Control or Constraint: Environment and Culture

Control or Constraint: Environment and Culture

Gold Coast AustraliaThe headline caught my attention:  “Today’s big storms are causing unprecedented damage.  We should learn to live with it.”  (Cities Built to Endure Disaster, by Greg IP, WSJ, 10.10.15, C3).  The article contemplates the delicate balance of sustaining communities in places that are inherently dangerous. Rather than be surprised when calamity strikes we can take the cue from countries like the Netherlands which create green space that is able to flood safely.

We remember all too well being caught off guard.  Katrina and Sandy are two guests you would never want to show up at your front door.  My apologies to those who possess these names as they are beautiful names if we look at them in terms of their denotative meaning.  But connotatively, they hold a significant grip on our society in the U.S.  They were devastating storms that wreaked havoc on the unprepared.

Why are we shocked, then, as a nation, when calamity befalls us?  Whether gas prices rise precipitously, the drought worsens in California, or other nations threaten our well-being we respond with perplexity.  In the U.S. we tend to view life in a control versus constraint manner.  This is the perception that the physical environment is something to be controlled and managed to suit one’s needs rather than ‘go with the flow’ (no pun intended) and take things as they come.

In the West our perceived relationship with the environment is one of control versus its opposite, constraint.  Rather than live in harmony with the environment, we feel the need to control it and all of our surroundings.  In terms of business we look at organizations as mechanisms that function systematically, controlled by its ‘operators’ – us.  This comes from the time of the Enlightenment where scientific inquiry changed the established view of the universe – something organic and unknown – to something systematic and logical.  Under this influence, humans moved away from what was mystical towards what was reasonable.  This shift towards human reason generated a new way of perceiving the universe as a vast machine (based upon the theories of absolute space and time as introduced by Copernicus and Newton) and therefore humans needed to learn how to operate it.

In the Western workplace, leaders plan for contingencies of every sort—the company’s crisis-management plan contains sections for every emergency from inclement weather to power outages to terrorist attacks. Backup plans, alternative work locations, and emergency procedures are now a routine part of most U.S. organizations’ approach to business planning. Western cultures are reluctant to admit that there is much in the environment that time, money, and technology cannot influence. Yet we are consistently perplexed when things don’t go our way!

Eastern cultures see things differently. People view the environment as something that may not be controlled – conversely, humans must react with constraint.  This means that people understand boundaries and limitations and there is less direct control or influence in the larger scheme of things, which have a way of working out – whether for better or worse.  It is the human being that must fit in with the surroundings – not the other way around.

Therefore, in Eastern cultures people view the organization as organic which is a product of its surroundings.  The organization absorbs what it needs from the environment, thus blending harmoniously with it. Since one cannot control the universe one must accept it. I like the story about former Sony Corporation Chairman Akio Morita and his love of classical music, something passed on to him by his mother’s passion for it.  Throughout his busy day he found ways to listen to his favorite composers. On most days, he would use a Sony Walkman headset and player (remember those?!) while commuting to the office. His attitude about listening to music while in the presence of other commuters was that he didn’t want to disturb anyone else; if he used earphones, only he would be able to hear the music. Morita became “one” with his environment, respecting the needs of others. A Western perspective would be to use the Walkman to drown out the noise of traffic or other people—a way to control privacy within the environment.

We all come at life from different perspectives and it’s fascinating to understand the underlying nature of life’s cross-cultural phenomena.  People from some cultures tend to control their physical (and emotional) environments while others understand that they are constrained by such forces and thus learn to blend with it harmoniously.

A great way to understand more of such cultural aspects as the ones discussed above is to check out the Cultural Navigator which is a learning tool I use for teaching and learning. This online platform provides information about global business practices from over 100 countries and includes a special tool called the COI – Cultural Orientations Indicator, which is an assessment of one’s cultural preferences for communication.  You can also check out my Webinar on Wednesday, October 21st at 10 am EDT where I’ll be talking about how I use this tool for all levels of learners – from business students to executives.

Next week I’ll post the recorded session and its link as well as the link for my White Paper, “The Cultural Navigator: A Powerful Tool for Undergraduate and Graduate Students.”


Photo:  Gold Coast, Australia, 2009, Tuleja

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