I really subscribed to the cliché that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. I expected the world to conform to my beliefs.”

She remembered some of her initial impressions of her British colleagues at the F/X desk where she worked. Most of them spoke more than three languages, and she met one colleague who spoke seven languages. When she mentioned to him that she wanted to learn another language, he commented, “You do not speak English, you speak American. We speak English.” Rather than taking this remark as an insult, Gina reflected on her lack of cultural self-awareness, and her arrogance in thinking that coming to London would be easy because she already knew the language. Adler (2008) makes this insightful comment: “Although we may think that the biggest obstacle to conducting business around the world is understanding foreigners, the greater difficulty actually involves becoming aware of our own cultural conditioning.” (p. 81)

A third aspect of cultural self-awareness includes understanding of different gestures and other non-verbals, which are important in building our intercultural competence. This ability to understand cultural rules and codes has been shown to be a predictor of positive interpersonal outcomes. In an interesting series of studies, Molinsky and his colleagues (Molinsky et al, 2005) developed a measure which they called the Gesture Recognition Task (GRT). This was made up of a series of 15 real (e.g., a shoulder shrug) and 13 fake non-verbal gestures (e.g., twirling the right finger in front of the body from chest level to above the head). Several hundred U.S.-born and non-native-born students participated in the study. In their first study, they also developed a measure of intercultural competence, and they found a positive relationship between performance on the GRT with self-ratings of intercultural competence. In a second study, performance on the GRT was also positively associated with ratings of observers who rated the students on their intercultural competence, reinforcing the importance of the ability to “read” cultural non-verbal behaviors.

Even e-mail communication can be influenced by cultural differences. Holtbrugge and his colleagues (2013) did an interesting study of a sample of professionals in the IT and services industry of large multinationals. The sample, which was obtained from professional social networking sites such as LinkedIn, consisted of 235 participants from 28 different nationalities, including India, Finland, Germany, USA, and China. According to the authors, 75-80 percent of virtual team communication is done by e-mail. They constructed a 23-item questionnaire measuring such dimensions as directness, promptness, preciseness and task-relatedness. The researchers found significant differences between respondents coming from high-context (e.g., Argentina, Brazil, China, Italy, Pakistan, and Uruguay) and low-context (Austria, Denmark, Germany, Sweden and the U.S.A.) cultures in their e-mail communication styles, with high-context, polychronic cultures preferring more formal but more fluid e-mail communication, and low-context, monochronic cultures preferring more precise and prompt e-mail communication.

The following are several strategies to enhance your cultural self-awareness. One, find out what managers’ impressions are about your own culture. Of course, some of their impressions may be based on simplistic and even outdated stereotypes.  However, they can provide some insights into the cultural influences that impact workplace behavior in your culture. Some might not be willing to express their opinions directly for fear of being “politically incorrect” (although in my experience Europeans seem to be more candid than Americans about expressing their impressions of different nationalities). In conversations, therefore, you might have to probe and ask different questions. For example, you might ask them to compare and contrast two managers they know who are of the same nationality.

Two, learn about the successes and failures of managers from your country who have worked in other cultures. For example, Brad, a British manager of a multinational identified several British colleagues who had been sent overseas on expatriate assignments. Through his contacts, he found a few who were successful and others who were less successful in their assignments, and reached out to them. Learning about the experiences of individuals in both groups gave him valuable insights on his own cultural self-awareness and important lessons to apply.

Three, look for opportunities where you can immerse yourself in a different culture. You might ask, how can I do this unless I actually travel to that country? Nieto (2006) has described a practice called a cultural plunge that professors in San Diego State University have been using over many years. A cultural plunge “…is individual exposure to persons or groups markedly different in culture (ethnicity, language, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and/or physical exceptionality) from that of the ‘plunger’.” Examples he gives are attending services or religious ceremonies of a group with a different ethnicity (e.g., African-American) or language (e.g., Vietnamese), or interacting with homeless people or people with disabilities. The plunges don’t have to be that long; to help with cultural self-awareness, however, it is important to reflect on the experience in a structured or organized way. Adapting Nieto’s suggestions, I would suggest that after whatever “plunge” you undertake, make sure that you jot down or type the following right after your plunge: what you experienced, your emotional response, whether the plunge reinforced or challenged your stereotypes, lessons learned and implications for your role as a global manager or leader.

