“Speak Up and Say No!”

This post was submitted by Julie Peachey, a Summer Fellow at Leadership Beyond Boundaries.

A colleague recently put me onto the notion of the ‘Power Distance Index’ or PDI.  I immediately was intrigued as I thought this might help explain some of what I had experienced while working on an organizational transformation project in the Philippines the past 3 years.  When I first started working with the organization, the project team that had been put together by the senior leaders would sit silently while visiting international consultants asked questions to prod feedback and input into the various tasks at hand.  Why wouldn’t they talk?  Was it English?  Filipinos would joke about getting a ‘nosebleed’ if they had to speak too much English.  Was it that they simply couldn’t think for themselves?  I racked my brain endlessly thinking of ways to get the local team to think critically, voice their ideas, and participate in the development of the program.  

During that first year when the local project lead and I would be discussing various action items and decisions, she would often say, ‘well, that will be up to the management to decide’.  She was an Assistant Vice-President, the second rung down on the ladder.  I wanted to take her by the shoulders, shake her and say, ‘But you ARE the management’.  I thought maybe she didn’t have any confidence or leadership skills.  I think now that much of it was just a matter of different cultures –  that really the project lead and the rest of the team were simply unconsciously acting according to the norms of their culture.  The Philippines and other Asian cultures have a high Power Distance Index (PDI).  According to Wikipedia, “Power distance is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.” In countries with a lower PDI, like the US and Scandinavia,  people are more democratic and relate to each other more as equals regardless of their position.  That’s what I’m used to.  In higher PDI countries, like in Asia, people will defer to the person in a higher position of authority.  I saw it over and over again.  But I wanted them to speak up.  How else were we going to make any progress towards our project goals, unless they just wanted the consultants to do it all for them??  I wanted them to challenge me…how else was this going to turn out to be something that their organization could own?

Kate Sweetman points out in her blog that this power distance conundrum makes it hard for organizations to innovate and makes them vulnerable to failure. She suggests that everyone owns this challenge, but that changing it must start at the top.  She provides suggestions for executives in companies with command and control cultures like this that want to change.

In the role I had as external project manager, I couldn’t do all these things.  But I tried to create opportunities for others to learn how to speak up.  One situation that I took pride in was with a junior team member named ‘Melvin’.  He jumped in enthusiastically to any task given him and did it well.  Over time, the work was piling up on him and he was increasingly too busy to give time to our project.  I was concerned he might burn out too.  We talked about the option of saying ‘no’ when someone came to him with more work that wasn’t related to our project (he was after all supposed to be dedicated to the project).  I coached him that he could say it nicely and that ‘no’ didn’t have to be negative.  Several months later, he came back from a work trip with a big smile on his face.  He proudly told me that he had said ‘no’ to another manager who had requested some additional work from him.  Melvin said, ‘I said no and it was ok!’.  I was happy to have made this small difference in breaking down the power dynamic at play.  

Tree DrawingBut was that a good thing?  Someone might argue that one shouldn’t push his/her way of doing things onto others.  I believe any change effort has to be contextualized to the culture.  And some amount of culture change is required in order to create lasting change in an organization.  That culture change might not just be in the organizational culture, but also in the beliefs and attitudes that are ingrained in local culture.  After all, it’s those deeply held beliefs that are the roots and drivers of the behaviors and actions we want to see the changes reflected in.  What’s at stake if those changes aren’t made will be the topic of a future post.

How do you best manage change in a different cultural environment?  How do you push an organization towards its desired goals, yet respect ingrained cultural norms?

[Julie Peachey is a cross-cultural team leader who has spent the past 3 years in the Philippines with Grameen Foundation helping a large microfinance institution develop appropriate savings products and education for the poor.  She will be writing weekly for the next 2 months and invites feedback and discussion on the topic of change management in mission-driven organizations.]

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One Response to “Speak Up and Say No!”

  1. Pingback: What’s at Stake | Leadership Beyond Boundaries

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