Heat waves of three consecutive days over forty degrees centigrade break records where I live. They also cause major disruptions to power, bus, rail and emergency services. The disruption and heat cause people to say curious things, or so it seems.

A spokesperson for our rail network made what he thought was a sensible comment at the height of angst about why trains were not only late but over twenty-five percent of all services were cancelled. He commented that Melbourne could not possibly have a super-efficient train service as we don’t have an efficient “arrive on time no matter what” culture, unlike other countries in SE Asia. I found the statement curious.

Does this mean that perceived country culture overrides organisational culture despite all effort? Does this mean that in countries with a very laid back attitude such as Australia or Fiji or Jamaica or even Italy that we cannot hope to see examples of excellence?

The empirical evidence suggests the answer is a resounding no. When it comes to design and the meticulous running of a racing franchise is Ferrari considered excellent? Why do Bill Gates and other illuminari continue to visit Fiji’s high end resorts year after year. To get away from it all is the answer, but if things were not efficient and effective for them they would go somewhere else to relax. Why is Fiji Water one of the most successful brand innovations in the last ten years?

If the perceived country culture subsumes all individual intelligence, spirit and values then Ferrarri would perhaps design nice cars but not have a successful racing team, people with discerning attitudes would stop visiting Fiji and Fiji Water would be a pipe dream beset by logistical problems at the source.

Does country culture impact your ability to deliver services? Yes it does. Do you have to work a little harder to achieve your organisational goal and business objectives? Without sounding too Obamaish, yes you do.

So how does one overcome country culture obstacles?

The first step is to acknowledge that the culture within your organisation is a mix of country cultures, organisational culture and your leadership.

The second step is to stop dealing in stereotypes of culture when it comes to your employees. The culture of a country is complex and is made up of tens, or perhaps even hundreds, of subsets of culture based on co-dependent variables such as life experiences, parental lineage and values, the social norms of family, friends and colleagues, individual attitudes and beliefs, individual values and each individual’s desire to belong.

Complete a cultural analysis of your employees. Find out what their beliefs and values are. Find out what influence traditional ways and modern ways have on them. Find out what influence social norms have on them and what the most influential social norms are.

A particular challenge I once faced was to build better attitudes towards safety in a petroleum organisation I managed in Fiji. The perceived culture of village life included a combination of apathy about safe work practices and a certain resignation that incidents were an “Act of God”. What we found when we analysed the culture of the one hundred or so employees was that there were four distinct cultural groups based on parental lineage and attitudes towards modern versus traditional life.

To cut a long story short, the groups with a modern view required a standard approach of constant education and encouragement coupled with performance management and audits to change their behaviour. The group with a more traditionalist view and a strong village association required something more. They needed to believe that their “village” extended into a work “village” and that accidents were truly preventable.

They also needed a long one-to-many verbal communication method where dialogue was encouraged until issues were thrashed out over a couple of hours in the same way they were in the village. This took a lot of time but was effective, dealing with one issue at a time, starting with the concept of an extended village.

For this group, presentations and lectures were only slightly effective in building understanding and not effective at all in getting them to believe.

Without an understanding of what cultural groups we had and who belonged strongly to each group we would have failed in creating appropriate communication techniques and appropriate methods of creating a belief in people that they had a personal responsibility for safety, the precursor to caring about safety.

The above story demonstrates the next steps. It is to think about how to engage the different cultures given their norms. Engagement being a process which has five levels:

  • Understanding
  • Belief
  • Caring
  • Planning
  • Implementing


We never have true engagement unless there is evidence of it occurring on all five levels.

When the culture of the organisation is at odds with the culture of a group of individuals there must be a reframing of either the cultures from one to another or the issue must be reframed from one culture to the other. To coin a popular phrase, that is “The secret”.

Of course in the example of the trains not running on-time there are also customers to think about. If they do not value a super-efficient service and would rather drive their car, then they will not patronise the trains and much cost will have been spent for little return.

With customers the approach is the same. Do not tar them all with the same cultural brush. Understand what cultural groups you have as customers and non-customers. We of a marketing background would just call this segmentation.

In our rail example, an analysis of the cultural drivers towards preferring a car over a train and acceptance of a second-rate service over a super-efficient service will reveal cultural groups rather than the perceived laid back Aussie that does not care a bout being at destination on time. Working within the social norms of those cultural groups and communicating with them in a way that fits those norms but challenges their notions by reframing their views to the context of a super-efficient rail system will work.

Advertisers, news organisations and politicians reframe issues every day. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes inadvertently, but nevertheless they do it. Take the topic of the economy. Except in crisis, it was the purvey of the business types and public service boffins to create two stereotypes. Successive governments have managed to make the economy mainstream, occupying a daily slice of our reading, listening and watching life. Everybody has a view about interest rates, exchange rates and budget deficits. The economy was reframed into my job, my mortgage, my pension and, overall, my future.

If the rail operator has a vision of operating a super-efficient rail service as in other countries in SE Asia then they are poorly led if they believe that a stereotype of Australian culture is what is preventing them from achieving their vision.