Change, Complexity and Courage

How Did We Make It So Boring?
The problem was that the change project we designed as a pathway to release ministry in the congregation threatened to turn into a train wreck.  My pastor and I had spent hours sitting in church chairs in the sanctuary reflecting on the health of the congregation, the opportunities in front of us and the challenges we faced.  We had the right goal in mind and we had a good plan.  It was now time to diagnose our situation and make mid-course corrections. We began our conversation by evaluating what kinds of changes were happening simultaneous to our strategic change and how these changes affected our potential for successful completion of the project.   We needed to reframe the change so that the board, staff and members could process the change at multiple levels.

As we talked about the resistance and support the project faced I leaned back in the church chair I was sitting and unconsciously sighed a long and exasperated sigh and said, “How in the world have we made the resurrection of Christ from the dead and the promise of a transformed life so boring.  We have equated the entirety of God’s work to managing programs.  The means have become the end. This is not only dull it is draining.”

I find two extremes plague congregations and other organizations.  On the one hand organizations and congregations forget the observation that the church is “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” a Latin phrase we inherited from the reformation that reads, “the church reformed and always reforming.”  Change in this perspective is expected because of a continuous movement toward the image of Christ.  Paul said it this way, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which some from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NIV)  In contrast personal and organizational behavior gravitates toward a kind of religious stasis in which all change stops.  Stasis is a state of stability in which all forces are equal and opposing and therefore cancel each other out.  Not all aspects of stasis are bad.

People need emotional equilibrium to be secure enough to risk change. When a person’s equilibrium is upset their behavior mistakenly equates equilibrium with rigid inflexibility based on inviolable tradition. This behavior confuses values and tactics so that the tactics used to express core values take the place of the values themselves. Effective leaders recognize this demoralizing and corrupting trend and work to nurture change at multiple levels of experience.

On the other hand I see organizations that misinterpret “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” as an excuse for personal and organizational impulsiveness.  In this scenario the only thing held as sacred is an avoidance of consistency or constancy.  This behavior mistakenly equates dynamism and innovation with impetuosity.  The result in this case is not creative spontaneity as much as undisciplined failure to follow through and hence an attendant loss of resources and a growing dissonance among those subjected to constant change.

It is important to understand three kinds of change and to differentiate strategies to discuss the challenges in each of them. I call these types of change organic, situational and strategic.  In my observation it is important for leaders to understand the difference of each of these types of change, the way they impact each other and the strategies needed to successfully address each.

Organic Change

Organic change is unique in that it is expected though sometimes surprising or upsetting in its consequences. For example I am getting older.  I never expected to exist in a static body – through out my childhood and young adult years I observed my own development and even looked forward to it.  It would be far more upsetting to have experienced arrested development. Organic change is the real foundation of the phrase, “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.”  It recognizes that the transforming (developmental) work of the Holy Spirit in our overall development is paralleled in the physical changes we experience as we age.  This does not mean that organic change is without trauma. One’s first brush with hormones is illustration enough that change, while normal and expected, still requires adjustment and new emotional and relational tools to successfully integrate it.

Organic change is predictable.  Stage development theories of human development for example identify patterns of growth with reasonable accuracy. If these patterns or stages of growth are ignored then an individual’s capacity for social and personal adjustment is stunted. On the other hand if these stages are anticipated then people are less likely to get stuck in the boundaries represented in the space between stages.  Organic change emphasizes integration i.e., how a person relates to a group on the one hand and differentiation i.e., what makes them unique on the other. Part of the challenge in dealing with organic change is to recognize the difference between differentiation boundaries (when individuals need to separate and secure their personal identity) and integration boundaries (when people need to redefine their relationship to the group).

Organic change is not often considered when working on strategic change. However, if the maturity level and specific boundary time of everyone participating in the change is not considered participants may lack the emotional reserves and skills needed to move through the change.  If there is strong resistance to change from specific people the dynamics of organic change may be at play.  Stage development theorists like Erickson, Kohlberg, Kegan, and Fowler are all helpful in understanding how people develop and the boundaries they face in development. Clinton’s developmental stages are outlined below.  Use developmental theories to help people define what they are facing outside the strategic change process.[i]

Situational Change

Situational change often presents the greatest potential for trauma or emotional dissonance.  The unexpected nature situational change reinforces human vulnerability. Situational change typically requires some immediate adjustment because it renders plans and thinking obsolete. Situational change creates emotional and epistemological dissonance or a state in which what we thought we knew and depended upon is upended by circumstance that contradict expectations about what is real or just or normal.  It is possible to pretend that situational change has no effect however this kind of denial leads to increased tension and sickness related to stress.

