July 2, 2012
At a time when criticism runs high about "essentialist" approaches to understanding culture and cultures, Richard Lewis has been unflagging in insisting upon exploring the cultural tendencies. He addresses the thinking and behaviors that are likely to constitute our identity and steer our behavior and our reactions to each other when working together with others different from ourselves. Those who know his previous work have probably been most struck by his ability to make the various processes of communication, management and collaboration visible in the form of simple diagrams that are a relief from the academic blah-blah and the judgmental jargon that often surrounds them. Lewis's picture language often comes as a great relief to those looking to succinctly frame a cultural discourse in a handout or a PowerPoint slide.
Lewis forces us to ask the question of how much simplification is useful and how much is likely to feed our eternal tendency to simplistic stereotyping. First of all, like most decent professionals in the intercultural field, Lewis is absolutely clear about the fact that it is cultural discourse, cultural behavioral tendencies that are being identified--that the menu is not the meal. What is painted broad brush is the background, not the detail of the masterpiece each of us tries to paint from what we have been given and what we have learned. This background is real, and while there may be strong reasons to examine it carefully, case by case, one would have to be deliberately blind to not be able to identify the discourse, values and behavior that cluster in certain populations, groups, and are likely to show themselves in everyday collaboration.
Critics of essentialism are right in pointing out the dangers of oversimplification and the tendency to reinforce perceptions that are damaging and counterproductive. They are also right in looking at the socially constructed realities in which our discourses and identities are both shaped and imprisoned. It is urgent that we address these principalities and powers for a more just future for ourselves and those who will inhabit this tiny but still somewhat blue planet. However, dismissing our best guesses at knowing each other is both counterproductive and likely to leave us without the resources and handles we need to create the more important changes we seek.
This implies categorization, and those who already know the work of Richard Lewis are probably familiar with his tripartite model of cultural tendencies that posits three major categories: linear-active, multi-active, and reactive. In the first part of this book, Lewis unfolds and illustrates as well as provides examples of how these general classifications might work as a starting point for interpreting and responding to multiple others. The principal points of the book are illustrated with small case studies throughout. The focus of When Teams Collide is how to apply cultural insight to team performance.
The second chapter takes a look at how teams are formed and organized and the challenges of their priorities in completing the task or tasks, which is their raison d'être. A good deal of the book looks at language, a particularly important topic at a moment when English or, "Globish" as some say, serves as a lingua franca, but not an exclusive one, in international business.
The third chapter addresses leadership styles in the international team. Here there are multiple images diagramming cultural leadership style tendencies. The core structure of some of them is readily identifiable from Lewis's previous work, but generally expanded here to reveal a wider range of influences leading to how the manager of a specific culture is likely to experience his or her priorities and use his or her time when it comes to leadership style and behavior. Interesting, and perhaps controversial, is Lewis's courage in accepting and discussing the religious dimension of leadership and collaboration that may be explicitly involved or provide the ambience for managerial and team behavior. This has long been the "elephant in the room" that rarely gets noticed from the perspective of how it contributes to thinking, interpersonal behavior and decision-making. There is an interesting set of illustrations of the priorities and behaviors that shape the work and communication hub managers from different cultures on a day-to-day basis.
Chapter 5 addresses the profiles of team members from the perspective of assisting the manager or leader to guide diversity and assure performance. It is also here that Lewis speaks of the durability of culture that underlies the interpretations of the individuals affected by it. Lewis provides well over twenty national profiles of individual managers representative of their cultures--the largest single section of the book, illustrating how cultural thinking and priorities are carried out in everyday team management by managers of diverse backgrounds.
The sixth chapter returns to the use of language by discussing "Speech Styles And Meeting Procedures," and briefly reviews a variety of communication patterns, opening the way for a more detailed discussion of "Communicating in English" in Chapter 7 where we get a look at numerous examples of "coded speech, even including a small chart of politically correct and politically incorrect terminology. PC is perhaps a new form of US indirection in speech, but a number of the examples are hard to read without laughing out loud. The rest of the chapter addresses the importance of various habits of listening according to their slice size on pie charts, a number of these charts are extrapolated from Lewis's earlier work, When Cultures Collide.
Chapter 8 is a short disquisition on the use of humor in multicultural teams. I think it can be summed up in the perception that every culture has its own humor that can be expressed and applied in different ways and situations. However, humor remains a minefield in intercultural communication, and while Anglos, Brits and Americans may love wit and storytelling respectively, it takes a lot of imagination and inventiveness to explore, understand, and use humor in a way that it is constructive in multicultural team.
A ninth chapter on decision-making is both about the ways in which decisions are taken in different cultures and, how they're likely to be received, and this is of course intimately linked with the topic of Chapter 10, "Behaving Ethically." This, in my opinion, is far too short a chapter for a topic that is far too complicated. It uses as a case study the 2002 World Cup, perhaps topical in the sense that controversy is raging at the moment about the unethical, exploitative behaviors of several of the corporate suppliers to the upcoming London Olympics, which were intended to be the most human and eco-friendly event in the history of the games.
Chapter 11 is a critical one. "Trust in the team" is both an interpersonal matter and a matter of the characteristics that we identify in ourselves and others that can make or break trust, or simply erode it or even keep it from happening. All kinds of different elements can be pointed to in the construction and destruction of trust. We are little used to taking seriously small things that drive big decisions. Is it out of place to assert that "Germans... Want to trust individuals who are clean, tidy, and wear new clothes?" The problem is that many of these little things are quite impactful at an unconscious level, and we need to bring them to the conscious level to decide whether to act on them or dismiss them. Lewis writes often in a very direct style that will delight some and offend others. The best way to put it is that he is the kind of person who is willing to call a "spade", "a bloody shovel." In determining what is real and what is right, it is not just our unconscious processes that are involved, but our conscious understanding of, and might I say, commitment to culturally established processes of thought and what we have determined to be our definition of truth.
When Teams Collide is meant to be a practical and readable book, and it is. And while it discusses cultural behavior worldwide, it is inevitably representative of our Western take on ourselves and others, and, perhaps, one of our main challenges in this whole multicultural business is not to take ourselves too seriously, a behavior which Lewis's style fortunately supports, reminding us in a way that we have an awful lot to learn. Perhaps the appendix, "Cultural Spectacles" dealing with the lenses we look through when we gaze at each other is a most fitting conclusion. Summing it up is the phrase, "In an international team, nobody is normal," as seen through the eyes of others. Despite the individualism that insists that each person is unique and the challenges of understanding how real and how deep hybridity may be, despite the rising incidence of third culture kids, total cosmopolitanism is a long way off, and perhaps neither a reachable nor desirable goal. Paradoxically, we often pose ourselves as such simply to avoid the pain of being identified with something that someone else does not like about us or about the parents or places we came from. While there are some female examples, gender influences in cultural constructions is largely absent from the book.