A frequent reader of my blog postings on leadership and culture sent me the following paragraph from a much longer article:
The British military recently revealed that this past August they had to deal with a mutiny among 300 Libyan soldiers being trained at a British base. The Libyans were selected to receive combat and leadership training so they could better train and command Libyan soldiers back in their own country.
The mutiny occurred when British officers in charge of the training put three of the trainees under guard after police picked them up for being off base without permission. Then twenty other trainees went and threatened the British soldier guarding the three Libyans. Rather than risk violence or an incident, the guard let the three go free. Senior British officers were uncertain about how to further handle this seeming act of insubordination.
What seems like insubordination to one culture looks entirely different to another. In this case, the behaviour of both British and Libyan officers were determined more by national culture than organisational (military) culture. In the British national culture, rules and regulations are viewed as critically important for order, civility and efficiency. In the Libyan national culture, man-made rules are more like suggestions with loyalty to friends and family being far stronger! In terms of strong behaviour motivators, National culture trumps organisational requirements every time.
A National Culture Test
Here is a classic example of how different National cultures would respond to a situation:
You are riding in a car with a close friend, who hits a pedestrian. You know that he was going at least 35 miles per hour in 20 miles per hour zone. There are no witnesses. His lawyer says that if you testify under oath that he was only driving 20 miles per hour it may save your friend from serious legal consequences.
What would you do?
As much as we in Western society would like to think that honesty is a universal human value and is always “the best policy”, not all national cultures see it that way. Below is a representative graph of how different cultures would behave in the above situation:
In other words, not understanding or taking into account national culture when dealing with others can lead to seemingly hopeless and intractable situations, such as the British military situation above.
Below is a chart I often use to explain the differences between National Culture and Corporate Culture:
As you can see, of the two, national culture is by far the earliest, deepest and strongest in determining how people react to situations, events and other people.
No wonder the Libyans reacted the way they did, it’s in their DNA, not in their training!
John R Childress
Senior Advisor on Corporate Culture, Leadership and Strategy Execution
Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid