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Cultural DNA: Digging for Gold Among the Bones of Our Ancestors

July 5, 2015
Lascaux Cave Drawings

Cave Painting in Lascaux, France

There’s a lot of money to be made from culture. I don’t mean the sort you indulge in when you go to the opera, or sample when you wander through a Brazilian favela, dodging drug gangs and pickpockets. I’m talking here about business.

If there’s one thing that obsesses corporate leaders more than anything apart from the little black number at the bottom of the profit and loss account – and their share of it – it’s the culture of their organisations. And the bigger they are the more they obsess, because the less they can control their people’s behaviour and attitudes, especially when the little single-country acorns turn into mighty multinational oaks.

Once upon a time I was a principal in a company that provided IT services in the UK. Two of us founded the company in the early nineties. From the off we grew our revenues at an average rate of 30% per annum. We had the advantage of starting up at a time when our competitors were suffering from one of those recessions that rear up from time to time. Most of them had big overheads, nice offices, lots of people. We had few people, grotty offices and lots of energy. As the opposition floundered, we prospered.

We thought of ourselves as small furry animals destined to rule the world while the dinosaurs were sinking into the mud. As it turned out we didn’t end up ruling the world, but we did OK. By the late nineties we had a hundred-odd employees, and turnover kept growing. Then we got into outsourcing. Within a couple of years we took over some specialised functions from several large IT and telecoms companies, and our staffing grew to around two hundred and fifty.

From being a small outfit based in a satellite town outside London, we had become something quite a bit larger. At various times we had offices in Dublin, Manchester, Edinburgh, Helsinki, Stuttgart, Grenoble, Budapest, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing and four locations in the US.

From then on, things got complicated, and I won’t bore you with the details. The reason for this little tale was that the furry animal had morphed into something quite different. Not so agile and much more difficult to manage. Not only did we have to come to terms with different ways of thinking and behaving in each location, but in many cases we inherited the mind-sets of the outsourcing organisations in the people whose employment we took over.

You might think that our main problem was coming to terms with the way the French, the Finns and the Malaysians think and do business, but it was more complex than that. Consider this little vignette.

The people whose employment we took over in Manchester had worked for thirty years or more with a British IT company. It makes me laugh to think that we considered them to be somewhat elderly, given that I’m now older than all of them were at the time. Several were approaching retirement. Some  had health problems and their energy levels left much to be desired.

There was a close-knit group of six or seven who chose to sit together in one particular area of the smart new office we set up for them. We called them the back row, ostensibly because they arranged their desks in a row by the back wall, but in reality because they felt like the last line of resistance. If you were to visit the office at lunchtime, you might have caught a glimpse of them having a little snooze at their desks. This in a business that saw itself as young, progressive and dynamic. Not exactly the impression we wanted to make on visitors. Worse still, if the phone rang at lunchtime, nobody answered it. Why? Because it was lunchtime.

What also complicated matters – and I use that word with care because I don’t want to send the wrong message – was that the thirty-odd staff we had taken over belonged to a trade union. So any changes we wanted to make had to be negotiated not only with the staff but with their union.

Eventually, some of the older ones retired, the outsourced group got smaller, the business changed and new people came in. But I felt that the office never fully rid itself of the institutionalised ethos that the original team brought with them. Whose fault was that? Ours of course. We were the leaders of the business. Our decisions made the difference, or didn’t.

Which goes to show that culture – of the corporate variety – isn’t just about Gallic obstreperousness, Finnish dourness or Irish charm. It can be about North versus South, about old and young, about workers and management. It can be tribal. It can be a matter of Liverpool versus Manchester United. And it’s not changed by a bunch of enthusiastic managers swooping down from head office and spouting about values, missions and messages. Or by diktat, memos and intranets. Replicate the idiosyncrasies in just one part of a business across multiple locations, and you get some idea of the challenge.

Culture has always fascinated me. I’ve written one or two pieces on the subject in this blog. My main thrust has usually been that organisations spend huge amounts of money on what they call culture change. Often the driver is a new owner looking to integrate a business into something larger. Then there are chief executives looking to make a name for themselves, or more often trying to find ways of boosting the value of their share options before cashing in and moving on.

