How to improve your communication and avoid costly mistakes.
A few years ago one of our team members met with a lawyer in South Africa on business relating to some of our operations there, and when he the lawyer found out that team member was living in the Gulf region, and he said, "Oh yeah! I had a brother who used to live in Kuwait! Actually, he didn't have such a good experience there: he got fired and he says he still to this day doesn't understand what really happened there."
That sounded intriguing, so we followed up with him and arranged a meeting with his brother to see if this was an area where our expertise in intercultural communication could help him make sense of his experience.
Fired a week after a stunning success
The brother was hired as a manager for a Kuwaiti company, which had a partnership a Dutch manufacturing company. They were having problems with their Dutch supplier not being compliant in terms of the specifications that were determined by the contract. The Kuwaiti company owner had tried to find ways to deal with it, but had not been able to improve the situation, so when the South African manager found out about the problem, he said "I've got a little bit of Dutch blood in me and some cultural similarities. Is it okay with you if I try to resolve these issues with the Dutch company?" The owner agreed and arranged for a delegation from the Dutch company to visit to Kuwait and discuss the issues. He allowed to the South African manager to lead the meeting, so that it could be structured in a “Dutch” manner and the issue sorted out once and for all, but insisted on being in the room during the meeting to watch the progress. “You lead the meeting, and I’ll just sit there and observe."
So the South African manager went in with a strong Guilt/Innocence approach. He put the contract in the middle of the table and said, "Here are the issues, these are the ways that you have been noncompliant with the contract, and we need to deal with this." He pressed firmly through a heated discussion, said some harsh things to set the record straight, and succeeded in getting an even better response from the Dutch than the company had ever expected. The South African manager was elated at the success of the meeting.
A week later the Kuwaiti owner called the South African manager into the office and told him to go home.
Miscommunication between Guilt/Innocence and Honor/Shame
When we met with the South African manager he had no idea why he was fired. But from what his brother had told us we already had a good idea why: The direct "This is right, this is wrong, and here is why" approach that he used with the Dutch delegation totally violated, in the Kuwaiti owner’s eyes, the relational capital that he had built up over years of working with the Dutch. The meeting that he sat through would have been incredibly uncomfortable for the Kuwaiti owner. His sense of hospitality for a visiting delegation was not honored, all the rules of relational business dealings were broken.
In a more Honor/Shame oriented environment, the honor of the involved parties is the first priority; only when that is safe can the conflict be dealt with. Similarly, in a primarily power/fear oriented environment, it is the position of the people involved that needs protection first and foremost. However, in a Guilt/Innocence-oriented environment, it’s the legal or contractual status of the parties that is the first priority, and conflicts are dealt with on this basis first.
Because the Kuwaiti company didn’t know about these cultural lenses, and kept approaching their Dutch supplier with an Honor/Shame communication style, they didn’t get results. Then, when one of their team did use a Guilt/Innocence style that the Dutch could understand to get results, they didn’t recognize that a different cultural communication style had been used, and only saw results achieved by going against the values that they held.
How understanding the Three Colors of Worldview would help
We were excited that the Kuwaiti seemed to have a set of values that they stuck to. Too many companies the world over only care about results, regardless of the method.
However the Kuwaiti company made two key mistakes: First, they weren’t able to make the clear what behaviors they expected people to demonstrate based on their values (See our article on “Vision, Mission, Values: What about behaviors?”).
Secondly, they didn’t take into account the three worldviews of Guilt/Innocence, Honor/Shame, and Power/Fear that have a role in every culture. As a result, they lost a good manager, and laid themselves open for further miscommunication with their Dutch supplier. By understanding the Three Colors of Worldview, the Kuwaiti company could develop much better communication with its Guilt/Innocence oriented partners, and the South African manager could have kept on producing results until the natural end of his time with the company. If the South African manager had known about the Three Colors, he could have given the owner a much clearer heads-up to put the heated contract discussion into context, and kept his job.
To begin your culture learning journey, Contact us or get our mini-ebook: Inter-Cultural Intelligence: from surviving to thriving in the global space.