Monday, June 05, 2006

Straight Talking Americans - But Not in the Workplace

Have you ever noticed how Americans who are known for being opinionated and valuing straight talk are actually make-no-waves yes-men and women in the workplace?

It's an interesting dichotomy that I hadn't given much thought to until I read the excellent article in Across the Board magazine by intercultural expert Susan Davidson. In this article Davidson shares many European executives' experiences working for American companies. These managers were surprised to find that in the workplace Americans:
  • avoid being negative
  • are labeled a trouble maker if they disagree
  • are careful to put a positive spin on what they say
  • follow rigorous corporate hierarchies (corporate ladders)
  • are keenly deferential to those above us (think Trump boardroom)
  • provide minimal, weak feedback that primarily confirms a decision that has already been made
  • avoid face-to-face confrontation

These charges ring true, don't they?

I never realized that this was a uniquely American phenomenon as opposed to being a normal stumbling block for most corporate cultures. Apparently, though, this is not business as usual for our European counterparts. For example, according to Davidson, Scandinavians have a much more inclusive organizational structure where "anyone can talk openly to anyone about anything."
"If an American CEO says something is a good idea, then people nod and say yes, whether they agree or not," says Marjon de Groot, a former Dutch director of product marketing for Philips. Another Dutchman at Philips, agrees: "Dutch feeback enriches the decision. You don't get that that kind of feedback in the United States."

The article goes on to explain some of the suspected reasons for Americans not speaking their mind at work. This includes fear of losing their jobs (which Europeans are less likely to fear due to stricter labor laws and generous unemployment benefits) and our litigious society which causes both employees and employers to dilute what they say.

Another reason that comes to my mind is that Americans may see the key to climbing the American corporate ladder as being built more upon social ties than on business contributions. If employees and middle managers believe that being liked is what will help them get ahead, then it makes sense that they will strive to act postive and agreeable. Presenting unique ideas and suggestions comes with the risk of appearing to make waves or disagree with colleagues and bosses. Perhaps American leaders are rewarding conciliatory behaviors (consciously or unconsciously) rather than rewarding behaviors that question and contribute.

This is something that company leaders should take a hard look at within their own organization. I know that CEOs believe they want more honest feedback from employees. They say they want honest feedback but are they rewarding those who provide honest feedback? Maybe there are some lessons we can learn from our friends overseas.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Mark Harbeke said...

Thanks for your post on the difference between American and European workplaces in terms of mid-level and lower staffs' beliefs and opinions versus their actual interactions with management. I would agree with you in terms of very large American corporations, where the value placed on employee interactions is generally low, and where the "corporate ladder" you gave mention to is more difficult to climb.

However, it is the case now and for a long time that the majority of American businesses are small businesses -- they're the entities driving our economy. In these businesses, not only is the employee population smaller, but the hierarchy isn't so clearly defined and rigid as it is in larger companies and global conglomerates. I work at a nonprofit that helps small and midsized businesses create better work environments, and we have featured many small and midsized organizations on our website that have created best practices that encourage employee involvement and interaction to upper management -- including both positive and negative feedback. Some of these companies are names you'd recognize, including iRobot (creator of the Roomba floor vacuum), Clif Bar (creator of the "better-tasting energy bar"), and Baird & Warner (midwest real estate company).

The bottom line is that more and more small businesses are realizing that they need to follow Toyota's model and follow policies and procedures designed to elicit employee feedback, good or bad, in order for the leadership to stay in touch with them and use them as a resource in their day-to-day role as representatives of the organization before its customers.

11:40 AM, June 06, 2006  
Anonymous Mark Harbeke said...

Thanks for your post on the difference between American and European workplaces in terms of mid-level and lower staffs' beliefs and opinions versus their actual interactions with management. I would agree with you in terms of very large American corporations, where the value placed on employee interactions is generally low, and where the "corporate ladder" you gave mention to is more difficult to climb.

However, it is the case now and for a long time that the majority of American businesses are small businesses -- they're the entities driving our economy. In these businesses, not only is the employee population smaller, but the hierarchy isn't so clearly defined and rigid as it is in larger companies and global conglomerates. I work at a nonprofit that helps small and midsized businesses create better work environments, and we have featured many small and midsized organizations on our website that have created best practices that encourage employee involvement and interaction to upper management -- including both positive and negative feedback. Some of these companies are names you'd recognize, including iRobot (creator of the Roomba floor vacuum), Clif Bar (creator of the "better-tasting energy bar"), and Baird & Warner (midwest real estate company).

The bottom line is that more and more small businesses are realizing that they need to follow Toyota's model and follow policies and procedures designed to elicit employee feedback, good or bad, in order for the leadership to stay in touch with them and use them as a resource in their day-to-day role as representatives of the organization before its customers.

11:52 AM, June 06, 2006  

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