Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The nail that sticks out gets hammered down

The historical Anglo-American culture (primarily a male norm) is based on the freedom of individuals to develop themselves to their fullest potential. Indeed, our traditional classroom seating arrangements, teaching procedures and grading systems encourage competition among students to be the "first with the correct answer," write the "best" essay and, generally, be the "winner."

Compare this perspective to that of most other world cultures which value the group over the individual. In Japanese schools, for example, the classroom is arranged with circular seating. When the teacher asks a question, students within each group confer with each other, reach a consensus, and then raise their hands in unison with the answer they jointly think is best; teams are rewarded for the quality of their answers and their cooperative efforts.

Translated into the working environment, the Anglo-American mindset can put employees into competition with one another for financial incentives and promotions. A by-product of such a system can be a lack of cooperation and absence of true team spirit if not managed correctly. The group orientation of the Japanese has helped them to build effective teams and work together for the common good of the company and the country.

Another aspect of the individualistic outlook is to prize the imagination and creativity of each person. American ingenuity has been responsible for much of the nation's success. Brainstorming, a popular American method of gleaning ideas from groups, requires that the individual offer ideas for group consideration as they occur, without evaluation or judgment. Such offerings require courage, sometimes, because the ideas may at first appear to be foolish, particularly in the eyes of others. As a result, some cultural groups (such as Asians, American Indians, and some Hispanics) may be reluctant to join into the process, fearing to lose face in the eyes of the group members. This caution also explains their reluctance to respond negatively when asked questions--to them such a response would be construed as being rude and disrespectful. People who honor others before themselves need to be encouraged to excel as individuals and to be assured that they will not be ridiculed for their views.

Self-reliance is another American value, considered a virtue by many Americans. A popular saying of early Anglican settlers was, "The Lord helps those who help themselves." Although many cultures encourage self-development, it is usually toward the advancement of the common good rather than for self-promotion. In America, land of the entrepreneur, "self-made" success stories are often considered to be the highest accolade a person could receive. In societies where "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down," such a notion is tantamount to blasphemy. In the American-style performance appraisal process, it is unlikely that an Asian, Hispanic, American Indian, some Blacks and even some Anglo-American women will praise themselves for their own performance. It is assumed that the authority figure will already know their level of performance and will make the appropriate evaluation. In addition, their respect for authority figures may impede their inclination to speak on behalf of themselves. If appraisers do not understand this assumption and, consequently, appraise the individual as lacking self-confidence, they can severely devalue the true contributions of the person as well as create a demoralizing work environment. Understanding the values of the individual being appraised are critical to accurate assessment.

Judith A. Starkey

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