Culture change is often an emergency project. A new competitor emerges with a product that threatens to put you out of business. A recession forces you out of your complacency. It can also be led by technology – the internet and all its implications being the prime example over the past two decades. And when you sense an emergency you spend what it takes to turn things around.

To avoid the emergencies, the gurus tell you that your business should be constantly changing. So you set up change management teams, with visions, coalitions, champions and evangelists. But because you don’t have the resources to do some of this in-house, you hire expensive consultants, whose proposition is based on fear. Fear of competitors, fear of being left behind, fear for the future, fear for the share price, fear for your job.

You might conclude from all this that I’m a bit of a cynic about what companies think of as their cultures. Not so. I’m certainly cynical about the motivation behind the so-called cultural changes organisations seek to make, and about the ham-fisted methods they use to implement them. But I’m absolutely convinced that the only way for an organisation can succeed over the long term is if it has leaders who have a good understanding of the patchwork of cultural influences that make up their staff, stakeholders and customers.

Notice I didn’t say “corporate culture”, because I believe that in any organisation larger than a small group of people there is no such thing. The secret is to channel the sub-cultures in the direction in which you want to go. And that’s no simple matter, especially when you’re running an organisation with many locations and a diverse, multi-skilled and multi-ethnic workforce.

I also said “over the long term”. You can achieve much in a short period by focusing on motivations shared across all cultures. Greed perhaps. The excitement of innovation for sure. A sense of belonging inspired by religion, politics or social concern. A common purpose that everyone can buy into. But the bigger the organisation, the easier it is for the commonalities to erode. And over time they can disappear altogether. Which is often the point at which an organisation launches a “transformation programme”.

Psychology has always played a part in corporate change programmes. Consultancies wheel in tools developed by psychologists to determine attitudes, capabilities and potential of employees. Assessment programmes, succession plans, compensation and benefit schemes all have their foundations in what makes people tick, what fires them up and what turns them off.

Thirty years ago, the Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede carried out a huge multinational survey on behalf of his employer, IBM. The result was a series of cultural dimensions that he turned into a framework for communications across those cultures. For each of the countries and regions he surveyed, he mapped his subjects on a scale across each dimension.  For example, to what extent does a culture value equality in the workforce? To what extent are the powerful remote from those on whom they exert power? How do people deal with uncertainty? Which cultures are more male dominated than others?

Hofstede’s work answers a lot of questions about mindsets in different areas, including the Middle East, where I have a fair amount of work experience. In that region it accurately reflects the importance of the family, patriarchal attitudes among business and political leaders, and the comfort people derive from lack of ambiguity in their personal and working lives.

But where do those attitudes come from? I’ve just finished a book whose author goes further than Hofstede.

Gurnek Bains is the CEO of a corporate psychology consultancy, Young Samuel Chambers. I came across his latest book, Cultural DNA, the Psychology of Globalisation, in an unusual way. A friend from Holland with whom I have worked in the Middle East asked me if I knew about the book. I hadn’t, but it turns out that Bains quotes a couple of passages from this blog. I was a bit surprised, because I would have expected him to have told me that he was using my stuff. Not that I was bothered – in fact I was quite flattered.

Cultural DNA 2

So I bought the book out of curiosity and, I have to say, a little vanity. It turns out that the bit of my work he quoted was from a piece I wrote about culture change: Middle East Organisations – The Vain Pursuit of Culture.

I once had reason to talk to a number of British private schools on behalf of a Saudi client who wanted to “bring Eton to the Middle East” – or some similar institution. So I talked to a number of schools, and was struck by a remark by one headmaster, who said that he would only be interested in setting up a foreign branch of his school of he could be sure that it would be infused with the DNA of the parent institution. Since that was his condition, he was fortunate that the conversation never went any further, because he would have been disappointed. Cultural DNA provides some of the reasons why.

Bains goes beyond Hofstede and others in the field by attempting to link the cultural dimensions of eight regions to the DNA mix of the populations. For each region – North America, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, the Middle East, China, Europe, South America and Australia – he tells the story of how these regions were originally populated, using evidence based on the DNA of the current inhabitants.

