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  • Alison Seddon

Cake, Trust and Punctuality

Why learning and development must have a refresh to create the leaders we need today

Recently I worked with a group from Qatar. ‘I must warn you,’ said a colleague who had worked with them on previous modules of the programme, ‘They have no idea about time.’ Sure enough, no one arrived at the advertised start time of the programme. Maybe 80% of the group drifted in 45 minutes later. The remaining 20% joined us two hours after the start time, bearing trays of cake to have over the coffee break. The rest of the group were delighted to see them and no one behaved as if these latecomers had been rude or remiss in any way.

The participants were intelligent, motivated to learn, lively and engaged- a delight to work with, in fact. So what was it that meant arriving two hours ‘late’ was ok for them but made my co-facilitator and I assume they were resistant and unmotivated? And how come my colleague had come to the conclusion that this group had no grasp of what time meant?

The answer of course is cultural difference. As Erin Meyer points out in her book ‘The Culture Map’, there are different ways of experiencing and working with time. She describes two approaches; ‘linear time’ and ‘flexible time’. Cultural practice often evolves as a response to circumstances. In the case of time, for example, Meyer argues that infrastructure plays a significant part in how time is regarded and used. For instance, if the train service where you live leaves on time it does well to work to a linear time model. If infrastructure is less reliable it does well to be flexible and to get things done when you can.

Another cultural difference was also at play between the group and I. In cultures where trust is built through effective completion of tasks, being organised and punctual is important. However, if trust is built through relationships, sharing food together is a more vital practice. Qatar inclines much more towards building trust through relationship than the UK. The ‘lateness’ I observed was in fact an example of flexible time and building trust through building relationships. In order to build trust as a team and with me, it was a great idea to share some Qatari cakes at breaktime with everyone. The bakery didn’t open until 9, when the programme was due to start, but no matter- from a flexible time perspective any facilitator worth her salt should be able to rearrange her timetable to respond to such an offer.

This experience highlights something I have been thoughtful about for a while now. Do the leadership development paradigms we work with foster genuine diversity of thinking? Or does our approach to leadership training embed particular cultural paradigms in a way that evaluates, competes with and suppresses other cultural approaches?

I think the latter is the case. The leadership paradigms we value are a reflection of where the locus of economic power has been for the last three centuries. It’s no surprise that the narrow set of norms that leadership models are predicated on align closely with the cultural preferences and approaches found in the two economic superpowers that have dominated from the 1700s to 1945 and from 1945 to (arguably) the present day; the UK and the US.

A globalised approach to leadership practice that is based on the adoption of the same or similar views on what makes a good leader makes sense, of course, as long as businesses have the desire and the ability to maintain cultural dominance. But these days, an open aspiration to cultural domination is in direct opposition to ethical commitments to diversity and corporate social responsibility. It isn’t just that it doesn’t look or feel good. As Gompers and Kavvali asserted in the HBR in 2018 it doesn’t make business sense either; truly diverse businesses are more profitable. And as the locus of economic power continues to shift towards the East (a process that may be hastened by the Covid-19 pandemic according to Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University), businesses that continue to operate as though Anglo-Saxon cultural norms are the defining characteristics of good communication and leadership may struggle to succeed. It seems that a culturally homogenous leadership practice may not be that much of a choice over the next decade in any case.

It’s time to drop the cultural hegemony that can exist at the heart of approaches to leadership and communication in learning and development. No one culture can claim to provide the default standard by which all other approaches are measured. But how do we in learning and development begin the conversation since we can only operate from our own paradigms? My thinking in this article is embedded in my own cultural experience just as Meyer’s model arises from hers.

Impromptu are engaging with this question, thinking how we might create a learning experience that would provide leaders with an opportunity to experience communicating, leading and getting things done from a range of different paradigms, without judgement and safe from business risk.

But the first step I think, for all of us who work in leadership development, is to acknowledge our difference. That is, I am different from the Qatari group I worked with just as they are different from me and that difference belongs to us both, not just to them.

Some already know too well how to work with these differences and do so every day at work, but are rarely acknowledged and celebrated for it. The responsibility of bridging different approaches in leadership practice is usually subliminally delegated to those who come from an ‘other’ culture by those who come from the ‘us’ culture. And those from the ‘us’ culture are far more likely to hold organisational power. So the cultural dominance continues and genuine integration and inclusivity remains elusive.

Over the last few months the world has changed in ways that we could never have imagined. The way we work and live has been completely disrupted by Covid-19, and even as the lockdown eases in the West, the pace of the pandemic is increasing in the global South. The economic consequences are unreckonable. The challenge to change articulated by the BLM movement following the killing of George Floyd will, I hope, continue to provoke new conversations and lead to political and personal change. Climate change will demand even greater shifts in how we live and work than the pandemic. We simply do not know what the future will bring and leadership in all communities, business or otherwise, has a crucial part to play as we face social, political, economic and ecological upheaval. So much is unclear.

What is clear though is that the most powerful tool we have to articulate and implement the change we want to see is our connection to each other. If we are to become and to develop the leaders that are needed right now, it is not enough to simply be aware of the differences between us and to rely on the other to bridge the gap.

We need to make sure that bridging our differences is a more collaborative and inclusive process. We need to be prepared to experience our own difference, both the broad differences of our culture in comparison to other cultures, as well as the unique and nuanced differences we experience as individuals within our culture. When we acknowledge our own difference as well as the difference of those who work with us, we can create a mutual space in which to facilitate and experience the challenge and nourishment of genuine connection.

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