Adler, Nancy J. 2008. International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior, Fifth Edition. Mason, OH: South-Western Publishing.
Eurich, T. (2017). Insight. New York: Crown Business.

Hall, E. (1973). The Silent Language. New York: Anchor Books.

Heine, S. Positive Self-Views: Understanding Universals and Variability Across Cultures. Journal of Cultural and Evolutionary Psychology, 2: 109-122.

Molinsky, Andrew. 2007. Cross-Cultural Code-Switching: The Psychological Challenges of Adapting Behavior in Foreign Cultural Interactions. Academy of Management Review 32(2): 622–640.
Nieto, J. (2006). The Cultural Plunge: Cultural Immersion as a Means of Promoting Self-Awareness and Cultural Sensitivity Among Student Teachers. Teacher Education Quarterly, Winter: 75-84.

Roysircar, G. (2004). Cultural Self-Awareness Assessment: Practice Examples from Psychology Training. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 35 (6): 658-666.

Friday, December 1, 2017

"Flash" Organizations and Temporary Teams - On the Rise?

Lately, I’ve been reading a number of articles on the rise of so-called temporary organizations. While such types of teams have been around for a while (e.g., movie crews, emergency response teams), several related trends seem to be driving their prevalence. One is the reluctance of workers who get laid off to move elsewhere to find work. Related to this is the growing number of workers doing freelance work in what is known as the gig economy. Third is the rise of crowdsourcing. And fourth, with the increasing opportunities in technology and software for groups to get together quickly, so-called “flash organizations” are popping up, where freelance workers get together for a limited amount of time to work on specific projects with clear deadlines and end points (Valentine et al., 2017).

What do we know about such temporary organizations and their effectiveness? Are there lessons learned that we can apply to large, traditional organizations - management practices from these temporary organizations that are transferable to permanent organizations?

In their paper, Valentine et al. (2017) describe flash organizations as “crowds structured like organizations to achieve complex and open-ended goals.” In fact, they unequivocally state that “Flash organizations advance a future where organizations are no longer anchored in traditional Industrial Revolution-era labor models, but are instead fluidly assembled and re-assembled from globally networked labor markets.”

In a recent research piece, Burke and Morley (2016) propose defining a temporary organization as “a temporally bounded group of interdependent organizational actors, formed to complete a complex task.” (p. 1237) Such temporary organizations of course are nothing new, both within and outside the context of traditional or permanent organizations. Task forces, committees, project teams, surgical teams, and special assignment teams are examples of the former; movie or theater productions, software development teams, and emergency response teams are examples of the latter. What they all have in common is a fixed end point, whether that is defined by time or by the achievement of a certain objective.

On the other hand, it does not seem like large organizations are going away soon. The big four technology companies – Facebook, Amazon, Google and Microsoft – have been increasing their headcount every year, as have the largest U.S. Fortune 500 companies. In my recent book (Henson, 2016), I wrote that despite the changes going on in organizations today (especially with automation and robotics), the three organizational building blocks or “infrastructure” elements of structures, rewards, and processes will continue to be in place to help an organization achieve its strategy and objectives. The modern organization, despite much criticism, is arguably still a great invention, and will continue to evolve. And these building blocks of structure, rewards, and processes will remain essential to any organization.

Take the so-called “gig” economy, where there exists an increasing number of part-time and freelance jobs. According to a 2016 McKinsey Global Institute report, these constitute approximately 4% of the U.S. workforce. However, the Wall Street Journal (August 9, 2017) reports that this segment will most likely shrink due to a labor market that is strengthening as well as disillusionment with this type of work. After the 2007-09 recession, as companies reduced their workforce or shut down completely, the unemployment rate increased and laid-off workers sought part-time employment. With the labor market now growing, companies are hiring once again, and they are hiring full-time workers. Uber for example recently hired over 100 drivers for customer-support jobs. Even for their part-time and freelance workers, many companies are offering perks. Uber’s competitor Lyft has implemented a “tiered perks” program with enhanced tax, health and car-maintenance services to its 700,000 drivers, depending on the number of rides completed. DoorDash, a food-delivery start-up, offers its independent contractors health-insurance plans and next-day payments. Signing and referral bonuses are not uncommon in these companies.

