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Bridging the International Corporate Geo-Cultural Divide or Presenter Beware and Buyer Be Aware

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist ...Read More

For the first time I was accused of being “Amero-centric.” This caught me off guard as I tend to see life as double-edged; the glass is frequently both half full and half empty. I’m trained to see the strengths and potentialities, vulnerabilities and faults of individuals, groups, and systems. I’m a big fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s pithy and prescient aphorism: The test of a first rate intellect is the capacity to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. However, a novel situation set the stage for the critique, and understanding was delayed until my conscious and unconscious brain could achieve “bihemispheric peace of minds.”

I was asked to do a videoconference from the Mid-Atlantic headquarters of a US law firm with the attorneys and legal support staff of two of its overseas offices in London and Brussels. The corporate boardroom had a fifty inch flat screen TV; parties on both sides of the camera not only could see each other (the two locations were viewed simultaneously via split screen) but HQ and the offices could also talk and respond to each other. There was a minor limitation – only one office at a time could speak. So I both initiated sharing information and asking questions while also asking London and Brussels separately for a response. This was the first attempt at an international “lunch and learn,” a one hour training on “Positive Assertiveness.” Of course, my presentation commenced at 8am ET.

I’m not sure of the specific evidence of insensitivity to “European sensibility,” but perhaps the tipping point was having the participants pair off for a power struggle exercise: Person A says, “You can’t make me” while B counters with, “Oh yes I can.” Both parties are imagining “someone in your life – past or present – who can be (or has been) a pain in your butt.” (Of course, my one caveat…”Hopefully, it’s not the person you are looking at.” ;-) And eventually each is encouraged to verbalize what “you would really like to say to this annoying or aggravating individual.” Maybe this was a bit out there and “out-rage-ous for those more close to the vest. And certainly I was throwing caution to the wind: this was my maiden voyage trying to facilitate an emotionally charged interactive exercise with the participants several thousand miles away.

However, there was a fair amount of good energy and laughter, along with animated (if not somewhat emotionally dynamic) interaction in the room. Still, my sense is that some folks believed the exercise and perhaps the topic of “Assertiveness” itself, reflects the “Wild West,” pushy or bossy qualities of those “Ugly Americans.” Is it that the Europeans are more civilized, that is, sufficiently well-mannered and conscious of interpersonal office etiquette, and therefore not in need of such training? Or is something else going on? Not surprisingly, perhaps, the American Legal Administrator seemed pleased by the presentation, affirming that the participants received a lot of valuable information.

Dreaming and Scheming Your Way to the Pass in the International Impasse

Clearly feeling unsettled, I had two nights of vivid and somewhat violent dreams. I was a CIA agent, being hunted by foreign terrorists. Shots had been fired. What was going on? It wasn’t till the second night that I made the connection with the workshop feedback. And once having made the association, another image appeared on the old psychic radar. Perhaps some of the disgruntled comments had less to do with the program and the presenter per se, and more to do with the presenter as an agent for the American power base.

These offices had been bought out by the American law firm within the past two years. The London office, the bigger of the two, actually had been under the aegis of a Swedish company, known for its laissez-faire ownership. Maybe there was still some unfinished transitional grief and what I call unresolved “Triple A” issues – Authority, Autonomy & Accountability – regarding the geo-cultural takeover. Years back, doing some merger-mergee stress consultation, I recall one manager referring to the workplace atmosphere of the merged entity as “a losing team locker room.”

I also recall the support staff at the Brussels office mentioning that they could risk being open about some conflict topic because no lawyers were in the room. (Of course, no lawyers in the room may well be a not so subtle passive-aggressive as opposed to assertive message to corporate headquarters.) Perhaps there are different levels of authority/culture issues – not just Amero-centric and Corporate Raider ones – that the “mother ship” needs to address. For starters, how about getting feedback from different personnel levels in the overseas firms concerning the perception of the pros and cons of the corporate integration process? If the Europeans believe that the American leadership is genuinely open to and interested in feedback from their overseas staff, that is, if HQ can accept some critical assessment without getting defensive or vindictive, then building trust and a dialogue bridge becomes a distinct possibility.

More specifically, how about allowing folks to critically analyze and assess the two different geo-cultural business systems. Even better, if the American leadership can quickly implement some small yet meaningful suggestions “black or white” assumptions may take on more inviting shades of gray. Letting people discuss what they liked about the Swedish substance and style while allowing a pros and cons comparison with the American business model, is usually the beginning of a “letting go and giving it a chance process.” (Of course, if the Europeans are smart they won’t mention the word “Socialism,” especially while Obama is President. ;-) And if American execs can handle such critique and become positive, open to feedback, relation-building role models perhaps eventually the folks in Brussels may not have to be so wary about status-driven and daunting in-house interaction. (Hmm…I wonder if status issues play out even more in a Euro-culture at least historically known for its aristocracy if not its monarchy.) Apparently, creating dialogue is not such an easy task in any (legal) culture associated with an adversarial, win-lose nature.

I suspect there are universal issues at play: from my years of team building/organizational development experience it’s not uncommon for diverse perspectives, needs, and values, along with differences in operational procedures and styles-modes of communication to fly passively and aggressively both between and within HQ and satellite offices, wherever the location. Obviously this is a pretty good definition of or foundation for individual, interpersonal, and organizational conflict!

My personal take home from this experience: the next time doing an international videoconference, I definitely will consult with representatives of my overseas audience to come up with some local and regional “case scenarios.” In addition, with Corporate HR I will discuss more fully the state of the international corporate modus operandi integration. Ideas and strategies to help one and all bridge the geo-cultural divide and to…Practice Safe Stress!

Keep Reading By Author Mark Gorkin, LCSW ("The Stress Doc")
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