A Dialogue of the Deaf?

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David Molian

Before her trip to Salzburg last week Theresa May had already embraced the description  “a bloody difficult woman”. She came back a bloody angry one as well, channelling her fury into what, by common consent, was the best speech of her political career. Strangely enough, the silence from the #metoo sisterhood, so ready to take offence on other people’s behalf, was deafening in the face of this piece of schoolboy bullying, with Tusk, no doubt egged on by Macron et al, posting his childish, gratuitously insulting tweet.  But we’ll leave that to one side.

I’ve posted in a previous article that the Eurocracy values ideological purity over pragmatism [except when it suits them], and that political objectives will always take priority over economic realities. To many Brits it’s baffling. Instinctively we appeal to “common sense” and mutual interest, and take refuge in a touching belief that if we only talk the thing through eventually we’ll find a route out of the thorniest set of issues. It ain’t necessarily so. Cameron essayed his suave Etonian charm to win concessions, only to be met with “which bit of non, nein and no do you not understand?”, and encountered the same rejection when he tried to sell a pig in a poke to the British public.

Academics are often accused of a lack of engagement with the real world. There’s some truth in this, but it’s not always the case.  The following episode may throw some additional light on why Brexit talks are stuck in our very own version of Groundhog Day.

Professor Jean-Claude Usunier* recounts the story of a business school colleague who conducted a cross-cultural experiment. The instructor was teaching a group of executives from a multinational company. It so happened that the class divided more or less equally between French, German and British nationals, and the teacher assigned them a case study to review and analyse. The case was short and concerned a festering and commercially-damaging dispute between the marketing and production functions within a disguised organisation. The assignment was to identify the root cause of the disagreement and how this might be resolved. He divided the class into three sub-groups by nationality, and sent them off to discuss this in separate study rooms.

At the appointed time they returned to present their conclusions in turn.  One group had determined the underlying problem to be that the organisations’s processes lacked clarity, creating ambiguity and confusion.  The matter could be resolved once roles, responsibilities and accountability were cleared up. A second group had found that the basic problem was a lack of communication: once the departments started talking to each other, better engagement would produce an improved understanding of each side’s concerns and thus the situation would resolve itself. The third group stated that the fundamental issue was a lack of leadership from the top. If the boss stepped in to knock heads together, everyone would know where they stood and things would get back to normal.

As you may have already guessed, the learning value of the exercise was not so much in providing a definitive answer  – each proposal had its merits – but to demonstrate that culturally-derived assumptions inform our approach to solving problems.  Moreover, these tend to be reinforced when such decisions are made by groups, such as fellow-nationals, who share a common culture.  Usunier infers from this episode that managers operate with implicit models of organisations: in this instance, the first group viewed the organisation as a machine, the second as a kind of marketplace for the exchange of information and the third case as a hierarchical pyramid in which the man at the top – and it is usually a man – calls the shots.

No doubt you have already attempted to guess the identity of each group.  To see if you guessed right, here’s the dénouement: the first presentation was made by the German group, the second by the British and the third by the French. It is always a dangerous game to leap from the particular instance to the general, but it may go some way to explaining why the Germans are particularly good at making cars, why London is a world centre for trading financial instruments and the French have such a strong track record delivering grands projects.  Personally I found this insight confirmed by my own experience of ten years spent designing and leading programmes for European middle and senior managers within a big multinational: when they worked on assignments in national groupings, there were consistent and predictable patterns in their approaches to solving problems.

So what, you might say. Culture influences managerial behaviour. This is hardly big news. Bear with me.

On a number of occasions I’ve shared this anecdote with UK managers attending programmes at Cranfield, not disclosing the national identities of the three groups but asking them to guess. Invariably they identify the second solution correctly as British, but almost as frequently they misattribute the German and French solutions.  When the punchline is revealed it has provoked a lively discussion, often eliciting comments to the effect that’s why we’re having problems with our customer/agent/supplier in Hamburg/Lyon/Antwerp or wherever.

The outcome of Brexit will be determined, on the European side, by the French and the Germans. That is the Realpolitik of the situation. Not only are these the two largest economies of mainland Europe, but they were the moving spirits behind the European project from the very beginning, embodied in the person of Robert Schuman. Each nation also has, arguably, most to gain and most to lose by its continuing success or failure. If the UK is going to make a success of the negotiations, a deep understanding of European history and cultural identities is a prerequisite.

You might think foreigners are bloody difficult, but it isn’t half helpful to know why they’re bloody difficult.

*recounted in International Marketing : a Cultural Approach

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