The Concept of a Temporary Cultural Island

A cultural island is a situation in which the rules of having to maintain face are temporarily suspended so that we can explore our self-concepts and thereby our values and tacit assumptions, especially around authority and inti­macy. The first use of this term in the organizational domain was in Bethel, Maine where Human Relations Training groups met for several weeks to learn about leadership and group dynamics (Bradford, Gibb, and Benne, 1964; Schein and Bennis, 1965). The essence of this training process was described in detail in Chapter Twelve and is based on the theory that this kind of learning has to be “experiential” in the sense that group members would learn from their own efforts to become a group. The groups were deliberately composed in such a way that all members would be strangers to each other so that no one had to maintain a particular identity vis-a-vis the others in the group. At the same time, the “trainers” or staff members of these T-groups (training groups) deliberately withheld any suggestions for the agenda, work­ing method, or structure, thus forcing members to invent their own social order, their own norms, and ways of working together. The main impact of this kind of learning was that people confronted their own assumptions and observed how these differed from the assumptions of others.

As was described in Chapter Twelve , the problems of authority, inti­macy, and identity had to be confronted immediately through personal experimentation and observation of an individual’s impact on others. Members became acutely aware that there was no one best way to do things, that the best way had to be discovered, negotiated, and ratified, leading eventually to strong group norms that created a microculture in each T-group. Members also discovered that they did not have to like each other to work together, but they had to have sufficient empathy to be able to accept others and work with them. Microcultures often formed within a day or two in these groups and were viewed by each group as the best way to do things—“we are the best group.”

What made T-group experiential learning possible was that the learn­ing took place under conditions where members could relax the need to defend their own cultural assumptions because they were strangers to each other, were in a situation defined as “learning” rather than performing, and had the time and staff resources to develop their own learning skills. In terms of the change model described in Chapter Seventeen, they were in a psychologically safe situation.

It is my proposition that for multicultural collaborations to work, the members must first learn about each other in a temporary cultural island. The leaders and managers who create such groups must therefore develop the skills to create temporary cultural island experiences for the members to enable them to work effectively. How would a leader design such a situation? Exhibit 21.1 shows the essential conditions that are needed for this learning process to be successful.

Several of the points in the exhibit are deliberately general and abstract because how they are implemented will vary with the purpose of estab­lishing the cultural island in the first place. But the basic logic is that to truly understand the deep assumptions of the macrocultures involved in the group, we must create a microculture that personalizes those assumptions and makes them available for reflection and understanding. I can be told that as an American, we have fairly “low power distance” in U.S. culture, and that my Mexican team member comes from a culture with “higher power distance,” but this will mean nothing to me until we can concretize these generalizations in our own behavior and feelings. I need to discover within myself how I relate to people in authority, and I need to listen with empathy to how my Mexican teammate feels about his relationship to authority. If there are more than two of us, we must each develop some understanding and empathy for each other.

Cultural islands that attempt to facilitate this level of mutual under­standing are created when we send teams to Outward Bound kinds of training, when we put teams in simulations, in role playing situations, in post-mortems or After Action Reviews where a review of operations or experiences deliberately tries to minimize hierarchy and open communica­tion to lower status participants (Conger, 1992; Darling and Parry, 2001; Mirvis, Ayas, and Roth, 2003). What these situations and programs have in common is that they put participants into the cultural island, but then what they do within the cultural island setting varies widely according to the purpose of the exercise. To focus the activity within the cultural island on obtaining multicultural insight and empathy, the participants must cre­ate a conversation in a dialogue format.

Focused Dialogue as a Cultural Island

Dialogue is a form of conversation that allows the participants to relax suf­ficiently to begin to examine the assumptions that lie behind their thought processes (Isaacs, 1999; Schein, 1993). Instead of trying to solve problems rapidly, the dialogue process attempts to slow down the conversation to allow participants to reflect on what comes out of their own mouths and what they hear from the mouths of others. The key to initiating dialogic conversation is to create a setting in which participants feel secure enough to suspend their need to win arguments, clarify everything they say, and challenge each other every time they disagree. In a dialogue, if someone has just said something that I disagree with, suspension would mean that I would hold back voicing my disagreement and, instead, silently ask myself why I disagree and what assumptions I am making that might explain the disagreement.

This form of dialogue is a low-key “talking around the campfire,” allow­ing enough time for and encouraging reflective conversation, rather than confrontational conversation, discussion, or debate. Talking “to the camp­fire” is an important element of this dialogue process because the absence of eye contact makes it easier to suspend reactions, disagreements, objections, and other responses that might be triggered by face-to-face conversation. The purpose is not just to have a quiet, reflective conversation; rather, it is to allow participants to begin to see where their deeper levels of thought and tacit assumptions differ. Paradoxically such reflection leads to better listening in that if I identify my own assumptions and filters first, I am less likely to mishear or misunderstand the subtle meanings in the words of oth­ers. I cannot understand another culture if I have no insight into my own.

For this to work, all of the parties to the dialogue have to be willing to suspend their impulses to disagree, challenge, clarify, and elaborate. The conversational process imposes certain rules such as not interrupting, talk­ing to the symbolic campfire instead of to each other, limiting eye contact, and, most important of all, starting with a “check-in.” Checking in at the beginning of the meeting means that each member in turn will say some­thing to the group as a whole, the campfire, about his or her present mental state, motivation, or feelings. Only when all of the members have checked in, is the group ready for a more free-flowing conversation. The check-in ensures that everyone has made an initial contribution to the group and, thereby, has helped to create the group.

An example of discovering our own culture typically arises immediately around the instruction to talk to the campfire and avoid eye contact. For some people, this is very easy, but for others, for example, American human resource professionals, this is very difficult because in U.S. culture looking at each other is considered “good communication,” and this is reinforced by the professional norms in the human resource field that eye contact is necessary to make the other feel that you are really listening.

Talking to the symbolic campfire serves several important functions. First of all it encourages group members to become more reflective by not getting distracted by how others look and respond. Second, it preserves the sense of being one whole group by symbolically contributing each comment to the center not to one or two other members, even though the com­ment may have been triggered by them. For example, if I have a specific question based on what member A has said, there is a consequential differ­ence between my saying directly to A, “What did you mean by . . . ?” versus saying to the campfire, “What A has just said makes me want to ask. . . .”

The second way of saying it raises the issue for the group as a whole. Third, the campfire avoids the common phenomenon of two members get­ting into a deep discussion while the rest of the group becomes a passive audience. The goal is to suspend as many of the assumed rules of interac­tion coming from all the different cultural social orders and create a new container within which members can talk more openly and can verbalize their reflections.

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

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