He then describes some of the factors behind the successive waves of migration, and the environmental conditions that the migrants had to deal with that subsequently shaped their outlook and behaviour.

Take the USA. After tracing the origins of the original settlers – now referred to as native Americans – he looks at the migrants who displaced and marginalised them. He explains differences between the northern and southern states as originating in the waves of arrivals in the 17th century – first Puritans and Quakers escaping religious persecution in England, and then what he calls “distressed cavaliers” – refugees from the losing side in the English Civil War. To complete the mix there was a large influx of Catholics from Northern Ireland and clannish families from the English-Scottish borders.

The Puritans and Quakers were devout, disciplined and imbued with a determination that in their new world no government would dictate their religious belief. They tended to settle in the North, in states like Pennsylvania. The distressed cavaliers reflected the hierarchical character of pre-Civil War England. They were accustomed to living off the land by the efforts of others, and so quickly embraced the opportunities that slavery presented. They were joined by the settlers from Ulster and the borderers, a wild, stubborn and individualistic people who populated the Appalachians and the Carolinas.

It’s not hard to trace early American stereotypes back to these migrations. God-fearing farming communities in the North, illicit moonshine distillers in West Virginia and Kentucky and elegant plantation owners in the deep South. And thus, it seems, began the North-South divide.

All pretty broad brush stuff, but he then uses recent genetic research to suggest  that America’s most obvious characteristic, relentless positivity, stems not only from the qualities required to go to a new world and create something that was not there before – the pioneer spirit if you like – but from a genetic predisposition towards optimism and risk-taking. In other words, your pioneer spirit is embedded in your genes.

Bains then uses evidence from his own work and that of other experts like Hofstede and Fons Trompenaars to determine pronounced traits that have a bearing on society, business practice and leadership.

In the case of the US, morality, pragmatism, materialism, plurality and the ability to embrace change are the dominant themes. There is also the expectation that new migrants assimilate – plunge into the melting pot and accept the “American Way” – rather have their differences accommodated. The very opposite to the multicultural communities that have arisen out of recent immigration to western Europe, and most notably the United Kingdom.

Although he sees the assimilation culture as a strength, he points out some downsides when America embarks on adventures abroad:

“However, as America plays out its global role in a context where other powers are emerging, there is plenty of room for missteps and error if your predominant orientation is assimilation rather than accommodation. This is demonstrated in the sheer surprise Americans show when others are not open to American values in the way they normally expect. The expectation that vast proportions of the Iraqi population would enthusiastically embrace Western values after the overthrow of Saddam Hussain is an example. One of the most successful global colonialists of all time, the British, recognised this and trod a fine line between preserving British traditions and values versus adapting and working with local rulers. Americans need to appreciate that they cannot simply export their values with the same ease with which they set up Coca-Cola plants or factories for building iPhones.”

What he doesn’t say is that Britain’s approach evolved after the hard lesson of the Indian Mutiny in 1857. Perhaps the chastening experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan will do the same for the USA.

Bains identifies American business strengths as willingness to improve, embrace change and take action. Weaknesses include a lack of self-awareness among leaders and an almost cult-like cultural emphasis among big companies such as GE, Proctor and Gamble and Coca Cola. Echoing his earlier observation about Iraq, he provides another example of “the need to hold a clear schema and to socialise people into that worldview”:

“Many outsiders who engage with America commonly encounter a precise script and routine one is expected to follow – across a myriad of areas. Processes like checking into a hotel, ordering a drink in a bar, boarding a flight, or just about every other day-to-day activity involves dealing with people who engage you in a friendly but scripted and semi-robotic manner. If what you say and how you say it is not in line with expectations, then you’re likely to face incomprehension and a sense that you have completely failed to get through. One female executive explained to me how she had to repeat her request for a gin and tonic four times before finally finding an intonation that allowed her to be understood. One might think that this is natural when speaking a language with a different accent. However I have rarely heard Americans in England complain of a difficulty in getting through, whereas by contrast virtually everyone from Britain experiences this problem in America.”

The last statement is a bit sweeping, perhaps, but he makes a good point about the formulaic “have a nice day” customer service culture that unfortunately seems to have spread across the world over the past couple of decades. Added to that, a startling degree of ignorance about the world beyond. One of my more enjoyable encounters in America came when a shop assistant in North Carolina asked me in which part of England Paris was located.

