Test your COVID-19 Agility: Is your Society Ready?


In his speech and conversation with Christine Miles, Fons Trompenaars says the dilemmas created by COVID-19 need an approach where we do not think in bipolar ways and take away our cultural bias.

The dilemmas that have been created in this crisis are very often human and scattered across the world, but the approaches to the dilemma are very cultural. Our current models are not very helpful in dealing with dilemmas. We see diversity popping up everywhere in the world because of higher mobility. We see more women in the workforce around the globe, we see young people having more to say, so it is not just getting diverse but there is a diversity of diversity. 

Our models are not equipped to deal with the dilemmas created by that diversity because of two reasons- first, our models are bipolar, either centralised or decentralised. Bipolar models can only stigmatise and stereotype cultural differences. Second, most of our models are culturally biased, and the cultural bias is very well shown in, for example, leadership development. Looking at leadership models, one can easily detect the cultural bias in them. American literature is based on the fact that they believe in one thing at the cost of the other things. They oscillate from one extreme to the other and that’s why there are a lot of revised editions. 

Models all around the world are bipolar and culturally biased, and it cannot deal effectively with the world of diversity we are living in. We need an alternative and it was well phrased by Einstein that “you can’t solve a problem at the same level it was created.” If we have to go one level beyond, there are four typical entry points- innovation, sustainability, globalisation, and leadership. Globalisation leads to different viewpoints, and the essential role of the leader is to connect them, which is another word for innovation that leads to sustainable results. All four have to do with how do we connect opposites. To innovate is to combine values. They are not easily joined, and therefore innovation is scarce and profitable. Bipolar models can be done away with by innovation that reconciles diverse ideas.

Great leaders firstly distinguish a problem from a dilemma, because in case of a problem, throwing money and time on it can solve it, but it does not help in a dilemma.

What is the alternative model for leaders? Great leaders firstly distinguish a problem from a dilemma, because in case of a problem, throwing money and time on it can solve it, but it does not help in a dilemma. In a dilemma, successful leaders will look for ways to combine it; between global and local, instead of making a choice they’d see what can be done locally to make the company more local and how global companies can serve their local customers better. 

The approach of combining the 4Rs can helps leaders reconcile the dilemma. The first R of Recognition is to see the differences, and if you like both sides of the differences that is the R in Respect. When you respect the differences, you get dilemmas that you need to Reconcile, the third R, and finally, what can a leader do to realize this is the fourth R of Realization.

A model of culture 

A culture is like an onion, where on the outside we have expressions of culture, the artefacts and products known as the language we use, the food we eat, the behaviour we exhibit, etc. which is called explicit culture in the words of Ed Schein. It hides a deeper level of norms and values, wherein norms are shared orientations of what a group defines as what they should do and values are what they like to do. As Ed Schein says, when people start doing what they like to do, it slips out of consciousness and becomes a basic assumption, and that is implicit culture. We have some implicit basic assumptions in our approach to dilemmas created by the COVID-19 crisis. That occurs in three major levels- first, in the dilemmas created between human beings; second, time, like short-term and long-term; and third, nature, as to whether we control nature or are we following the flows of nature and are subjugated to it. The worst you can do in a dilemma is to choose because if it is a dilemma you have both values within you and by choosing you misrepresent half of yourself.

Focusing on five examples of basic dilemmas in human relationships, we can see how our approach to such dilemmas is cultural. The first dilemma is Universalism versus Particularism. In Universalism, they believe in being consistent, there are rules to obey, procedures, only one best way, talk about transparency and it’s a letter of the law. It is seen in North-West Europe, Protestants, the US and Australia. On the other hand, Latin, African and many Asian cultures are more about flexibility and pragmatism, there are exceptions to rules, they are more at ease with ambiguity and it is the spirit of the law. Between the two, the better one is neither but a combination of both, because the former would lead to bureaucracy while the latter would lead to corruption. In a survey, most of the Protestant cultures like the Swiss, Germans and the Americans were found to be more Universalistic, while countries like Mozambique, Argentina India and Indonesia were found to be more Particularistic.

The first dilemma that COVID-19 has created is the one between standardized approach and treating patients in a unique way, that is standardization and customization. The former was seen heavily in Europe and the US. Extreme standardization gives a one-size-fits-all approach while customization or a local approach becomes extremely expensive. Instead of making a compromise between the two that could lead to usage of untested vaccines, the best way to go is to continuously learn from best practices and combine them.

The second dilemma is whether we follow rules that authority has given us or do we go and adapt quickly to circumstances. In our research, the countries that were found to be combining both are the US, Netherland, Germany and Switzerland, while countries such as Iran, France, Italy and Spain were found to be compromising both. There is a significant correlation between the degree to which cultures reconcile this dilemma and the success they are having in fighting COVID-19.

