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Culturalism, Melting Pots and a Nice Dose of Empathy

Hey, salut, moien, hallo, ciao….

I remember the days when the early hours of the morning silence would be abruptly broken by the tap-tap of someone’s shoes hitting the hard wooden floor… When each unique footstep ignited a recognition neuron in my brain, immediately knowing who had just entered our office.. Ahhh… those days, when the team was relatively “local” and not a family birthday, nickname or familiar footstep was missed…

Unfortunately (and arguably fortunately at the same time) those days are gone... Mainly because there are just so many footsteps.. and often at the same time. Tada is now a growth stage company, with a hiring roadmap set to double, maybe even triple year-on-year. But finding key talent (you know, not the 9-5ers, not the “here to be here”) is no easy task! However, in accordance with a key core Tada value: “nothing is impossible” our talent is streaming in. So… as a citizen of the world myself, our hiring strategies turned global - no matter how far, no matter how hard… If we find the killer person for the role, and the culture - we will bring them to Tada.

As a result, the Tada team is now what can be considered, a “cultural melting pot." Composed of 20 different and unique cultures, from all around the globe. A melting pot that indeed not only contributes to building a strong team, reducing small think and making everyone think differently (as the research suggests), it is a melting pot set to make a make any psychology junkie drool…. Now, this topic of the importance of diversity is not new for me, in fact, I have been interested in how diversity impacts building teams, company success and overall performance for many years, I also have blogged about it previously, but after recently reading 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, another one of Harari’s epic books, I started to dive deeper and focus this time on the other side of the coin - not how cultural diversity makes Tada (and companies in general) stronger, but what is like for those individuals, those unique profiles, joining this melting pot. Helping me in my understanding is Harari’s book - 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, together with a nice dose of empathy and a sprinkle of self-reflection.

For some context, Harari takes readers on an interesting deep dive into the analysis of “culturalism vs racism,” whereby actions and behaviors are examined through the lens of how particular cultures behave in their “normal home” setting vs. what happens when those individuals or groups, are copied and pasted into a new, very different setting…

In a nutshell, Harari presents the argument that many of the misunderstandings and conflicts that emerge between people of different cultures and ethnicities are the result of “culturalism” rather than a misconceived version of “racism”. Before your eyes start to glaze over, don’t worry, I have spent the last few months of my Masters Degree in Psychology delicately picking apart fundamental psychological concepts of behaviorism, constructivism, cognitivism and a whole bunch of other “isms” that quite frankly would have Plato turning in his grave. This discussion is not deep and painful theoretic analysis, but rather an attempt a rather fundamental human interaction.

First things first - every culture is different. Some may differ in a few subtle ways, such as two bordering European nations (except when they are competing against each other in the world cup), others in ways much more obvious. Now, I also want to point out that I have spent many years traveling the world… The reason I mention this is because, everything I write, I like to come at it from a personal standpoint. After all, I am originally a New Zealander, born and raised in an idyllic island off the Eastern coasts of New Zealand’s North Island, in fact as I write this I am currently sitting on the shores of Onetangi beach, thinking about how different Europe at this very moment.

In my own personal experience, New Zealand as a country, it’s people and culture is very different (and arguably similar) to central Europe, where Tada is based. School starts at 5 or 6 years old, exams don’t get important until you turn 15 so failing a year is unheard of, New Zealanders generally only speak English (someone who speaks more than 2 languages is a surely a mutant, in a good way), but above all - as a country NZ is not affected in the same way by the global issues often encountered across the US, Europe, and Asia. I grew up possessing a “no stress,” yet highly innovative attitude to life and naively assumed, as one does, that the rest of the world must also function in this way… RIGHT?

Fast forward to the 1st of December, 2006 and this naive notion was to be quickly and permanently removed from my realm of thinking… You see, at 17, my curiosity led me to travel the world, exploring the resilience, heat, and poverty of South East Asia, only to be juxtaposed by the high speed, efficient, professionalism of high-stress central Europe. At 17, my worlds collided, and the days of “easy-going,” clean, green, little old NZ were far behind me… or so it seemed. I found myself understanding my way of doing things simply didn’t translate across cultures, despite my core values remaining intact, my approach or game plan did have to adapt.. and adapt quite a bit!

After months of headaches from a French overload, weeks of consistently buying liquid freaken yoghurt instead of milk, testing every single (freaken) dairy product until I finally found what can be deemed as “sour cream” and understanding that beer is “normal” in vending machines (even at children’s attractions), I started to realise that my brain automatically started to reprogram my habitual behaviours… But, it was not easy, and that "chronic illness like" longing for home stuck with me for a long, long time. I craved my way of doing things, I missed being able to express myself properly and I was sick of feeling like, well, a foreigner.