Situational change is unintended although it is predictable as illustrated in such anecdotal truisms like Murphy’s Law.  The forces behind situational change may be human (relationship changes, economic changes, wars, political shifts etc.); natural (as in weather, geological events etc.) or non-human (as in an unexpected encounter with animal life or encounter with spiritual entities).

Not all situational changes are a product of Murphy’s Law – even a good turn of events creates a situational change that shares the same upsetting emotional consequences as something going wrong.  Look for example at people who win the lottery and are then unable to adjust their thinking and personal management to fit the radical change in their new social situation. The same dynamic works in churches (and businesses) that experience rapid growth that out paces the willingness of the leadership to adjust their thinking, leadership styles and working structures. The tendency in either example is to return to the more familiar situation hence lottery winners go broke and churches loose their growth and return to the attendance level leaders are familiar with managing.

Even though situational changes are predictable they are not always included in planning strategic change.  If situational change is not considered when planning strategic change then any significant situational change is usually enough to derail or collapse strategic change plans.

Strategic Change

Strategic change is volitional – it represents a set of actions one chooses to engage to meet a specific end. All discussions about organizational change are framed as strategic change. Strategic change is often induced by cognitive dissonance which is a distressing mental state that arises when people find that their beliefs are inconsistent with their actions.  In response to this dissonance people either change their actions or their beliefs. When strategic change works it starts with belief in the overall purpose of the organization.  When people believe in the purpose of an organization they change their actions to align to that belief.  The problem Pastor Dan observed was that people had begun to question the purpose of their congregational experience and so changed their actions i.e., giving dropped off, attendance dropped off and participation in various outreaches sponsored by the congregation fell.

Successful strategic change also depends on proper reinforcement systems at work in the organization. I saw this at work in one congregation that continually taught that everyone was a priest and that they wanted to develop leaders but their functional practices failed to reward those who came up with new ideas. Instead they discouraged people from taking initiative by having several thick layers of permission requirements that usually ended in a “no” answer.  Initiative was redirected to participation in working in the nursery, teaching Sunday school, serving as a sound technician or serving as a greeter/usher.  Soon people stopped trying to introduce new ideas, recruitment plummeted and average attendance dropped by 400 in two years.  The leadership blamed the diminished attendance on consumerism, lack of commitment and the mega-church down the street – they did not see how their own behaviors contributed to the problem.

Successful strategic change also depends on possessing the skills required for change.  People need consistent role models to watch.  People need to see how to apply the change and see that the change can be successfully engaged.  The simple fact is that adults don’t learn by listening to instructions or admonitions from the pulpit. Adults must absorb the new information, use it experimentally, and integrate it with their existing knowledge.  This is part of the reason small groups are so vitally important in congregational life – they offer the environment needed for adults to absorb information by teaching others, experiment with its use in a safe environment and integrate their existing knowledge.

Use a Multi-dimensional Approach to Change

Thinking of change as a multi-dimensional process is complex.  However, thinking this way can help leaders demystify some of the barriers to change they face both inside their own personal experience and outwardly as they interact with those they lead.  Table 2 provides an overview that outlines the kind of strategy each change process requires to be successful. Without a multidimensional approach it becomes far too easy to characterize those who resist change negatively.  Adding a multidimensional perspective provides a richer diagnostic tool that can anticipate and address resistance to change by identifying what organic and situational factors may emerge as the change occurs.


Change is a multidimensional process and never just a linear process.  The reason some change processes derail is that they fail to anticipate the total context of organic, situational and strategic change and thus launch projects that fall into the trap of idealism, impulsiveness or tyranny. Any of these traps cause leaders to behave in ways that are inconsistent to the message of reconciliation with God and as a result lead to growing cognitive dissonance that brings about needless loss.  If you are leading a change process consider the following questions.  They will help you refine your thinking and engage a multidimensional perspective.

What did we say we wanted to accomplish?

Is what we are doing contributing to that accomplishment or moving us further away?

What changed between when we set our action plan and today?

What aspects of the change process need to adjust because of a changing situation?

What is the non-negotiable end and what are the negotiable means?

If the change is resisted what kind of change may be at the root of resistance?  What is the best strategy to address this resistance?

Are all the participants in a place of equilibrium in their development?  If not, who is in a boundary time and how are they processing it?  Do they need more coaching to process their boundary?

What other steps do we need to help others process the change we want to make?

Is this the right time for change?

What happens if nothing changes?  Is this a biblically consistent outcome?

What things should not change?

How will we address potential loss in a way that is consistent to the message of reconciliation and discipline evident in the New Testament?

[i] Clinton, J. Robert and Richard W. Clinton.  “The Life Cycle of a Leader: Looking at God’s Shaping of a Leader Toward an Ephesians 2:10 Life.” ( Pasadena: Barnabas Publishing, 1995)

Develop Cultural Understanding – Get Things Done

Cross-cultural Communication Easily Lends itself to Misunderstanding
It does not take much experience in cross-cultural communication to realize that getting a message across is a much more difficult task when different cultural filters are in place.  In business where communication is so important an understanding of how concepts different cultures frame reality and define their values is imperative.

Business executives wanting to set up a strong Asian presence identified potential partners and initiated a distance conversation to find common ground.  When they felt they had enough information they drew up a contract and flew to Asia to negotiate a final agreement. After presenting their proposal their hosts simply suggested dinner and then drinks followed by karaoke.  The next day followed a similar pattern.  On the third day the Americans left frustrated without an agreement. The entire relationship with their potential partners fell apart.  Why?  The American executives had not taken the time to understand the cultural assumptions of their hosts.  They worked from completely different assumptions about (1) what constituted a good working relationship and (2) what formulated an enforceable agreement.  The most significant variables involved in their failure were not business strategies but cultural ones.

What do I mean by culture?  Culture consists of:

  1. The total way of life of a people;
  2. the social legacy of the person acquires from his group;
  3. a way of thinking, feeling and believing;
  4. an abstraction from behavior;[1]
  5. a theory on the part of the anthropologist about the way a group of people in fact behave;
  6. a storehouse of pooled learning;
  7. a set of standardized orientations to recurrent problems;
  8. learned behavior;
  9. a mechanism for the normative regulation of behavior;
  10. a set of techniques for adjusting both to the external environment and to other men;
  11. a precipitate (impulse) of history.

Inter-cultural studies define culture using one of two fundamental methods either of which could have significantly altered the outcome of the results of the meetings the American executives had with their Asian counter parts.  One method uses a stratigraphc approach that assumes that basic human needs are held in common. A stratigraphic approach attempts to name underlying values and the cultural structures that result.  Another method uses a semiotic approach to understanding culture. In a semiotic approach a person tries to understand cultural differences by identifying the way people describe significance.  Those who promote the semiotic approach often find a stratigraphic approach too mechanical in that it does not always allow for the influence of individuals i.e., personal adaptations to a cultural view.  I describe them both below because they both have strengths that effective leaders use to understand cultural differences.  Both approaches attempt to define the differences in how various cultures see and interpret life.

Stratigraphic Approach

One of my professors, Charles Kraft, uses a stratigraphic approach to understanding cultural differences.  He identified four basic needs and their functions including: biological, psychological, socio-cultural and spiritual. See Table 1.

Kraft contends that analyzing culture consists of understanding the relationship between three different stratigraphic layers.[2]  The most visible part of a culture (the top-level) consists of visible behaviors.  Behavior is the easiest to see however how it is understood by an observer from a different culture easily leads to misinterpreted meaning.  The reason visible behavior is not always understood has to do with the fact that behavior reflects two deeper levels of a cultural system.

Just beneath the visible level is a mid-level aspect of culture consisting of the underlying values that surround how basic needs are understood and met.  The five dimensions of culture identified by Hofstede help explain how the values by which human needs and interactions are defined result in significant differences in how cultures approach those needs.

The deep level of a culture consists of those basic needs and problems faced by all humanity.  The deep level is universal in that needs for food, air, shelter, sex, excretion, meaning in life etcetera are observable in all human societies.  However, the context in which these needs are defined impact the structures different social systems create to understand the significance of these needs and the way they meet them. For example the context of an Inuit family living on the frozen tundra of the north frame these basic needs in an environment that is radically different from a Maori family living on a South Pacific Island.  For this reason I have added a middle or arbitrating layer to Kraft’s table called values.

People in Kraft’s view are more alike than cultures.  In fact Kraft contends that “If we didn’t have a lot in common, the quest to communicate cross-culturally would be worthless.”[3]

Table 1: Universal Needs and Functions in Diverse Cultures

  Biological Psychological Socio-cultural Spiritual


Obtaining and maintaining biological necessities – food, air, shelter, sex, excretion Obtaining and maintaining psychological necessities – meaning in life, personal security, a measure of freedom Obtaining and maintaining socio-cultural  necessities – language, family education, social control Obtaining and maintaining spiritual necessities – beliefs, rituals, mythology

Values provide the lens that assigns meaning and significance to the needs people experience.  In a cultural view values and environment work together to define the way basic needs are met.


Food, air, shelter, sex, excretion Meaning in life, personal security, a measure of freedom Communication provide for the transmission of culture, Maintenance of social system etc. Understanding of and relating to supra-cultural beings and factors, etc.

I accept the contention that people have much in common, however getting at how to understand the differences in how cultures define significance, priority, and relationship is the challenge for people working across cultural divides.  A stratigraphic view of culture is helpful in providing a general reference point for differences – a beginning point to define what is different and how communication must adjust.

Semiotic Approach

Another way to define culture uses a semiotic model. Clifford Geertz champions this method in which the primary thesis is, “…that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.”[4]

Semiotics is the study of signs, symbols, and signification. Semiotics is the study of language where one studies a system of symbols agreed on in a given culture to communicate meaning.  Semiotics is a method that those who are bi-lingual and with significant cross-cultural experience have the opportunity to use most effectively.  So, if one is just starting out, semiotics is too complex.  However, do not ignore the principles behind this method of cultural understanding. Once language learning begins the use of semiotics in business provides an advantage in that it moves one closer to comprehending the nuanced meanings often missed by non-Native speakers. Understanding nuance is important when attempted to negotiate contracts, close deals or resolve tensions common to any business relationship.

In the study of semiotics seeks to understand how cultures use symbols (“symbology”). The following linguistic terms explain the concept of comparative symbology in semiotics.  They are important concepts used to help define meaning.

  1. Syntactics:  The formal relationships of signs and symbols to one another apart from their users or external reference. It is the structure or general rules of language that guide users in developing meaning and communicating that meaning.
  2. Semantics:  The relationships of signs and symbols to the things to which they refer. For example: in English the word “rock” may be understoodas mineral mater of variable composition or a mass of stone.  The symbol is assigned to the object.
  3. Pragmatics:  The relations of signs and symbols with their users.[5]  This refers to the way language is used in different contexts.

The first two levels listed above (syntactics and semantics) involve the structural and functional relations of individual symbols within a communication system.  In language these symbols are morphemes (smallest unit of speech), words and sentences; in culture we could interpret it as the basic meaning-based functions of individual cultural symbols.  For our purposes the most important term to the study of semiotics is pragmatics.  Within the study of linguistics pragmatics is involved with the “force of speech events on the world”, or the social context in which the language is spoken.

Geertz states that the use of a semiotics in the conception of public meaning requires a thick not a thin conception of culture.  Semiotics enables a person to move from a thin to thick conceptions.  The idea of thick and thin conceptions is illustrated in how the human behavior of winking is interpreted.  A ‘thin’ interpretation (merely semantic or syntactic) defines winking as “a contraction of the eyelid.”  This definition is clearly deficient if one is interested in understanding why the person is winking.  Surprisingly some business communication seems to assume that a thin interpretation of a partner’s behavior is sufficient grounds for getting a message across.  The pitfalls are obvious in the illustration.

Conversely a cultural interpretation or comparison of the meaning behind the behavior i.e., Geertz’s ‘thick’ (pragmatic/semiotic) definition of winking, explores the cultural context of the act of winking. Was it an involuntary movement of the eyelid, or did it have a meaning-based, communicative function?

The benefit of a semiotic approach is that it values the context in which communication occurs and thus helps to avoid drawing broad generalizations that effectively mislead one into believing they have captured the full impact of cultural differences when in fact they possess only a thin perspective. Geertz contends “…not that there are no generalizations that can be made about man as man, save that he is a most various animal, or that the study of culture has nothing to contribute toward the uncovering of such generalizations.  My point is that such generalizations are not to be discovered through a Baconian search for cultural universals.”[6]

Putting Interpretive Models to Use

My point in the discussion above is to show; (1) that cross-cultural understanding is possible; (2) that one understands in degree or layers not in whole so that (3) continuous learning is necessary to succeed well in communication across cultures. As noted previously one must engage in language learning to be effective in the global market. (See,

Effective global business leaders develop cultural understanding by listening and inquiry. This means that before a person is truly effective in cross-cultural interaction they own the realization that their own behaviors are informed by a culturally based set of values that are not de facto universal and may in fact be getting in the way of understanding. Regardless of the model used (stratigraphic or semiotic) learning a new culture requires that one listen and observe to find the relationships between words, actions and the values the inform both. There are four available strategies which are important to understand in assessing cultural forms.  See Table 2.

The point is that learning a new culture when one has limited language skills requires observable phenomenon (behavior) from which to infer constructs.  By the word “constructs” I mean the collective programming of the mind that results from certain conditions of existence that produce a system of permanent and transferable tendencies that function as the basis for practices and images that can be collectively orchestrated without a conductor. (See Hofstede’s work.)

Learning a new culture often consists of observing behavior and asking for an interpretation for why that behavior occurs.  A pitfall exists in this strategy that researchers call the Heisenberg effect. The Heisenberg effect states that observed behavior provoked by research cannot always be extrapolated to circumstances in which the researcher is not present.   This presents a problem of validity in that inferred values or mental models may seem valid in the first answers provided by a cultural mentor but have little real influence in real behavior. In other words I may think I understand a behavior as something that applies in all social settings within the culture I study only to find that the information I received from my cultural mentor was limited to a specific context or situation or in fact represents an ideal that no one actually lives out.

Table 2: Four Available Strategies for defining Cultural Constructs[7]

Provoked Natural
Words 1.InterviewsQuestionnaires

Projective tests

2.Content analysis of speechesDiscussions


Deeds 3.Laboratory experimentsField experiments 4.Direct observationUse of available descriptive statistics

When seeking to understand a new culture a person can use provoked or natural strategies.   Provoked strategies are those observations that engage another person to provoke a response that helps the observer understand.  For example the strategies in quadrant 1 above are the easiest to conduct.  The data gathered from instruments like those mentioned in quadrant 1 seem valid without further proof i.e., they have face validity.  Face validity is a property of a test intended to measure something. It is the validity of a test at face value. In other words, a test has face validity if it “looks like” it is going to measure what it is supposed to measure. So, while the methods of quadrant 1 are useful they run the risk of the Heisenberg effect.  Off set the potential of misunderstanding by using the methods of quadrant 1 in conjunction natural strategies defined in the measurements of quadrants 2 and 4 in Table 2.

It is important to understand a dynamic identified by Argyris and Schön as the difference between espoused theories and theories in use.  Espoused theories are those ideal values a culture holds as a reference point for what is good or acceptable.  Theories in use refer to how decisions are actually made. Hofstede called this the distinction between desired and desirable behaviors.  The distinction is important in distinguishing between actions (the desirable that indicates values in action on the basis of the individual and the situation) and words (which provides the ideal [desired] that is held as a standard for determining action. In other words; what is the frame for the norm is it statistical (desired) or deontological (desirable)?

Desired: the statistically validated values that characterize the mental programming of a group. Discover desired values by assessing the words and actions of a collection of individuals.

Desirable: the ontologically stated values of a group that inform the assumptions behind ethical decision-making and choices of action.

Both words and actions are important to gain competence within a culture especially in serving as a change agent and a team builder (i.e., actions/competencies that are critical in leading across cultures).

Hofstede used quadrants 1 and 4 to identify and describe the mental software used by groups of people in the constructs of: (1) values and (2) culture.  This allowed him to name discrete group mental programs while also recognizing the variations inherent due to ecological differences and personal adaptation. Hence it is important to understand Hofstede’s definition of terms.

Values: a conception, explicit or implicit, distinctive of an individual or characteristic of a group, of the desirable which influences the choice from available modes, means and ends of actions.[8]

Culture: the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.[9] Culture consists in patterned ways of thinking, feeling and reacting, acquired and transmitted mainly by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments or in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values.[10]

So what should you be attentive to in trying to understand cultural values?  Hofstede suggests using the following contrasts to define how a culture thinks and behaves. Using these continua help compare and contrast observed versus stated values.  Ask yourself how do people talk about these concepts?  Do they act in ways consistent to what they said?  Under what circumstances do their actions seem to differ from what they said?  Are these apparent differences common to everyone or observable in only one or a few?

  • Evil versus good
  • Dirty versus clean
  • Dangerous versus safe
  • Decent versus indecent
  • Ugly versus beautiful
  • Unnatural versus natural
  • Abnormal versus normal
  • Paradoxical versus logical
  • Irrational versus rational
  • Moral versus immoral

It is not only important to understand how these concepts are defined but to capture the reasoning behind the definitions (remember the focus is behavior). Table 3 identifies the distinction then between desired and desirable.  When listening to people talk listen for three semantic differentials – these give hints to whether you are hearing desired or desirable values.  Osgood et al 1975 identified three semantic dimensions

  • Evaluation – good or bad
  • Potency – strong or weak
  • Activity – active or passive

Learning to listen for values by the way is a skill that enhances leadership in one’s own cultural context as well. When we talk about the complexities of culture we will move this discussion a step further.  For now think about language that illustrates these semantic dimensions.  Think about it in conversations you have had in your own organization and it would be helpful to think about difficult conversations.

Table 3: Distinction between the Desired and the Desirable and Associated Distinctions[11]

Nature of a Value The Desired The Desirable
Dimension of a value Intensity Direction
Nature of corresponding norm of value Statistical, phenomenological, pragmatic Absolute, deontological, ideological
Corresponding behavior Choice and differential effort allocation Approval or disapproval
Dominant outcome Deeds and/or words Words
Terms used in measuring instrument Important, successful, attractive, preferred Good, right, agree, ought, should
Affective meaning of this term Activity plus evaluation Evaluation only
Person referred to in measuring instrument Me, you People in general


The growing ability to understand and to make oneself understood in cross-cultural settings is a process.  As long as a person grasps the concept of culture and commits to learning how to get things done they will grow in their cross-cultural communication ability or cultural intelligence. If a person assumes that the way they are accustomed to working is universally effective frustration and ineffectiveness occurs. Using the listen models suggested in this paper is a good step toward learning to get things done in cross-cultural settings.  What similar ways of understanding do you use in a global market place to get things done?  What has worked for you?  What did not work?  Who did you turn to for help?  What kind of help did they give?  Write me or leave a comment and let me know what you learned.

[1] This definition is very close to what Geertz will recommend and then caution against based on his observation of the unpredictability of human behavior.

[2] Charles H. Kraft. Anthropology for Christian Witness (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 118.

[3] Kraft, 120.

[4] Clifford Geertz. Available Light (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).

[5] V. Turner.  From Ritual to Theatre, (New York: Performing Arts Publications, 1982), 8.

[6] Geertz, 40.

[7] Hofstede, 5.

[8] Hofstede 5

[9] Hofstede 9

[10] Hofstede 9 quoting Kluckhohn 1951:86

[11] Hofstede, 7.

Cross-Cultural Communication – Check Your Assumptions

Cross-cultural Communication Introduces Unexpected Nuances
“What we need,” the CEO said, “is to find global partners who understand the rule of law.” The statement emerged from a discussion about a new global initiative.  “We don’t need to get bogged down in corruption, I want our partners to own our core values” the CEO continued. From the perspective of the CEO these two statements were clear and universal sources of certainty and protection as we entered an unknown world of global trade. This perspective had reduced the risk of expansion, hiring and managing competition in the United States.  But the deeper challenge inherent in a global initiative would shake these assumptions to their core.  Asserting that one’s core values are universal is a fundamental mistake of leaders who enter the global market for the first time.  The assumption that one’s own values are universal and the basis to assess all other values is ethnocentrism.

I do not use of the word ethnocentrism pejoratively rather I mean it descriptive. The greatest single challenge to entering a global market is to move from the assumption that one’s own mental categories are both universal and the correct way of assessing reality.  It typically comes as a shock to discover that the rest of the world does not share one’s own cultural assumptions.  Engaging cultural differences successfully means arriving at the realization that mental categories are culturally defined and thus are not universal.  Over time leaders that remain in a global setting gain an appreciation of cultural diversity that recognizes all worldviews are adequate in their context and inadequate to fully comprehend others who are different.

Business leadership today is a multicultural challenge even if one never travels across a national boundary. In a survey in of executives from 68 countries 90% named cross-cultural leadership as the most significant management challenge for the 21st century. While Friedman’s idea of a flat world is appealing (and verifiable at a surface level) it cannot be taken as permission to do business as usual wherever one travels.  The simple fact of the matter is that cultural differences exist despite the common business language and forms that make it seem like differences are minimal. The reality is that cultural nuances impact common business language and forms.

Consider the CEOs assertion that we needed a business partner who understood the rule of law.  This seems adequate however the question that immediately arises is whether every legal system around the globe is same as that which we use in the United States?  When working across cultures remember that what is seen and heard in the mind’s eye of people from different cultures may result in widely divergent understanding of the same situation and as a result widely different outcomes.

John C. Tobin notes that, “…even cultures that share the same legal systems may view the formation of legal states, such as a contract, or breach of contract, from fundamentally different viewpoints.”[i]  Why is this? The simple answer returns us to the reality that cultural differences exist and these differences mean that situations interpreted from one cultural perspective to another remain dissimilar.   The rule of law may be founded on either the adversarial system rooted in the common law developed in Elizabethan England or inquisitorial system rooted in Napoleonic Code.

Adversarial systems work from two pillars (a) that an impartial judge serves with broad discretion as a fact finder sifting through the competing arguments of adversaries represented by advocates and (b) the principle of stare decisis i.e., that the impartial judge applies the text of the law to the controlling facts he or she has determined in a fashion that harmonizes with prior decisions so that the interpretation of the law remains consistent over time. Stare decisis is a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “to stand by that which is decided.”

Inquisitorial systems derive from Napoleonic code in which the judge not the parties involved in a dispute determines the initiation, scope and extent of litigation.  As a result each case entering the court is unique and is not dependent upon the precedent of other similar cases.  In other words the concept of stare decisis that is so important in an adversarial system does has no part in an inquisitorial system yet both systems represent the rule of law.

The CEO’s apparently simple recommendation becomes complex when applied cross-culturally even if we found only potential business partners who said they understood the rule of law.  This complexity only amplifies when one considers working in a non-rule of law country i.e., where the enforcement model is personified in a supreme ruler (religious or state entity) where decision-making is strictly defined by religious, ideological or tribal source of law.  Cultural differences and how these cultures define risk aversion, power, orientation toward goal or environmental concerns, or individualism versus collectivism in decision-making must be understood to avoid serious misunderstandings.[ii]

Why is Understanding Cultural Differences So Important?

What is culture?  If understanding culture is imperative to working in a global environment then it is good to start with a basic definition. Livermore (2010) defines culture as “…any group of people who have a shared way of seeing and making sense of the world.[iii]

Defining culture this way allows us to consider the impact of organizational as well as national and ethnic cultures (or regional cultures).   Possessing the ability to adapt to various ways in which groups of people see and make sense of the world has specific benefits. Livermoore (2010) calls this adaptive ability “Cultural Intelligence” and notes that it is essential to:

  1. Understand customers – emerging markets (overseas markets) are expected to grow by an average of 30 to 50 percent over the next several years.
  2. Manage personnel – recognizing cultural differences and one’s own cultural assumptions enable leaders to achieve the right blend of flexibility and rigidity in managing operations.
  3. Recruit talent – organizations that practice cultural intelligence are more likely to recruit and retain talent that (a) understand the context and (b) interpret organizational values into various cultural contexts and vice verse.
  4. Adapt leadership style – regional, national and organizational cultures influence the kind of leadership that is acceptable and effective within specific cultural settings
  5. Communicate respect – respect or benevolence is critical to building trust and the commitment, contribution, confidence and conviction needed to secure superior employee engagement.

I have noted elsewhere that leaders must master communication. In its simplest form communication is the ability to outline the actions a team or group must take to carry out a task.  This sounds simple yet outlining actions also requires that a leader understand and outline their own values, expectations and the reason for the action and communicate this in light of the way values, expectations and reasons for action taken as understood from the cultural perspective of those who are listening.  In fact the greater the scope of leadership responsibility and the more diverse the cultural differences the more complex the layers of communication become so that verbal and symbolic multilayered communication is critical for the success of the organization.

How Do I Develop Cultural Intelligence?

Leaders who wish to avoid the trap of ethnocentrism (i.e., “evaluating other people and their culture by the standards of our own cultural preferences”) can start by following four simple steps.[iv]

First, see culture’s role in your own life as well as in other’s lives.  It helps to have a basic model of culture from which to assess your own perspectives and the perspectives of others. One way to start is to use Gert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions. These dimensions of culture include:

  • Power distance: the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept or expect that power be distributed unequally.  The basic problem involved is the degree of human inequality that underlies the function of each particular society.
  • Uncertainty avoidance: the extent to which a culture programs its members to feel either uncomfortable or comfortable in unstructured situations.  Unstructured situations are novel, unknown, surprising, and different from usual.  The basic problem involved is the degree to which a society tries to control the uncontrollable.
  • Individualism/collectivism: the degree to which people look after themselves or stay integrated into groups, usually around the family.  Positioning itself between these poles is a very basic problem all societies face.
  • Masculinity/femininity: refers to the distribution of emotional roles between the genders, which is another fundamental problem for any society to which a range of solutions are found; it opposes “tough” masculine to “tender” feminine societies.
  • Long-term/short-term orientation: refers to the extent to which a culture programs its members to accept delayed gratification of their material, social, and emotional needs.

Second, review the basic cultural systems – gain a familiarity with the culture’s economic, marriage and family, political, religious, legal, and artistic systems.  Talk with several people who are part of the culture in which you intend to work.  Ask why at least five times and of different people.  Asking “why” more than once gets past surface level responses to the deeper assumptions of the culture. This assumes that (a) you have done some research or reading about the culture and its worldview and (b) you spend time in the culture. I call this:  getting three blocks in.  One of my first cross-cultural adventures started at a port in the Middle East. I noticed that things seemed somewhat familiar to me until I walked about three blocks off the water front.  It was there that I entered a completely different world and felt altogether disoriented.  Embrace that sense of disorientation and loss of control.  It is part of gaining cultural intelligence.