The second dilemma is Individualism versus communitarianism. Our survey showed that younger people (under 30 approximately) are more individualistic and people become more group-oriented as they grow older. The dilemma we looked at was between chief individual accountability at all costs and collaborating with as many people as possible for group immunity. Instead, we need everybody to be infected who are not very sensitive to it, so as Israel did, we can separate the older people from the younger people so there is complete lockdown for the older people while the younger people share their illnesses with fewer consequences and go for group immunity. The main challenge here is co-opetition. You individually compete to cooperate, and you cooperate to have better individuals compete.

The third dilemma is about emotions- are we rather obsessed with keeping emotions to ourselves or do we like to express emotions overtly. In our survey, Finland, Norway, Estonia and Switzerland were the top countries leaning towards the former while countries such as Kuwait, Italy and Russia topped in leaning towards expressing overtly. There is a big dilemma with COVID-19 approaches; if you go for scientific insights you are right but you don’t get it. 

The Netherlands, for example, wanted to keep the schools open for building group immunity but public opinion was completely against it, so emotions revealed themselves. Thus, even though scientific might be right, it didn’t happen because public emotion emotionally was against it. But if we only go with public opinions, then you are wrong but you get it. To reconcile this dilemma, we have gone for progressive insights. As earlier mentioned, if we take the best practices that have proven to work and combine them, we get progressive insights that lead us to take a better approach.

The fourth dilemma is specific versus diffuse[HS1] . It can be explained by the examples of a peach and a coconut. Americans are called peach culture as peaches have a lot of flesh easily accessible but a tough nut in the centre while Germans are more like coconut- tough outside but softer on the inside. Americans have a small private life but a big public life because people consider many private belongings as public or open to sharing. For instance, people hardly know you but go through your refrigerator; the refrigerator for Americans is public and likewise are their cars and furniture. So, there is a lot of public life in America, and this leads to a specific relationship. The term of address is formal at the workplace while outside work it is informal, which is a demonstration of a specific relationship. 

The worst you can do in a dilemma is to choose because if it is a dilemma you have both values within you and by choosing you misrepresent half of yourself.

On the other hand, in the coconut culture, there is no relationship initially because there is a lot of privacy, and terms of address are always formal in every setting. However, once you get through the hard shell of the coconut, informal terms of address are used both in professional and private settings because there are no boundaries marked between the public and private life. This is diffuse culture. The big problem between cultures is when the specific meets the diffuse. There is a danger zone, namely what is perceived as public by some cultures is seen as private by others. 

To see this cultural difference, we asked in our survey if the respondents would agree to paint the house of their boss. Netherland, Sweden, Switzerland had the highest majority that disagreed as the boss only has authority within the workplace, not outside it. On the other hand, India, China and Kuwait mostly agreed, as the boss cannot be ignored even outside the workplace. Japan was an exceptional case with 64% people disagreeing, contending that they would never wait till the boss asks.

Another dilemma is- do we go for specific economic results or do we go for the health issue and have a long-term lockdown? This is a big dilemma. If the health goes above all, you have a healthy bankruptcy because the economy would not survive that way, but if we put the economy above all, we have shareholder value for people who never share. We need reconciliation. For example, the Dutch Prime Minister called for an intelligent lockdown, wherein there are freedoms given to not hurt the economy too much and to have individuals walk around on the street. An intelligent lockdown has a reconciliation.

Another example of specific-diffuse is the German and Swiss approach to the Corona crisis. They did not only listen to specific insights of virologists and immunologists but instead, they combined insights from all the disciplines so they were both deep and broad in their approach. There is a high correlation between the success rate of countries and their level of reconciliation of the specific and diffuse approach.

The fifth dilemma is achievement versus ascription, which deals with the question of whether status is built on what you do or who you are. In America, the output counts irrespective of your identity, whereas in most parts of the world your identity factors in. This is manifested in whether we should treat people equally or do we do positive discrimination. 

During this crisis, many hospitals are running out of ICU beds, so what will we do in choosing who is going to be treated or not? If equal treatment is prioritised above everything, first-come-first-serve would apply. If increasing chance of quality of life and duration of life is taken as criteria, we get the pathology of “Sorry, you’re not under 18, please move away.” The reconciliation of both is a transparent set of criteria for choosing. Netherland, who is practising it, has a diverse group of diverse people together including professionals from medical groups and they are discussing what are the criteria according to which we choose if a patient is treated or not.

In conclusion, the dilemmas created by COVID-19 need an approach where we do not think in bipolar ways and take away our cultural bias. That happens when you try to see how one side can help its opposite. Leaders have to be careful; if they only take the bottom-up approach they lose the democratic leadership and if they only follow a top-down approach they miss the feedback. The key is to be a servant leader, that is, hold the ladder for others to climb.

