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Cultural Dilemma

Several weeks ago, I was put in my place. After an impromptu, informal brainstorming session with my 2 managers (one American, the other Angolan) – literally, think 3 chairs crowded around a desk with ideas flowing from every direction – I was pulled aside by my Angolan boss who told me that I needed to stop talking out of turn. Apparently, I answered a question before he did and it really pissed him off that I made him look bad in front of our other boss. Apparently, I piss him off a lot.

Yes, yes, we learned all about this in our cultural dimensions discussions at Thunderbird. African (and most Latin) cultures tend to be extremely hierarchical. Respect is given to seniority, and I, being the most junior person of the three, should respect the authority figures. Of course, this situation wasn’t exactly clear cut. In a hierarchical society, there would be no such thing as a brainstorming session (clearly an idea imported by the American manager). The Director would give detailed directions to his inferiors, who would then be expected to carry out the tasks without questioning authority or adding value to the process. The junior member certainly wouldn’t be part of the decision-making process or strategy setting. The truth is, my organization is implemented by American managers, using standard American management practices, and is employed by young, eager to learn Angolans. I think that most of the Angolan employees find it refreshing to be part of a collaborative environment where they are asked to be involved in coming up with ideas to improve the way we do things. So, you can imagine my surprise when after 9 months of freely participating in meetings and sharing my opinions among a flat organizational structure, I was told that I was being disrespectful to my manager by not giving him a chance to answer questions first — while brainstorming!

To fully appreciate the irony of this situation would involve knowing a little about where I’ve come from. I grew up in an extremely hierarchical family structure, so neither the ideas nor the practice are foreign to me. I was taught to be obedient, respect authority and speak only when spoken to; and I carried this with me throughout my schooling and into my first job. It was while working that I realized that the cultural norms I grew up with (my parents are both immigrants) differed greatly among my American peers who seemed much more at ease with authority. They asked for (and received) things I would never dream of asking. They asked insightful questions and voiced their opinions in meetings with managers 3 levels above them. I, on the other hand, sat quietly, took notes, and did my job…very well, I might add. Only speaking up when someone asked me what I thought. During most of my early career, all of my managers consistently gave me the same review: “You’re one of our best performers. You have great ideas and initiative. SPEAK UP!!”

It wasn’t really until business school that I truly got over my fear of voicing my opinion to authority figures. I would challenge myself to participate at least once in each class discussion. It was a little frightening at first to overcome whatever mental barrier I had put up, but after 2 years and countless case discussions, I emerged confident in my own abilities and opinions. I am proud of myself. I no longer am a passive, subservient little girl, but rather someone who offers up ideas, sizes up situations, and communicates an action plan without needing to wait to be asked.

So here I am in Angola, now being asked by authority to return to my old self, to a self I don’t think I can return to. In business school we learn that good international managers adapt their management styles to the cultural norms of their host country, careful not to inadvertently offend or disrespect the colleagues they are trying to lead and influence. So the big question is: In adapting to the hierarchical structure and being mindful not to disrespect my manager, am I actually undoing my own progress and disrespecting myself? That is something I simply cannot do.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Katie
    August 5, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    Yes, I hear you, and I appreciate you voicing this critical and intriguing question. Are you able to be a good international manager by adapting without losing a key piece of what makes you so good in the first place? The trick perhaps is in finding a way to voice your opinions with special attention played to the delivery. I don’t have it quite figured out yet, my dear American friend 🙂

  2. Peter-Jan van As
    August 19, 2010 at 9:59 am

    Hi,
    My name is Peter-Jan, I work for a Dutch company in Angola. What you describe sounds very familiar to me, and I encounter plenty of misunderstandings and miscommunications on the workfloor every day. I am working on a training to create more awareness and perhaps improve working relations between Angolans and expats, and amongst colleagues in general.
    Drop me an email if you are interested in sharing some ideas.

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