Dialogue as a Cultural Island for Multicultural Exploration

The norms created in a dialogue group lend themselves to the explorations of critical cultural differences. The dialogue process allows the articulation of macrocultural differences at a personal level so that the participants not only learn how macrocultures differ at a general level but can experience those differences immediately in the room. This learning is achieved by using the check-in to focus on the critical issues of authority and intimacy. The process is illustrated in the case and could be varied according to the actual circumstances that a given leader faces.

1. How to Set Up a Dialogue

The case example involved students in a learning situation. How a com­parable process would be set up in a multicultural task force or a surgi­cal team depends very much on the actual situation and the goals that the leader is trying to accomplish. Ideally the group will have already decided to move physically out of the work setting to make the creation of the cultural island atmosphere easier. However, the dialogue format can create the cultural island atmosphere on its own if the ground rules are followed. In fact, the power of the dialogue format is that it stimulates the cultural island norms through its process even if it is done in a work setting. Exhibit 21.2 lays out the process if you desire to run your own dialogue session.

If the new organization is a multicultural group or a collaboration, the same process is used but the initial questions for the check- in might be something specific that highlights cultural differences in relation to the task but always deals with authority and intimacy. For example, if the group is a safety committee in a multinational company such as Schlumberger, you might ask each member to, say, “What would you do if you saw your boss about to do something that you consider to be unsafe?” And for the second round, you might ask, “What would you do if a coworker whom you don’t know is about to do something that you consider to be unsafe?”

Again, the goal is to avoid one- on- one conversations, questions, or arguments, stimulating instead a listening climate such that members will be less self-conscious and less worried about self-presentation. Talking to the campfire is crucial because the campfire does not talk back.

2. When and Why to Use Dialogue and Other Forms of Cultural Islands

I have been arguing throughout this fourth edition that the world is changing toward more cultural diversity. Cultural diversity breeds more communication problems, especially at hierarchic boundaries because the rules of deference and demeanor are so highly variable around the world and across occupations. My own organizational experience tells me that communication is a problem even within a given culture, so the trend toward cultural diversity will exacerbate this problem.

For example, in the arena of safety in high hazard industries such as nuclear power, airlines, and health care, the biggest inhibiter to effective per­formance is the failure of upward communication. It is sad to see how many fatal accidents over the years have resulted from communication failures that have cultural roots. In the NASA space program in both the Challenger and Columbia cases, there were engineers who were unable to communicate with managers, clear examples of subcultural differences that did not get resolved (Gerstein, 2008). In the power industry as exemplified by the Alpha case reviewed in this book, it has become increasingly clear that the day-to-day performance of the entire organization rests on the skill and commitment of the hourly employees. If supervisors and their managers fail to create a climate of psychological safety that stimulates upward communication, both safety and overall organizational effectiveness will be compromised. To minimize this risk, most committees have both union and management on the commit­tee and trained facilitators to run the meetings. Though they do not use the formal dialogue model presented here, they create cultural islands through their training center programs and through very thorough accident investi­gations that deemphasize blame. The surgical teams referred to before went away for training in a cultural island setting and went through various inter­personal exercises and simulations to establish open communication lines.

When it comes to multinational groups, the problems are, of course, worse because there may not even be a common language with which to have a dialogue. In such a situation, the actual learning of a common lan­guage can itself be a facilitative cultural island. As Gladwell (2008) points out in his reconstruction of the Colombian airlines disaster in 1990, that at the root of it was (1) the failure of the Colombian co-pilot to understand that the JFK controllers did not translate “we are low on fuel” into “EMERGENCY,” and (2) that the co-pilot did not know that being put at the head of the line for landing only occurred if you declared an emer­gency. He further notes that the Korean Airline had a series of disasters in the 1990s because of communication failures across rank levels within the cockpit and that this eventually was only ameliorated by shifting the cockpit language to English. The change in language provided the cultural island that permitted the introduction of new rules that led to better com­munication in the cockpit.

Along these same lines, “ procedures ” and “ checklists ” are devices that can function as cultural islands in the sense that going through the list is a culturally neutral process. The subordinate is licensed to ask challeng­ing questions of the more senior person if it is a checklist item without thereby threatening the senior person ’s face. Checklists and procedures have been very helpful in the medical context in that they neutralize the dangerous status gap between nurses and technicians on the one hand and doctors on the other hand. The checklist or procedure can become a superordinate authority that puts the doctor, nurse, and technician on an equal level as they go through the procedure. Insisting that dialogue con­versations be “to the campfire” in a multinational group serves the same neutralizing function in implying that each culture is of equal rank and validity. Face-to-face implies comparison, which at this stage of exploration, is undesirable.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition

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