Christine Miles in Conversation with Fons Trompenaars

Christine Miles: How does the culture piece come inside organizations in the same way that it comes internationally?

Fons Trompenaars: All the things I was saying with an emphasis on international differences, inter-cultural differences apply in the company as well. There is a lot of empirical research at the moment that within purely American companies, and also European companies, it works as well, but then, perhaps it is less amplified. It could be between disciplines, marketing, R&D, manufacturing, etc. There are big challenges there too and the servant leader connects the two. For example, marketing is when we want to be pulled by clients and manufacturing is when we want to push technologies, and in the end, you need to combine push with pull. Many of the leadership qualities like servant leadership works in any diverse environment.

Miles: So that bipolar aspect shows up within the organization and the approach is similar to what we have to get to that servant leadership?

Trompenaars: Very much so. When I was doing work for Motorola a long time ago, they had an individual dignity entitlement program, and it means that every subordinate has a chat every quarter to answer five questions to his/her boss. Questions like “Is the work you are doing at Motorola meaningful to you?” and “Do you have enough resources to do your work properly?”. If the answer is ‘Yes’, you go to the next question, so as a boss, if you have little time, you are done in five minutes if all answers are ‘Yes’. If there is a ‘No’, it is the responsibility of the leader to make it a ‘Yes’ next quarter. If you believe in servant leadership and you believe in the empirical research that servant leadership leads to better organizations and better results, then you can introduce this. Have five questions with ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, because if you as a leader are responsible for the ‘Yes’, you introduce servant leadership systemically in your organization.

Miles: What is your greatest concern for the world’s population regarding our current dilemma with COVID-19, and how are we successfully going to exit from this challenge?

Trompenaars: If you know how many people are dying yearly from cancer, from smoking as a big portion of that cause and by cardiological issues, the numbers are high and COVID is very low in comparison. It’s not to say we should ignore this, but in terms of the number of deaths, it is still not comparable to the number of deaths caused by other illnesses. With this crisis, we are seeing the beauty of collaboration, the beauty of a lot of things happening in our society that we never thought would be happening like the use of digital in a very practical way, but the cultural change that this will inspire us to go through will prevent us from a lot of other crises in the future.

Miles: Is the problem not bigger than our cultural differences driving our political or policy choices? Whether we choose more flexibility or more rules, as you described, if the world does not solve the issue in a similar way, will we ever eradicate this enemy?

Trompenaars: I hope that we learn from each other. In fact, that different countries do it differently is like in a company where you have companies in different countries doing it differently because the clients are different, their cultures are different. As long as we learn from each other and create next practices out of combining the best practices of all these little experiments, that is what matters. We need to learn from the different approaches and then standardise the best.

Miles: It appears this approach requires at the leadership level high EQ, with the ability to create the vision that connects everyone together, and this seems to happen in some places more than others, so does the conversation only happen in the times of war and pandemics? Can we make it happen at other times and how?

Trompenaars: There is proof it happens. There is enough evidence around the globe where it is applied, and hopefully, this crisis will make us more aware of the need for it, and that we change our models. We need models that combine opposites.

Miles: In the context of the cultural approaches that you described, how will this affect travel and interaction between countries? 

Trompenaars: There is the long-term and there is the short-term, but I believe that normal life in the longer run would pick up again. Since we have a lot of digital products, I also hope that this crisis would lead to us doing a lot of learning. People may realize that it’s not bad to learn digitally. There are a lot of learnings, which will affect travel. In other words, why would I travel to New York or Philadelphia when I could stay at home? On the other hand, travel is important because nothing can replace face-to-face interaction, but we will be getting more blended approaches and blended means that when you have met people, your emails become clearer because you know the person who wrote it. The more you go digital the more you need analog. In other words, flying will still be important and many other things, but the interactions between countries will hopefully be with mutual respect, and we will help ameliorate the underpayment of care. Nurses and doctors, policemen, firemen, who are now heroes of society, are highly underpaid, so we need to shift a bit from shareholder value to stakeholder value, and that is very important in this crisis.

Miles: I think I hear you saying that while this is a terrible crisis that we are facing, we need to maintain some perspective, but as well see some opportunity that may shift how we partner, and also review our values, what we view as important across the globe, and who we are valuing.

Trompenaars: The beauty of this virus is that it is non-discriminating in terms of gender, perhaps not in terms of obesity. But it’s the world’s enemy and we need all of humanity to fight it. It gives me hope and sometimes disappointment to see how much we do. 

Miles: Any other closing thought that you’d like to share?

Trompenaars: Keep for a long time the rules the authorities have given you because social distancing is important and even once the crisis is a bit over, it is very important that we keep the distance. It will create dilemmas for the economy but let’s be creative. If you have a dilemma, always ask the question, “What can one value do to make the opposite better?”. That’s normally what we don’t do; we like choices and it doesn’t work.

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