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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

In My Country, Managers Can Spell Tales of Cross Cultural Mismanagement and Resistance to Difference

In today's global workplace, managers and staff frequently work in an international, multi-ethnic and cultural environment. Managers often manage staff they rarely meet, working thousands of miles away, communicating primarily by e-mail, telephone or video conferencing through different time zones. International agencies, companies and defence forces often send staff to regional postings with little basic preparation or training on the religions and culture of the area resulting frequently in inappropriate or offensive behaviour alienating local staff and the host communities. In Metropolitan cities, people are placed together in teams often without any understanding of the cultures, values and belief systems of their colleagues. Team members may have culturally specific and conflicting ideas on management and team working, authority and hierarchy, leadership and communication in the workplace. Attitudes to age, dress, body language, class, disability, discussing life outside work, ethnicity, food in the workplace, gender, race, religion, the group versus the individual, time demands, role status, negotiation and conflict resolution may vary immensely. In the absence of a common identity and, therefore, a structured containment, the team may struggle to function as each team member falls back on the familiar and reverts to anxieties about difference resulting in splitting, projection and polarisation. The team fails to benefit from the positive sharing of difference that can creatively produce new ideas to service the primary task. This may then result in an inability for the team to want to become a cohesive unit, abuse of authority or power, bullying and harassment or exclusion. This paper will use three varied case studies, one from an international aid agency, one from a multicultural staff and patient hospital in London, a city in which 300 languages are spoken, and one from an American company with subsidiaries worldwide, to illustrate extreme organisational cross cultural misunderstandings, evaluate why these situations arose and how they could have been avoided. The case studies will focus on how the identification of difference as a barrier for team working, together with a lack of understanding of cross-cultural awareness, has possibly been neglected in strategic planning and management development resulting in an absence of leadership in valuing the importance of integrating multi-cultural awareness into organisational planning. The presentation will ponder on the psychoanalytical reasons for neglecting this important area in organisational learning and leadership development when other seemingly less important issues are carefully focused on. Post-Kleinian theories on difference will be considered - the paranoid-schizoid state, the narcissistic urge to project unwanted feelings onto the different other and the catastrophic anxieties experienced when meeting the unfamiliar, rendering the individual constantly searching for the familiar environment and the known throughout life. By linking these theories to the cross-cultural workplace, it is hoped to demonstrate how attitudes to difference need to be carefully addressed by Senior Management to avoid an increase of task anxiety for, without a commonality of culture in the workplace, the primary task cannot be easily achieved. It also reflects on how managers, often afraid of being accused of stereotyping, racism, sexism or prejudice against a certain culture or religious group, ignore this whole complex area, failing to take up a leadership role, thereby exacerbating the issues and leading to a lack of integration and containment for staff increasing the potential for splitting, projection and polarisation. The paper will conclude with reviewing how organisations, in an increasingly international landscape, can integrate cross cultural thinking to the workplace, to value difference and deal with the challenges involved in effectively developing multi-cultural teams to create a more functional, harmonious and contained work environment.'