McAfee and Brynolfsson (2017), who earlier wrote the masterful The Second Machine Age, recently published a sequel to that book. In their chapter entitled “Are Companies Passé?”, they try to answer this question by drawing on the work of the Nobel-prize winning economist Ronald Coase. Coase wondered why, if markets were so great, a lot still happens within companies. For Coase, the choice between firms and markets comes down to costs. While markets are efficient, they have higher costs than firms in several areas, e.g., the costs of negotiating and making decisions, the costs of concluding separate contracts and enforcing them. Therefore, he concluded, big firms will continue to exist. In addition, as McAfee and Brynolfsson point out, companies offer additional advantages:

“Companies also exist because they serve several other economic and legal functions that would be difficult to replicate in a world made up only of freelancers who constantly wrote contracts to work together. Companies are assumed to endure indefinitely … which make them suitable for long-term projects and investments. They are also governed by a large and well-developed set of laws … that provide predictability and confidence. As a result, companies remain the preferred vehicle for conducting many kinds of businesses.” (p. 319)

Having permanent employees provides advantages to companies as well: stronger psychological contracts between employer and employee, greater stability of the workforce, a larger repository of tacit knowledge, greater protection of intellectual property, clearer lines of succession, and a “stickier” corporate culture. Permanent organizations also help employees in these organizations achieve the four drives that Lawrence and Nohria (2002) have identified that we have acquired through evolution - to acquire, bond, learn and defend - more so than temporary organizations do.

While there will always be a segment of the workforce choosing to remain independent, many still find satisfaction with belonging to a company (see the four drives above). Uber found that in 2016, 45% of new drivers left the platform in their first year. According to a JPMorgan Chase Institute report, while about one in six workers in the gig economy are new each month, more than half exit within a year.

Not surprisingly, flash organizations make use of the three building blocks of structures, rewards, and processes, but with some twists. For example, as Valentine et al. (2017) have argued, permanent organizations have what is known as asset specificity, the pattern of relationships that gets established as employees work together over a period of time and learn to coordinate and collaborate together.  In flash organizations, roles for workers are clearly defined, and these roles are then arranged in a hierarchy to make sure that authority and decision-making are also clear.

Valentine et al. provide examples of flash organizations in software, project and game design. In all three cases, the organizations lasted three weeks, and they all completed their goals to the satisfaction of the leader and received an acceptable quality rating by three expert reviewers. These flash organizations had 93 crowd workers, 22 team leads and 24 teams. As a specific example, one such flash organization was the EMS Trauma Report group, which was tasked to develop an Android application for emergency medical technicians that they could use to send advance reports to the hospital while they were still in the ambulance. Valentine et al. wax optimistic about the future of such organizations: “We envision a world in which anyone with an internet connection can assemble an organization from an online labor market and then lead that organization in pursuit of complex, open-ended goals.”

In a recent article about their research and on the rise of flash organizations, the journalist Noam Scheiber (2017) point to three lessons from these types of organizations. First is the importance of technology in facilitating the emergence of these teams. Some groups collect many data points on potential candidates to identify the best mix of members. Second is the need to define clear roles and responsibilities. And third is the need for what Scheiber calls “middle managers” but who are actually team coaches, project managers or leaders. None of these lessons are particularly unique to flash organizations; in fact, these organizations are continuing to utilize the infrastructure elements of structures and processes.

For those responsible for organizing temporary teams, here is some advice. First, select team members carefully, making sure the teams have the right technical skills but also the right balance of interpersonal and soft skills needed for members to work together and develop what Meyerson et al. (1996) call swift trust. Swift trust is important especially when these temporary teams are virtual, as many of them are. Iacono and Weisband (1997) have suggested that trust in such virtual teams is built around “doing” more than “relating” and these involve two mechanisms: initiating interactions, and relevant and timely responses. In their study, those virtual teams that had frequent messages initiated by members regarding work content, and frequent as well as timely responses to these messages, tended to build trust more quickly and ended up performing better than other teams.  

