A Startling Look Into Our Cultural Mirror ~ Why Companies Struggle to Build Cohesive Teams and Develop the Right Leaders

I was approached a few weeks ago by a remarkable entrepreneur to talk about the possibility of conducting some cross-cultural leadership development for his team of business partners.  Coming from an Eastern culture, this group of hard working, kind spirited people are following the American Dream.  They’re creating jobs, adding to the wondrous fabric of our society, and charting their own path much like our forefathers and foremothers did long before we fell into our expected comforts of modern America.  It is an exciting opportunity, and thankfully, because of my work in Corporate America in international markets and my continuous interest and studies into cultures much older than ours, I felt well prepared to embark on this project.

As I began my research, I was compelled to take a long, cold look into our own cultural mirror.  To step away from a perspective we, that grew up here, more or less take for granted every day.  In doing so, I began to realize how peculiar we Americans must look to those from other parts of the world.  Especially from the East.  So, ever the diligent market researcher, I began to ask local merchants and business people from these other cultures what they thought of us Americans.

The emotional response that immediately emerged to this seemingly benign question set me back on my heels.  I began to see how, through their eyes, our behaviors, mannerisms, and attitudes appear to be misaligned with many of the values we so dearly espouse.  To others we can appear to be a bit mad, seemingly thrashing about in a frenzy of activity with little self-reflection to center and ground ourselves.

Next, I began to explore the academic research on the similarities and differences of culture. I began to dig into Geerte Hofestede’s remarkable work researching the dimensions of culture.  The key dimension that jumped off the page was his take on Individualism versus Collectivism (and no, he’s not referencing socialism here).  We Americans are endeared with the rugged individual; the lone pioneer that forged their future through grit and determination.  My prospect, on the other hand, comes from a culture that holds the extended family at the center of their cultural lives.  Their caring for one another is as engrained in their perspective of what it means to be a human being as ours is with the larger-than-life image of John Wayne’s lone silhouette  sauntering off into the sunset  at the end of the movie, “The Seekers”.

The historical split in this view of the world can be traced back to ancient Persia and the rise of Zoroastrianism around 600 B.C. (the great comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell is a wonderful resource if you care to explore this in more detail).  It is when and where the psyche of human beings split between the Western hunting and herding cultures and the Eastern agrarian cultures.  Hunting was often a lone, isolating venture and one well suited for the dominant, physical nature of men.  Farming on the other hand, especially in ancient times, required the cooperation of many, both of women and men.  It followed the cycles of the seasons and required storing between harvests, which is why much of the early cosmology, written language, mathematics, and detailed calendars emerged in the East.  It was at this time, nearly 3,000 years ago, that the seeds were sewn for our Western perspective to emerge. That we were  somehow separate from the natural world, separate from one another, and entitled to take whatever we wanted from nature, regardless of the outcome.  Our Eastern counterparts stayed upon their course of being as one with the natural world, and thoroughly connected with one another, especially through the extended family, but throughout the community as well.  This isn’t to deny that caste and class created hierarchies of status, we are all human beings and we’ve yet to create a utopian society.

With the dawn of the Industrial Age, this Western attitude went into overdrive.  The mythology of the self-made man, the Horatio Alger story, the lone industrialist that clawed his way to the top settled into our American culture.  Even in our modern day, no one succeeds completely on their own, yet this still resonates in our minds.  We cherish and herald competition, successful competition, as our highest value.  Yet for someone to win, someone else must lose in this scenario.  In older cultures, it is the opposite.  Cooperative behavior is held in the highest esteem.  Cooperation leads to win-win outcomes.  What is eroding this traditional outlook in the East is America’s most permeating export…our culture.

So here we are today, in 2012, and the entire world is shifting beneath our feet.  We have moved well beyond the Industrial Age to a time when the commercialization of intellectual property is the primary driver of value creation in our economy.  The source of intellectual property is human creativity, and the only way to commercialize it efficiently is through the cooperation of highly cohesive teams of knowledge workers.  This point was underscored in the 2010 IBM Global CEO Survey.  In conducting face-to-face interviews with more than 1,500 CEOs, IBM discovered the single most important attribute CEOs are looking for in future leaders is creativity and the ability to cultivate creativity throughout the organization.

