Organisational Effectiveness and Cultural Differences


I wanted to share some key points from a recent article “Three Secrets of Organizational Effectiveness” by Newton and Davis. In their discussions around three management approaches – autonomy, purpose and recognition, they highlighted to me that what might work well in one part of the world might possibly have the opposite effect in another. When I was reading this article I found myself reflecting on some of Daniel Pink’s work concerning autonomy, purpose and mastery and Google ‘s recent claims that success and productivity are a direct result of employee purpose and autonomy.
Newton and Davis contend that one of the keys to organisational effectiveness is to support greater individual autonomy. Autonomy followed by purpose – that is inclusive of understanding why we do what we do, and finally an appreciation of work in terms of rewards and recognition are discussed as the secrets to organisational effectiveness.
When I read articles such as Newton and Davis’s, it serves as a reminder that it is useful to consider alternative viewpoints from a wider cultural perspective. For example, in the discussion around autonomy the conclusion made is that by stifling autonomy through practices such as employee micromanagement it forces people into a “fight-or-flight” brain response. The “fight-or-flight” response is triggered by a perceived threat that activates particular brain activity causing reactive responses. It induces a level of fear and anxiety, the outcome being reduced productivity and poor quality decision-making. Lieberman, a fellow neuroscientist, also supports these findings by contending that it causes reactive behaviours and decreased neural circuit activity in the brain that is associated with innovation, attention and problem solving.
I do not wish to question these findings, I have no doubt that this is accurate for individuals from a task, equality based culture such as the U.S. or U.K. or Australia; but not necessarily from someone who is from a more hierarchical, relationship-based culture such as India or Indonesia or Oman. These same responses of anxiety and fear that arise from a lack of autonomy could potentially be a consequence of awarding too much control and autonomy.
In cultures where working in a more consultative environment, where taking a collective, hierarchical decision-making approach is valued and where there are clear guidelines for decision-making, awarding greater autonomy can be an unnerving and daunting experience placing excessive pressure on individuals from these cultures. Hence, when we think about the advantages and benefits of improving autonomy we do need to keep in mind the potential for different interpretations and responses.  There is more than one way of operating and as such, organisations and their leaders need to be mindful that the impact can vary from one cultural context to another.
Newton and Davis provide an interesting discussion around the value of taking the time to help employees understand the “why” of their everyday work and it’s impact on the wider organisation. When employees have the ‘why’ insight there is greater likelihood that they will understand why particular organisational goals exist and where they ‘fit’ into these goals. Berkman, a leading neuroscience researcher, argues that when people understand the reason that a goal exists, it is much easier for them to form a “goal hierarchy” which can in turn be a powerful motivator.
This is similar to Kets De Vries and Florent-Treacey (2002), who argue that most successful global organizations have as part of their core corporate culture three meta values – community, pleasure and meaning. One of the products of these values is the nurturing of good citizenship behaviour, it promotes a sense of pleasure for employees at work, resulting in continuous learning and finally a sense of meaning for employees so as to create congruence between personal needs and the fundamental purpose of the organization.
The meta values are particularly critical in terms of outsourcing or offshoring work to other parts of the world. Explanations of why particular goals are set and their purposes, result in improved prioritisation processes and thus greater likelihood of unity, support and reaching the desired outcomes.
Leaders need to consider the various potential cultural responses to what constitutes organisational effectiveness and take the time to reinforce to their employees their value to the company, how they and their work fit into the wider organisational picture and the overarching organisational strategies. When individuals and teams are working remotely across distance, time and cultures it is critical for leaders to motivate employees in culturally appropriate ways that are inclusive of autonomy, purpose and recognition.