Third, learn the core cultural values of the culture in which you intend to work.  Be aware of the reality that values defined by a cultural mentor may not correspond with how people actually act.  Argyris and Schön define this paradox as the difference between espoused theories and theories in use.  Hofstede calls this the distinction between desired behaviors and desirable behaviors.  The distinction is important to recognize the difference between actions (the desired that indicates values in action on the basis of the person and the situation) and words (which provides the ideal [desirable] that is held as a standard for determining action. The tension between the desired and the desirable is found in every culture. The point is that to understand culture it is imperative to see both aspects of what leads to action and decision-making.

Fourth, understand the different languages.  Ideally working in a cross-cultural capacity leads to learning a second language and becoming proficient in conversation. In many business environments today however business people spend very little time and may cross multiple cultures. Even in this case learning the basics of language in light of the cultural dimensions identified by Hofstede make the difference between being successful in forming business alliances or failing altogether. One need not be a linguist to learn a second language.  One of my first international assignments found me working with leaders from Latin America.  So, I determined to become at least somewhat functional in conversational Spanish.  I told my secretary of this goal. She said, “Are you sure?” “Then I will only use Spanish when I talk with you so that you practice and learn to speak Spanish.”  These were the last words she said to me in English.

After a week of frustration and growing agitation on my part she asked me a rhetorical question in English.  “Ray, did you arrive from your mother’s womb speaking perfect English?  No, you cooed and mimicked and practiced sounds until you began to put together sounds with objects. No one understood you at first and you did not understand them but still you made noise.  What makes you think you can learn Spanish as an adult?  Become a child again or you will never learn how to think and see in Spanish and so you will never speak it.”  Learning requires that one embrace the awkwardness of curiosity.  Without the commitment to be curious like a child the odds of developing cultural intelligence greatly diminish.


As we prepare to launch a new global initiative these lessons revolve around in my head.  Like others I don’t like feeling less than competent or out of control yet without feeling these emotions I know that I have not yet begun to move from an ethnocentric view to one that grows in cultural intelligence.

Developing cultural intelligence requires a commitment to learning.  Anyone can develop cultural intelligence. However, not everyone will. Learning cultural intelligence provides a clear advantage in the global market place and it has the less obvious benefit of gaining an ability to read every cultural (or political) situation with greater insight into how decisions are made. This benefit is significant for emerging leaders as it minimizes the risk of political missteps within one’s own organization and cross-cultural gaffes in the global market place.   If you are a leader learning to work in the global market place tells me how these lessons resonate.  What have you learned along the way?  What faux pas did you stumble into?  Don’t keep the wisdom to yourself help all of us by sharing your experience.

[i] John C. Tobin. “The Legal Implications of Cross-cultural Leadership and Trade” in Contemporary Leadership and Intercultural Competence ed. Michael A. Moodian (Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications, 2009), 66.

[ii] Gert Hofstede. Culture’s Consequences in Work Related Values (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1980).

[iii] David Livermore. Leading with Cultural Intelligence: the New Secret to Success (New York, NY: American Management Association, 2010), 13.

[iv] Livermore, 64.

Do You Know Where You Are Going?

Leaders See the Road Ahead
Will Mancini of Auxano provides a great summary of what he calls the Vision Frame.[1]  It is a quick way to review the work of the church in light of its mission and thus shift the focus of assessment from attendance and money to the outcomes the church is commissioned to generate.

The Vision Frame focuses thinking on values, measures, mission and strategy.  The frame is illustrated in Table 1.

Table 1: The Vision Frame

Frame Component

Missional Reorientation


Irreducible Question of Leadership



Question zero

What are we doing?



Question hero

Why are we doing it?



Question how

How are we doing it?



Question now

When are we successful?

Vision Proper

Mountain top + milestones

Question wow

Where is God taking us?

The question asked by Mancini is, “Do you have compelling answer to these five questions?”  These questions define the DNA of your congregation so to the degree to which the answers are fuzzy your team will lack focus and experience dissonance between what they hope to carry out and what is actually happening.

Next Steps

Now that you have these questions in hand why not take time with your key leaders and work through each of them. Keep it simple.  The task is to bring clarity that inspires action in the same direction. As a leader you serve as a catalyst to this kind of thinking.

Not sure if you are a leader?  Consider the definition below.  If you find yourself living out these characteristics then you do want to take another look at how you assess your influence.

If you are confident you are a leader then use the definition below to double-check how you are doing.

What is leadership?

Leadership is the capacity, moral authority and skill needed to influence a group’s goal attainment in an ethical, spiritual and socially responsible way. Leadership is a spiritual gift (Romans 12: 3, 8). The Apostle Paul encourages leaders to do act with diligence i.e., earnest thoroughness and attentiveness in accomplishing the task.

Lead well!  Have fun!

[1] Will Mancini. “The Vision Frame; The Core Tool for Visionary Church Leaders” available at; accessed 2 Sep 2011.