For each region he analyses, Bains uses a similar format in analysing the link between migration, genetic selection and the “founding culture” – reflecting the response of the first migrants to the environmental conditions they encountered – and what he calls the psychological DNA of the present populations: social, business and political traits and mindsets. At the end of each chapter he summarises what the region has to offer the rest of the world as well as aspects of their culture that hold them back.

In sub-Saharan Africa he celebrates exuberance, intellectual flexibility and creativity as strengths, while warning about the future consequences of inter-group rivalry, poor governance and lack of long-term thinking. Another factor holding the region back is the presence of dangerous pathogens. The recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa is a good example of disease derailing hard-won social and economic progress.

Another factor is huge ethnic diversity, even within a single country. As Bains points out:

“The Congo, for example, which is the size of Western Europe, has close to 250 ethnic groups and languages among its 80 million people. Nigeria has over 500 living languages within its borders. Many of the political and economic difficulties facing Africa stem, in part, from the imposition of artificial national structures on countries embodying extremely high levels of genetic and cultural diversity.”

The legacy of the demon colonisers of course, of which Britain was the demon-in-chief.

India’s distinctive qualities include an abhorrence of aggression, a high level of self-reflection – internalised thinking free of the outside environment that has given rise to exceptional mathematical abilities among the population. Also an appreciation of the importance of personal development, tolerance of diversity and a high level of individualism. And intuition. Bains quotes Steve Jobs thus:

“The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect in my view.”

Among the factors that hold India back, he believes, are horizontal stratification – the caste system – and horrendous bureaucracy. Yet thanks to what he describes as the the country’s open and vociferous democratic culture, he believes that some of those social obstacles to economic progress are slowly but surely being cleared away. I’m not sure the women of India would entirely agree, but time will tell.

Looking at the Middle East, Bains zeros in on two parallel aspects of the culture: the challenge of desert living, and commercial instinct of those who settled on the seaboards. To survive in the desert you need to stick together and abide by strict rules of behaviour. Individual initiatives – like wandering off on your own accord – can literally  be fatal. Thus in the Arabian peninsula itinerant tribes developed rules relating to property (mainly women and livestock!) and social structure long before the coming of Islam led to the codification of behaviour down to the smallest detail.

As I and many others with experience of the region know, the people of the Middle East are great traders and deal makers. That skill started with the Sumerian civilisation of Mesopotamia and that of Dilmun, in present-day Bahrain, which had strong trading links with the Indus Valley civilisation in Gujarat. A prime example of that tradition is Dubai, which, for all of its glitz and bling, derives much of its prosperity from its trading relationships with the rest of the world.

It’s that commercial flair that the author identifies as one of the Middle East’s primary strengths, along with its profound respect for knowledge. No period in its history better illustrates the passion for learning than the so-called Golden Age of Islam, one of the greatest ages of technological innovation, adaptation of ideas and systematic preservation of knowledge. He puts the eclipse of that era down to challenges to the supremacy of the Islamic empires from the West, starting with the Crusades, and the East, in the form of the Mongols. It’s difficult to be expansive and confident if your lands are riven by conflict and your deep-rooted societal norms are challenged and eroded by aggressive invaders, be they cultural or military.

Bains also writes at some length about about honour and modesty in the region – the avoidance of shame that can attach itself through the actions of an individual to the family and the tribe. Also what he describes as concentric circles of belonging – the importance of relationships that foreigners don’t always recognise. In the minds of many, tribe and religion trump the nation state and loyalty to commercial organisations. Hence the longstanding chafing – currently exploited by ISIS – at the artificial boundaries created by Sykes and Picot a hundred years ago, and the difficulties foreign businesses face in trying to bind their workforces into a common purpose when they don’t understand the forces that work against those efforts.

Moving to China, the book focuses on the concept of Zhong Yang – the virtues of harmony and interdependence – that leads the Chinese to seek the middle way, and view fairness as more important than the letter of a contract. Something that politicians and business leaders who deal with China find somewhat challenging, to say the least.

