When National Culture and Corporate Culture Collide . .


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:

car accident

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:

national vs corporate

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

email: john@johnrchildress.com

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
This entry was posted in consulting, corporate culture, Human Psychology, leadership, Organization Behavior, strategy execution and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to When National Culture and Corporate Culture Collide . .

  1. Interesting perspective


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