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Cultural Bridging
Managers know the effects of cultural change; but are they showing the concern needed or seeing the value of cultural bridging? Dr Kris spans the gap
Culture ManEvery time we open the papers these days we see vivid evidence of tensions caused, very often, by cultural differences; the Nedlac negotiations between big business and organised labour, the student protests at universities, madams and maids, the Xhosa/Zulu tribal war in Natal (or is that really cultural differences?).

For better or worse South Africans live in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual polyglot society, which, as it opens to the world, will find even more cultural diversity to be confused by. It is or should be self-evident that an ability to tolerate and accept cultural differences is a pre-requisite for a New South Africa. Without it, we will all have an environment that is less than optimal for whatever activity we wish to engage in.

There is comparatively little each of us can do at a macro level to reduce the tension between cultural groups. However, as managers we need to deal with the effects of those differences daily. The prevailing management wisdom is to lead and create teams. But how can those teams become successful without a common bond, a common culture, if you like? That is why knowing the value and techniques of culture bridging are vital to modern managers.

A culture bridge is necessary, for example, when a factory worker is promoted to foreman. All too often, his former friends drop away. He no longer receives invitations to their homes and parties because he has become a supervisor or manager. He (or she) has become one of them, no more one of us, no matter what else they may have in common. The new foreman has to learn a different language - that of management. He now has to supervise and discipline some of his former associates. But when he goes home at night he still travels in the same taxi as his former colleagues. These changes can be tough on the individual, leading to lower than realistic performance levels while they adjust. And there are few who don't need a little judicious help in bridging the gap. How can we help each other with the culture bridging process?

First, we need to question our values rather than lay them on others. We also need to learn new habits, styles and speech manners, without losing what has gone before. We need to look at what we have in common. Most of us have the same needs and wants, as Maslow showed. Identifying the areas left, where we do not agree, should be easy. A black couple recently moved into my traditionally white neighbourhood. No-one welcomed them and insulated cold attitudes won. They felt isolated and lonely. I met them by accident during a walk and we got to talking about their new lives.

"My life is about going to work now coming home and closing the door," the man told me. Gone was the social infrastructure of townships as they knew it. Where was the congenial and caring infrastructure of a community? But there's more. "We left Soweto because of fear for our lives. We always had to look over shoulders and have been robbed and hijacked at knife point. We feared for our lives and so we had to move." 

I hadn't the heart to tell them I thought they'd swapped the frying pan for the fire. But it shows that we have more in common than we think. As any mugger will tell you, money is the same colour whether it comes from a black or a white wallet.

But culture bridging is not restricted to racial issues. In recent years, many companies have undergone cultural revolutions no less transforming than the Chinese one. Changing company culture is as difficult as moving to a foreign country. It takes up to seven years to happen. That is why business re-engineering projects fail so often - they ignore the cultural component of the organisations, and they are a quick fix. This is like the difference between Leonardo's Mona Lisa and the paint by numbers version.

As you start changing your company you leave the comfort of the familiar surroundings and layers of bureaucracy. You lose the signals and pointers that told you what was going to happen and who was in charge. This can be traumatic. The company is often a cornerstone of a family's economic and social life. So when the breadwinner changes jobs or is re-trenched, the whole family can go into a state close to bereavement. Whether you are the driver or the driven, you will spend time adjusting to the changes.

StatueOnce we realise there are more things that bind than separate us, we start to welcome the idea that a multi-cultural approach helps to develop understanding and acceptance. It also maintains and strengthens one's own cultural identity. It is only the people who fear the loss of their present identity that resist change. To them, I say, use it or lose it.

Behaviour changes come more easily when they are voluntary rather than coerced. But as managers, first we need to know what we intend to accomplish. When we have focus, we also have more power to reach our goals. In addition, our behaviour and attitudes are more open to change and progress.

Remember the times in your life when you felt most needed, wanted and self-motivated? Most likely, you were then part of a team. It may have been an athletic team, work unit or social club. Members depended on one another. They also compensated for each other's limitations. The key factor at such times is usually there is only one goal. This goal is more important than each of us or our individual needs.

We can all have this attitude and spirit rekindled. However, we need to accept responsibility for the choices we make. The same excitement and fulfillment will flow when each person makes a commitment. ASK yourself, "Do I accept that the buck does stop with me? Am I responsible and accountable for my actions and decisions?" With this attitude, each of us is a fully invested player.

People often attack those who tell the truth. But that doesn't turn the truth into a lie. So why is the truth so threatening to us? The truth can make it hard to stay as we are and it may threaten our self-esteem. People often prefer to cling to their beliefs rather than update their information and respond accordingly. It is easy to forget that accepting reality unlocks the door of our prejudices. The truth also can make us feel unsafe, vulnerable, ridiculous or embarrassed. But isn't this a small price to pay for a short time feel-good versus the permanent bonus of being free?

How much do we know about each others' cultures? If you are a relatively standard white English-speaking South African, SA culture often starts with Jan van Riebeeck and ends with the Boer War, and our knowledge of the amazulu comes from Zulu Dawn and other Hollywood or TV epics.

In addition, most of us suffer from the standard English speaker's arrogance of expecting others to learn our language. But how often do we take the time to learn theirs, even the politeness such as Good morning, please and thank you? Since language is the cardinal expression of most cultures, how much opportunity to find common ground do we give up by not learning the other man's tongue?

Culture bridging is hard and takes courage. Then strength of our beliefs and cultural values can make us part of the problem, rather than of the solution. To lessen the influence of our cultural prejudices, we need to identify and update our personal preferences. This means discovering alternatives and giving ourselves choices.We also need to accept that our decisions affect others directly or indirectly. So, we need to adjust our behaviour accordingly. This does not mean tolerating behaviour which would be unacceptable in "normal" society. Allowing citizens to march in protest through the streets of Johannesburg may be OK, but allowing it to develop into a riot is not, any time, any place. In the factory, workers may strike in support of wage demands, but neither side can accept that malicious damage to machinery is part of strike action.

Each decision we make has many results, not all of which are intended. We need to check the prices paid for our personal preferences. By updating these preferences and doing research, we discover alternatives and give ourselves choices. This helps to break the habits we have developed in our actions at work and home.

There are several phases we go through in the change cycle. Knowing them helps to lessen our fear of change. The pre-decision phase is the shaky anxious time. We alternate between the comfort of our safety zone and moving into the unknown. We switch from making a move to dreading actions.

In the paralysis phase, we feel immobilised. Our minds get preoccupied with what we are doing and what we think we should do. Why should I extend myself? Let them come to me, we say.

In the "make the move now" phase, we step out, we extend our hands. Our attitude may be patronising but at least we are doing something. Taking the action creates good feelings. We have a sense of freedom and want to share it. This leads to the honeymoon phase in which we ask ourselves why we did not do this years ago?

Finally, reality dawns in the real adjustment phase. This may take months or years to reach. We begin to stress the positive and adjust for the negative, weighing and balancing assets and liabilities. During this testing time, we compromise as we make the required changes. But invariably there is a sense of unity and wholeness.

This pattern is typical of all changes, including culture bridging.

Take a deep breath; we are going to need it. With a lot of guts, patience and tolerance, because we won't understand or like everything first time around. With luck, we may enjoy both the moment and the process.

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