Now, this is where Harari’s analysis comes into the picture, with a nice pertinent example. Harari introduces the concept of culturalism, where he states that “norms and values appropriate to one country, just don’t work well under different circumstances” whereby he goes on to introduce the fictional example of the “Warmlanders” and “Coldians.” Now Warmlanders and Coldians are very different, particularly with their attitude towards human relations. Colanders, for example, have been taught from a very, very early age, that if one gets into conflict, be it at work, home or school, the way to manage it, is to repress it. For the Coldians, any outward expression of extreme emotion is to be avoided at all costs, with politeness and avoidance the go-to behavior when faced with any emergence of interpersonal conflict. Now, let’s stop here for a second. I certainly now many people who opt for this approach, and it has been observed not only at an individual level but also at a state level, whereby some countries are historical and political averse to any sort of conflict, think about those who remained neutral during the world wars…

In a striking juxtaposition of the polite, conflict avoiding, stoic like Coldians, Harari proceeds to introduce the Warmlanders, who have been taught from infancy to externalise, rather than internalise conflict. The Warmlanders base their behaviour on the foundations of “getting everything out, never letting things simmer, shouting if necessary and above all, venting their emotions.” Now, it is fair to say that both approaches have their pros and cons… It is not really possible to judge which approach is more successful, it is simply a representation of their culture, their social norms and how their culture or community works. Now, this is all fine and well… UNTIL… until, a Warmlander decides to emigrate to Coldia, getting a job at a Coldian firm…

It is easy to envisage how difficult it may be for a Warmlander to adapt to the Coldian way of doing things… After All, their fundamental cultural and social norms are nowhere to be seen in Coldia and this, I imagine, must be freaken disconcerting… It is here where I would like to introduce a key concept that has driven me in my leadership since day one… Empathy… essentially defined as being able to put your feet in someone else’s shoes in order to understand how they might be feeling internally.

Now, let’s nip back to the poor Warmlander, hmm… Let’s call him…. Nigel. Now, just after a few days of being in his new firm, Nigel starts to realise he is very very far from home. He observes repressed emotions, lack of expression, cold shoulders and feels very very isolated. Conflict emerges when Bary accidentally (?) eats Nigel’s sandwich out of the work fridge…. Nigel is adamant Bary did it on purpose, whereas Bary proclaims innocence, immediately apologising, refraining from eye contact and quickly returning to his desk, to avoid any type of heated conflict. But for Nigel, this is not the way he does things… He quite naturally lets his anger emerge, taping down his hands upon the communal dining table and proceeding to shout at Bary for stealing his beloved smoked reindeer and pickle sandwich! His hot-headed nature makes the whole corporate setting stop… Everyone just steers at Nigel and he is clearly proving to be an exception to the rule… Several months later… a higher position opens up in Nigel’s firm. Despite having all and more, or the qualifications for the position, the boss chooses a Coldian for the promotion.. In turn, the manager justifies the decision by saying that Nigel has the talent, but due to a hot-headed temper, he did not see him as fit for the roll… Unsurprisingly, the Comedian that ventured into the Warmlanden firm was met with a similar outcome...

Now, this unwillingness to promote Nigel is not racism, according to Harrari. The Coldian manager did not refuse to provide Nigel with the promotion because he was racist, but rather, because of culturalist reasoning. Harari argues that too many people in today’s society are attempting to combat a war on the battlefield of racism, when in fact it has shifted to the battlegrounds of culturalism. Traditional racism, Harari argues, is firmly grounded in biological theories.

I personally believe empathy is the only true way of alleviating the difficult aspect of culturalism (it will always be present), and we must stop repressing its presence, accept it is not racist in its origins and work to understand each other more. We need to focus more on the benefits diversity brings, rather than trying to sculpt everyone into the same profile. I believe it is our job as leaders, and team members to make an active attempt to invest in understanding people’s cultures, social normals, personal drivers and way of working. If we wish to be so egoistic to expect that everyone will adapt to our own cultures, nothing will work. In saying this, however, as individuals who actively chose to travel and explore the world, we must also be understanding of our new settings. Although we must never change who we are, our core values and personal drivers: mutual respect is critical. The differences in the world are what spices up our global melting pot.

In essence, as leaders, we must never underestimate the power of cultural diversity in the teams we are building, research supports this and I have seen it in the flesh. As an individual who has embraced this and who works in a very different culture to my own, I have indeed also been fooled into believing that people’s, sometimes not so nice, behaviour to me was racist, but I know now that was not the case. Nigel’s conflict avoiding DNA is not easy to adapt to Bary’s hot head, but each must acknowledge and understand the origins of such behaviours. It is up to us to actively seek to an “open” mentality, to learn more about the people we hire, to adopt more empathy and above all, to build an environment where everyone feels psychologically safe.



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