Aligning Organization Development to Global Organizing, Part2

By Allon Shevat



III Adapting Organization Development to Global Organizing: 

No Meeting in the Middle

The Organizational Development practitioner can use current Western OD within and between western geographies. When there is acute diversity within western geographies, caution is nevertheless advised. When OD is practiced in global organizations, where for example, Japanese, Thais, Americans, Mexicans, Egyptians, Indians, Taiwanese, Malaysians and Australians interact intensely, this presents a “new ballgame with new rules” for Organization Development.

The natural instinct of an OD consultant may be “when I meet acute differences, let’s all just meet in the middle”. However, meeting somewhere in the middle is just another western cultural bias.

Some cultures are more flexible to meet in the middle (Dutch, Scandinavian e.g.) whilst others are more rigid and self centered. Within certain cultures meeting in the middle/compromise may be dignified, others see meeting in the middle as weakness.

Some cultures look at their way of doing things as the right way (US); others look at things more pragmatically. At times religious or ideological context dictates no meeting in the middle.

“Meeting somewhere in the middle” is a western bias of Organization Development. This western bias is based upon pragmatism, expedience and solving problems.

OD needs to accept that diversity in the framework of global organizing means the inevitability of living with lots of pain, constant misunderstandings, latent power struggles and communication breakdowns.

Instead of “meeting in the middle” OD must focus on building more appropriate expectations about organizational life, ensure appropriate staffing for leadership and other key roles, and develop ways of building very strong personal relationships whilst fostering cultural humility. All these will replace “meeting in the middle” with a more appropriate and value-free response.

IV Adapting Organization Development to Global Organizing-Cultural Humility

Cultural humility is a key component of aligning Organization Development to global organizing.

Cultural humility consists of

1) Awareness about one’s own cultures assumptions and limitations

2) Awareness of the variance about the role of consultant.

3) A mindset that says:” My way of looking at things and/or doing things may not be appropriate.”

4) A willingness to see reality though other peoples’ lenses to so as not to impose your own way of interacting.

5) A willingness to try different ways of interacting and be less biased in judging others’ behaviour.

Cultural humility will inevitably lead the Organization Developer to different behaviors in certain circumstances than otherwise expected, for example:

  • avoid unpleasant interaction instead of encouraging management of conflict
  • allow face saving instead of honest feedback, when the honest feedback is seen as damaging cohesion
  • less use of meetings in order not to embarrass people who prefer to express everything of importance discretely

Here is an example of cultural humility in action:

Gordon asked me to work with Fred and John, two product managers who are on their way to Thailand to promote their products. Gordon asked me to work on the issue of cultural humility with them.

John had “no time for bullshit” and never met me. John came to Thailand for 3 days. He came in at 0900 am and convened a meeting to get “right down to business”. He talked for 45 minutes heaping lavish praise on his product, and asked “if there were any questions”. No one answered him so he said, “I am going to go one by one and I would ask for your honest assessment how we can “make this fly here in Thailand.” He pointed to the youngest lady at the left and said-you go first.” John had no cultural humility. John’s visit had no impact whatsoever and his product shows no growth.

Fred was far more cooperative with me; he and I prepared his trip. During the 18 days in Bangkok, Fred never convened any meetings to ask embarrassing questions. During the first few days he had easy going, face to face meetings and got to know the people and making them feel comfortable. Fred projected, “I am in no hurry”. Fred joined the folks at meals, even on weekends. Fred spent extensive face to face time with people to get their input. Most important, Fred learnt to speak indirectly; he knew that it is not acceptable for him to shame people in the Thai local office by asking them for “advice”, since Fred is from HQ is supposed to know, not ask. Fred got high quality input from the sophisticated local Thai team; sales of his product skyrocketed. Cultural humility had paid off!

V Adapting Organization Development to Global Organizing:

Understanding and Leveraging Face Saving

Understanding “face saving” and using it appropriately is probably the most difficult skill that someone steeped in traditional OD needs to acquire.

While the concept of face saving does exist in Western Cultures, it is far less prominent, salient and discernible in the business domain than it is in Asia.

Let us look at what “face” looks like in the West.

1) Your aging father calls you in the morning and ask you, “how are you feeling, sonny boy?” The “truth” is that you are very worried about an income tax issue, and you have a headache. Yet you answer “fine Dad, and how are you”. You want to save your father from feeling uncomfortable.

2) Your partner asks you “how do I look in this new dress”. The “truth” is that you are very busy with other issues and clothes are not your thing. “Great, darling”, is your answer. You prefer harmony to telling her “I am not the person to ask, and this is not the right moment”.

3) You tell a visiting colleague, Igor, from Russia. “Why don’t you come by and visit next time you are in the States” You may have no intention of following through on that, but you want to make him feel good.

4) You compete for a tender and lose. You pick up the phone, call your lost client, and “thank” him for having given you a chance and wish him “success”. You prefer maintaining harmony from telling him the “truth” because civility is more important in the long term.

All of the above are elements of face in the West.

In the East, face saving is very predominant at work. Face is saved itself by oblique communication, telling people what they want to hear, subjugating facts to harmony and lavishing praise to convey dignity based on ascription.

Face services and maintains the much cherished value of harmony; harmony is more valued than authenticity because authenticity can be “destabilizing”. Discrete communication saves people’s face while directness and openness damage people’s face. Telling people what they want to hear is “ultimate honesty”, because it maintains harmony above and beyond a few unpleasant facts.

Organizational Development must get the issue of face right, or else the profession cannot be practiced globally. By getting it right, I do not mean “explaining it”. I mean integrating face saving as a legitimate and at times preferred venue of communication.

“Organization Development is not about face saving”, it may be claimed. Well, traditional OD is not about global organizations! For more than half the world’s population, face saving is a major and dominating component of organizational behaviour. Not factoring in face saving to change efforts and interventions is done to the existential peril of Organization Development.

Here is a case that illustrates how Organization Development can support face saving and change.

D is a client of mine from Holland. I know him from McGill University. We met in a Chinese history class in the sixties. He tracked me down because he knows I practice OD globally.

D leads a Sales Force in China for an Israeli-Dutch company. Two of his key Chinese subordinates, A&B, do not cooperate. No information is shared between them. No leads are shared. Both A and B bad mouth one another to the clients. Sales have plummeted.

I spent about 50 hours alone both with A and B. My goal was to give them face, and earn face to leverage the face for change.

I spent a lot of informal time with A and B. They know about my kids. I know about their families. We are not friends. Yet they both trust me. I praise them, I make them look good and I helped them with issues they have with D. (I have arranged business class tickets for their wives for non-business related travel and helped them hire people whom D did not want to hire.) I build a face “credit line” with them to eventually leverage, so that A and B can save my face!

D called me and told me that “we have no more time for process; these two bums A & B must cooperate”.

I made my move, leveraging on the face I had garnered with A & B.

Here is the gist of what I told A & B in separate conversations.

I have a problem. D hired me to improve the way we work. There are rumours that there is no information sharing between “certain people”. There are badmouthing rumours. Maybe come clients are playing games “making us all look bad”. I need help because I am failing. Can you help me? A and B started to cooperate! They were returning a favour to me, giving me face. Within a week, Mr. D sent me a bottle of wine.


Read more: VI Adapting Organization Development to Global Organizing

Read more: VII Adapting Organization Development to Global Organizing

Go back: I Prologue


read also: Contribution