The Chinese also have a strong respect for authority, which Bains suggests is partly genetic. A specific gene most commonly associated with migration is virtually absent in mainland China (as well as Japan). Is this because most of the Chinese who have the gene have already emigrated from the mainland to join their ethnic communities in other parts of the world – not least the UK and the US? If so, it’s unlikely to be out of a desire to blend into the native populations, as the presence of Chinatowns in London, San Francisco and Toronto suggest.

The authoritarian streak is also evident in the high level of hierarchy and protocol in Chinese business and political dealings. Bains gives this fundamental reason:

“The central thrust of the Chinese character emanates from the distant past and from a strong sense of historical continuity has had literally over tens of thousands of years. The settled populations of China faced two pressures that were discussed earlier. One was that they were an incredibly driven, energetic and proactive people who cleared their initial environment with intensity and focus. As social structures were established, there was – and still is – a fear of this underlying intensity surfacing and becoming disruptive. Second, the settled societies existed under constant threat from attack by the aggressive, nomadic pastoralists that existed in relatively large numbers on the edges of settled society. Over the ages, the Chinese population made an implicit pact with their authorities: Keep us safe and we will accept the collective authority that is imposed on us. Historically, authoritarianism has always been an attractive proposition for people who feel under threat.”

In my view the same goes for Russia and the absolute monarchies of the Middle East. Though Bains points out that respect for authority in China breaks down if people perceive that the leaders are not treating them fairly, if he is right with his central premise it will take a lot of provocation for the current hierarchy in China to disintegrate.

Europe, my seemingly decadent and declining continent, gets relatively kind treatment.

Humans didn’t have things all their own way when they entered Europe. They had to compete with a large population of Neanderthals who had been there much longer. One theory about how modern humans ended up in ascendancy is that we had superior social skills. In any event, after five thousand years of overlap the last Neanderthal enclave died out.

We then had to deal with the Ice Age. Our Northern ancestors had to cope with conditions as extreme as those faced by their cousins in the Middle Eastern deserts, whereas those in the South had it easier. Hence perhaps the root of the difference between the easy-going Italians, Greeks and Spanish, and the more emotionally attenuated and resilient Germans, Dutch and Scandinavians. And our European masters thought they could integrate these tribes into a single economy? They should have looked at the DNA.

It’s no surprise that that we Europeans come out tops in terms of “equality, tolerance of individuality and a rigorous and systematic approach to thinking”. Unfortunately, as it seems to me, in some countries the first two qualities are wearing a bit thin. Most notably in France, the home of liberté, egalité et fraternité. Equality in some respect perhaps, but France has long been ruled by a political elite even more exclusive than the British Conservatives. And French business is as hierarchical as any in Europe.

France also leads the way in its intolerance of manifestations of multi-culture – for example the veil. Its concerns over its Muslim minority are echoed in Germany, the Nordic countries and last but not least, the UK.

We also apparently have an aggressive gene, which partly explains why we’ve spent so much time since the end of the Roman empire fighting each other. And when we’re not clobbering our neighbours, we’ve been out colonising the world, often with brutal methods and dire consequences.

Today many non-Europeans, according to Bains, believe that our best days are over. We’re still good at thinking, it seems, but we’re useless at following through once we’ve done the thinking. We’re seen as lazy, self-indulgent, drink-addled (that’s a special accolade for Britain, I would say) and ponderous in our decision-making.

I think you can exclude the French from last accusation, especially more recently when they seem quite happy to ride roughshod over local objections in order to plonk down their high-speed train tracks, or to send their bombers and foreign legionaries where others fear to tread, such as to Mali and Libya. But the snail-like deliberations of the European Union surely have much to do with our reputation as a lumbering dinosaur.

Yet across the continent – with the exception of poor old Greece – we seem to be pretty content with our lot, and in many ways rather complacent. Perhaps, as Bains suggests, we’re sleepwalking into relative decline. I’d go further than him and state that we’re in decline and we know it. But as long as the sun shines occasionally in our backyards, even if it’s pouring with rain next door, we’re OK with that. Nonetheless I do feel that there’s life in the old dog yet provided we can reconcile all the inherent contradictions in the European Union project.