Here’s the challenge for Western businesses.  We’ve been conditioned, trained, and enculturated to beat the competition at every turn.  As a successful business strategists I too became a master of this game.  I would focus maniacally on leveraging a company’s core competencies to create a continuous competitive advantage.  With this as our guiding principle, looking outward into the marketplace, how could it not eventually reverberate back onto us within our organizational cultures?  I played this game for years, and played it well.  I competed for the next promotion, the next raise, the next big opportunity to propel my career forward.  With every level I moved up the hierarchical pyramid, the competition grew more ferocious and cut throat.  Not everyone I competed against felt compelled to play by the rules, or were content to succeed based upon their merit and performance, either.  It became ugly and mean-spirited.  By the time I was sitting in the board room I found myself surrounded by a fierce group of dominant, lone hunters.  And if we are to believe the study issued by McKinsey & Co.® published last June, that out of a sample size of 5,560 “C” level and one-step-down executives, only 1% of corporate leaders scored excellent in eight key leadership competencies we really have some challenges ahead.  Ninety percent scored below average.  I’m also not convinced all of the competencies they were testing are even relevant in today’s rapidly changing economy.

So here’s the real challenge for us today…

If we recognize that creative, cooperative and highly inclusive teams are the key to success going forward, how are we changing our approach to team building and leadership development?  In most cases, we’re not.  We see companies spending billions of dollars a year on programs that have utterly failed.  We send teams off to build boats in luxury hotel swimming pools, send them up into the trees to navigate ropes courses, and even worse, have them spend the day playing war games or shooting at each other with paint balls.  Activities that favor and continue to engrain dominant, competitive behaviors.  Activities that often marginalize large segments of the organization that may not be physically competitive by their very nature, yet very well may be some of the most creatively gifted members of their staff.

How are we developing our next generation of leaders?  Have we shifted the developmental paradigm or are we continuing to follow the same pattern that has so obviously failed us?  A peer-reviewed research study published in January of 2010 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology* identified the the fact that up and coming leaders that express creative thinking are sidetracked on their way up the ladder.  The creativity the CEOs are claiming to seek is being tossed aside before it can fully developed and prepared to take the helm.  Again, companies are spending billions of dollars a year on leadership training and development that is painfully misguided.

Yesterday, I heard Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Perry speaking about her new book, “Sister Citizen” on the radio.  She made a comment about what it takes to embrace an entirely new perspective, one that breaks the chains of our conditioned minds and behaviors.  She used a term I had never heard before and upon hearing it I knew in my head and felt in my heart she was absolutely correct.  Dr. Harris-Perry said that in order to embrace a meaningful shift in perspective one must have a SEE; a Significant Emotional Event.  Why do I know she is right?  Because I witness this in every Equine Facilitated Experiential Learning workshop we conduct.  Having been engaged in this work for more than four years now, I have seen this shift in perspective emerge through the significant emotional events and relationship metaphors that inevitably emerge while experiencing the work with the horses.

Is our approach different?  It sure is…and it is effective.  The specially designed exercises with the horses literally speaks to everyone by moving the participants through all four modalities of Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory (according to Dr. David Kolb’s research, adults learn using two or three of these modalities: experiential learning, reflective learning, modeling & correlation, and trial & error).  Horses also model a different pattern of behavior.  As herds of prey animals, they evolved in the wild to become highly functional teams.  In packs of predators the leader is the one who dominates.  In a herd of horses, the leader is the one who is watched.  It’s an interesting alternative, perhaps one worth considering as we attempt to navigate the adaptive challenges of our times.

The shift in perspective is the first step.  Building cooperative, cohesive teams and developing mindful, transformational leaders is process-driven and requires ongoing education and coaching to engrain over time.

Whether or not we secure the cross-cultural leadership opportunity I mentioned at the beginning of this article is, quite frankly irrelevant.  The revenue would be welcomed of course, and the experience would be remarkably enriching.  But the value of the education this prospect has already afforded, of drawing my attention back onto my own culture, is a gift in and of itself!

*Recognizing Creative Leadership: Can Creative Idea Expression Negatively Relate to Perceptions of Leadership Potential?”, Jennifer S. Mueller, Jack Goncalo, Dishan Kamdar, Cornell University ILR School, IRL Collection, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, January, 2010

© 2012, Terry Murray.

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Filed under Leadership Development, Organizational Culture, Team Building

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