Second, define roles and responsibilities carefully while allowing for some flexibility. This is especially important when managing and resolving conflicts with members or groups in the temporary organization who identify with different entities. For example, in an interesting case study of the Panama Canal Expansion Program, where there were multiple parties (including a local Panamanian company and U.S.-based contractor), conflicts often arose that were not necessarily resolved by defining roles and responsibilities alone (van Marrewijk et al., 2016). The authors found that interventions (such as having celebrations, creating images of a unified team) were necessary. Presumably, this also helped to build trust. There are some who have argued that since members of these temporary organizations are not likely to work again in the future (with some exceptions; this is certainly not true of temporary organizations within organizations), they are less concerned about long-term benefits (for example, acquiring teamwork skills). Rather, the focus of these teams is on the task, for example, clarifying roles and responsibilities. However, as the Panama Canal project study has shown, an exclusive focus on the task is not sufficient. Interpersonal relations still need to be considered. Furthermore, because of the need to develop swift trust, leadership skills become very important.

Third, for teams that are embedded within large organizations, proactively shape the right culture for the team. Some of the key cultural elements to have in place include transparency, adaptability, trust, and teamwork. And fourth, make sure the leader is an effective “boundary-spanner.” Such leaders have not only the desire but the skills to network, build alliances, involve different kinds of stakeholders, and the ability to influence upward and laterally. They willingly share information and collaborate with different groups. When these teams are embedded within a larger organizational context, the issue of knowledge sustainability and transfer become critical. Capturing lessons learned is important, not only in terms of the content of the project but also in terms of collaboration. The larger organization can learn a lot about effective collaboration from those temporary teams that become truly effective.

In addition to a rise in temporary organizations, we are also seeing a rise in temporary workers within organizations. Estimates are that roughly 20-30% of the workforce is made up of independents working for more than one organization. Independents are “separate and not equal” in many organizations.
There is perhaps a larger issue here that is beyond the scope of this post, but worth mentioning. Some have suggested that the decline of permanent employees may have contributed to the rise in wage inequality in the United States. In the past, when organizations hired many employees for all sorts of work (including janitorial work), there was at least in principle the opportunity to get promoted. With the increase in outsourcing, many organizations have trimmed their permanent payroll to focus on their core activities. Such outsourced firms generally pay less, with fewer benefits and fewer opportunities to get promoted and get pay raises.

At the same time, as McAffee and Brynollfson have pointed out, jobs that require high social skills have increased as a share of total employment. They state three reasons for this. First, since the world is becoming more complex and fast-paced, managers are needed to serve as “transmission belts” and facilitate the challenges of coordination (e.g., communicating, negotiating, etc.). Second, we are more persuaded by good stories and anecdotes than statistics and data. Third, we are social animals and like to work together. They argue that the companies of the future need to be more egalitarian and more transparent, i.e., that they share more information more widely than those in the past. 

Bakker, R. (2010). Taking Stock of Temporary Organizational Forms: A Systematic Review and Research Agenda. International Journal of Management Reviews, 12: 466-486.

Burke, C. and Morley, M. (2016). On Temporary Organizations: A Review, Synthesis and Research Agenda. Human Relations, 69 (6): 1235-1258.

Iacono, C. S. and Weisband, S. (1997). Developing Trust in Virtual Teams.

Meyerson, D. et al. (1996). Swift trust and temporary groups. In Kramer, R.M. and Rylwe, R. R. (eds.), Trust in Organizations: Frontiers of Theory and Research. Thousand Oaks, CS: Sage, pp. 166-195.

McAfee, A. and Brynjolfsson, E. (2017) Machine-Platform-Crowd. New York: W. W. Norton.

Scheiber, N. (2017). The Pop-Up Employer: Build a Team, Do the Job, and Say Goodbye. The New York Times, July 12.

Valentine, M. et al. (2017). Flash Organizations: Crowdsourcing Complex Work by Structuring Crowds as Organizations. www:

Van Marrewijk, A. et al. (2016). Clash of the Titans: Temporal Organizing and Collaborative Dynamics in the Panama Canal Megaproject. Organization Studies, 37 (12): 1745-1769.