The inherent wrongness of your mental screwdrivers

A couple of years ago, I bought an apartment in Vancouver and was told it needed some new shelves.  I was going over anyway, so I decided to fit them myself.  Because I come from a moderately universalist society, I took my screwdrivers.  A screwdriver is a screwdriver, right?

In Europe, the heads of screws and bolts either have horizontal grooves, a cross-shaped slot, or occasionally a hexagonal hole.  Readers on the Western side of the Atlantic will know where this is going – when I arrived in Vancouver, I could not find a single screw with ‘normal’ heads and I had to buy a new set of screwdrivers to fit their weird square-holed screw heads. Just as screwdrivers are culturally specific, so are management styles and theories about management. 

In this set of articles we will scratch the surface of the differences between cultures, how this leads to different styles of leadershiptools & techniques, different organisation structures and looked at what happens when management cultures and corporate cultures collide. We’ve also looked at how you may need to tailor the communication mechanisms across cultural boundaries.  

It will become painfully clear that if you manage a team overseas, you must use management mechanisms that will be recognised and respected by the team, rather than the ones that you feel are inherently 'right'. Matrix management works in Milwaukee but not in Monaco. Sempai-Kohei relationships work in Tokyo but not in Trondheim.  Nepotism is frowned on in Indiana but works reasonably well in India. And people from universalist societies who work abroad are in for a nasty shock when they run multinational teams, because they will find their mental screwdrivers are the wrong shape.

Models of leadership and decision-making

We looked earlier at how our education systems have determined the way we think, and how these ways of thinking are replicated when students become teachers themselves. The teacher, in short, is the educational meme’s way of reproducing itself.

The memes we pick up in schools and from our parents similarly affect the way that we lead, and the leaders that we choose.

Read more: Models of leadership and decision-making

Management tools & techniques

As well as ideal organisation structures, we also carry memes about how we should be managed and how we should manage others. People from individualist societies see themselves as architects of their own success or failure, but people from more group-centred societies see success as stemming from their relationships with others: success, they say, comes from the team rather than the individual. The other factor that determines management mechanisms is the degree of difference in power we are prepared to accept between us and our bosses – whether we are happy for the boss to tell us what to do, or whether it is closer to a negotiation.

The management tools that work depends on the distance between the boss and the worker and the degree of responsibility felt by individuals – Anglo-Saxon management tools do not work well in group-centred cultures.

Read more: Management tools & techniques

Preferred organisation structures

Just as the behaviours that we inherit in the cradle and the schoolroom affect the way we lead, they determine the organisation structures that we prefer to work in. These preferred structures can be derived from the way that we accept differences in power and the way that we see ambiguity.

Read more: Preferred organisation structures

Coping with culture shock

We've discussed in the Social Structures category how society is a concept transmitted by memes, and in a memetic theory of organisations we will see that corporate culture is too.  But since our parents infect us with their cultural view from the time that we learn to recognise language, and the process continues throughout our education until the time we enter the world of work, it should come as no surprise that the societal culture overrides the corporate culture in almost every case.  If we ignore this, as people from strongly universalist societies are prone to, the consequences are serious.

Read more: Coping with culture shock