Finally we get a briefer tour of what he calls the Far Continents – South America and Australia, where the lines of migration out of Africa ended.

South America, as Bains observes, is a huge genetic melting pot. From the original settlers sprang great civilisations such as the Maya, the Incas and the Aztecs. But all indigenous civilisations gave way to the Spanish invaders. The subsequent arrival of the Portuguese and a vast African slave population completed the mix.

The subsequent history has been one of power ruthlessly applied, mainly by the European masters, and continual insurrection, revolution and local rivalry. The indigenous populations didn’t go away. They just melted into poverty, though in some cases, in Argentina for example, they were exterminated.

On the plus side the peoples of South America are proud of their resourcefulness, flexibility and creativity. One only needs to visit Brazil to see those qualities in action. But the continent is held back by its authoritarian traits and tradition of conflict. As the author observes, its progress comes in two steps forward and one step back.

And finally to Australia, whose indigenous population first arrived 50,000 to 60,000 years ago, earlier than any other settlers whose gene pool is still extant. But the lineage of the Australian Aboriginals is something of a sideshow as far as the cultural DNA of the continent is concerned. Bains takes us through the convict settlements, the voluntary migrations, the long-standing White Australia policy and the subsequent arrivals of people from Southern Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Genetically, the country is more a work in progress than any other. Will the new arrivals erode the chippy, slightly insecure “mate culture” – personified by the plain-speaking, friendly ocker stereotype in the movie Crocodile Dundee? Perhaps that’s happening already.

Cultural DNA is a relatively short book – a mere 250 pages. But it’s packed with science, history, theory and reasoning. I’ve barely scratched the surface in this review. The publisher, Wiley, specialises in academic, scientific and business books, and this is no easily digested piece of Gladwellesque “pop psychology”. I use that term reluctantly because I think it’s rather insulting to people like Malcom Gladwell and Jon Ronson who have produced plenty of thought-provoking books without force-feeding us all the underlying science.

When Gurnek Bains uses stories  – usually delivered with a dry wit – to illustrate the theory, they sometimes come as a welcome relief from long passages about the DNA variants in our make-up and what they might signify in terms of cultural development. But this is essentially a business book that reflects how he makes a living – by applying psychological techniques that are intended to help his corporate clients function more effectively.

As such it probably has a limited audience, though I’m sure it sells well in the ever-curious USA. Yet I don’t see why business books always need to be intense and serious, whereas mass audience works by the likes of Gladwell and Jon Ronson make good, easily digested holiday reading. There should be a middle way.

The subject certainly has a relevance beyond business. We are all participants in globalisation. Many of us travel extensively. Sometimes we struggle to understand the reasons for all the disturbing and threatening political developments we read about. Even if some of his conclusions seem a little pat, and don’t take into account the myriad subcultures in the regions he covers – China versus Japan for example, or the northern Maghreb region versus sub-Saharan Africa, he does provide a very broad and useful picture of the major cultural fault lines.

I have a few quibbles about his factual accuracy. He refers to the ship that brought a couple whose defective genes ultimately led to high rates of colon cancer in their descendants in Utah and upstate New York as the William and Mary. Given that William and Mary came to the English throne forty years after the ship sailed, it was a potential error that leapt out at me. The ship was actually called the Mary and John. The error probably came from a paper written in 2008. Nit-picking, I know, but accuracy is important in a book as serious as this one.

He is also prone to some sweeping statements that led me to put some question marks by the text. For example: “Africa has always been a cauldron of activity and change, and this is the reason that virtually all the advances in the human species have occurred on the continent”. I think he’s referring to physical and cognitive advances. If not, I suspect that people from the other regions might raise their eyebrows. A little clarification might have helped.

I would also like to have seen some tabular information. More concise summaries of the main arguments, for example, and region by region comparisons of the research data he quotes, such as power distance, emotional openness and change orientation.

Despite these reservations, I found Cultural DNA a fascinating read. It gave me insights into some regions I don’t know so well, and the odd smile of recognition when it nails truths about cultures I am familiar with that hadn’t occurred to me.

If you’re prepared to wade through the genetic jargon, you’ll find it a useful companion next time you board your long haul flight to another continent, be it for business or pleasure.

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