As New York City goes back to schools and workplaces, the return to old routines has been marked by a few noticeable changes. For me, the most noticeable one is the state of homelessness and how it has increased. The air has changed. Each corner is a potential place for privacy. Businesses have a new job, cleaning their stoops.
My work involves creating experiential activities for people to learn beyond what they can read, so I used the example of homelessness since it was an experience almost everyone in my class has had (save the man who comes in from Pennsylvania, perhaps, but who knows). While the upper east side seemed immune to it, mid-town - just south of Times Square around 7th and 8th avenues in the upper 30s, was clearly not.
It is the heart of the fashion district. People are racing from here to there with garments hanging over their arms, but the air reeked, the ground is soiled and there is no real solution anywhere in sight. A colleague arrived to work dismayed at having seen a man wrap a rubber band around his arm and then proceed to shoot up. Never have I seen people do their business right in front of me, but now it is a common sight to see.
So I used that example to create an activity that would allow the students to engage in their preferences around Group vs. Individual orientation, a dimension studied by both Drs. Fons Trompenaars and Geert Hofstede in their cross-cultural research.
The students broke into groups of 4 and discussed their beliefs. They didn’t know at the time, but the results were irrelevant. There is no right answer. The purpose of the activity isn’t to prove who is right or wrong, so much as to illuminate how varying our opinions and positions are around problems that are difficult to solve.
Cross-cultural training is about transformational learning. Transformational learning is self-learning, it isn’t about who is right or wrong. The job of an interculturalist isn’t to take sides with someone, it is to build bridges between multi-perspectives. When a person has the conviction that they are right, they couldn’t be more wrong. Belief in being right is a form of ethnocentrism. It doesn’t matter if I agree with you or not. What matters is whether or not I can develop the competency within someone to be able to hold two opposing ideas at the same time, and still be effective in their work.
Global leadership is defined by a person’s ability to see the world through multiple lenses. My job as a trainer, coach, and consultant isn’t to guide people toward one belief system or another, but to challenge people regarding how they are going to uphold their value of Respect for Others, even if they don’t respect the beliefs of the other.
Whenever I hear someone say, “It’s common sense,” I know they are in their ethnocentrism. I know I’ve said this before - common sense isn’t common. We would all have to have had the exact same experiences, be born with the exact same types, and had our parents raise us in the exact same ways. Commons sense, in and of itself is a set up for failure in a diverse work environment because it is imposing one’s culture upon another.
Of all the cultural dimensions that have been studied, the Individualism—Communitarianism spectrum is the most salient in cross-cultural dynamics because it comes back to that essential question: To whom do you have primary responsibility?
So for those seeking self-awareness activities that is the question to ask. Is it to your family or to yourself? Do you make decisions based on your own desires or the desires of the group? Many US Americans who are raised in a certain cultural paradigm are surprised to find out that their national-workplace-cultural-value-preferences are not of the majority when it comes to this dimension.
In the mainstream US American workplaces, the research shows that there is a strong presence for Individualism. Yet 80% of the world population is Group Oriented, meaning, they will be rewarded for putting the group interest above their own individual interest. If that is the case and there is a high-performing employee who is given the responsibility of managing a team from a distance, then here is where reward systems, communication styles, and team management are all affected.
What does homelessness have to do with working in multi-national corporations? Maybe nothing. Maybe a lot. What we do know is how people answer the question, can start an employee on the path to cultural self-discovery. Cultural learning is self-learning.
So what do you think? Who is responsible for homelessness? The group or the individual.
Whatever your answer, just know that it can provide clues as to the type of leader you might be, so your self-awareness can find its own home.