This is a story about cultural differences, the challenges they create for achieving team results, and how the Enneagram can help. I was recently asked to help Brad, a company president, an American, and a type Three, to take over a smaller British company that had been acquired by his company. The British company, let’s call it Total Info, sells marketing-based information to the pharmaceutical industry. It was founded by Lee, an affable Brit (a Nine), and had a sales office in London. Total Info had grown from a small, five-person operation to a company of 50 in ten years. Brad’s company, a large, global, holding company, let’s call it Big Brother, appointed Brad to be president and to bring Total Info in line with Big Brother’s business philosophy.
Here are some initial cultural differences and challenges:
- Total Info’s business philosophy is based on excellent client service, client/product maintenance, relationship building, industry networking and collegial cooperation with competitors.
- Big Brother’s philosophy is about aggressive marketing, including aggressive product branding, frequent sales calls, “competing to win” rather than cooperating with competitors, and extremely demanding sales goals.
I agreed with Big Brother to deliver a program that included a one-day team meeting followed by four month’s of coaching for Brad. First, I determined the Enneagram type of the Total Info team, and then interviewed them along with some of Brad’s peers from Big Brother, as well as Brad’s boss, Lee. This provided me with information from a 360-degree perspective that would help me build an intervention to address Total’s Info’s challenges.
Based on my assessments and interviews, here are the second set of cultural differences and challenges:
- Total Info’s culture, represented by the sales team in London, was, for want of a better word, “British.” It was characterized by precision, refinement, cooperation, calmness, respect of tradition, attention to details, and patience with customers. It was proper, quiet, conscientious, and dignified. In Enneagram language, it was very One-ish and a bit Five-ish.
- Big Brother’s culture, represented by Brad, was, for want of another word, “American,” characterized by enthusiasm, winning, “beating the competition,” being powerful and “number One.” By comparison to Total Info, it was undignified, pragmatic (the end justifies the means), unrefined, overly goal-oriented, and disrespectful of tradition. It was playful, believed in creating competitive in-house games, keeping scores, and giving instant gratification in the form of one-the-job rewards. In Enneagram language, it was Three-ish, Seven-ish, and Eight-ish.
Brad was struggling to initiate Big Brother’s much more aggressive sales and marketing approach with Total Info. As a Three, he seemed perfect to lead the change, but as he soon found out, the differences in cultures became a huge obstacle to overcome. Especially when things got personal.
It should be noted that the British sales team consisted of five Threes, a One, and a Nine. So it’s not that Brad was outnumbered by a group of Ones; the British culture (One-ish and Five-ish) was exerting its influence on everyone, including the Threes. As I came to learn, the British Threes were striving to be outstanding in their culturally specific way. The context, the situation, and in this case, the culture must always be considered when assessing the correct action to be taken. Suffer me this slight, illustrative digression: I recently heard of a Trappist monk (and a Three) whose monastery embarked on a 90 day fast. For me, Trappist monks and fasting conjure up thoughts of purification, mortification, and holiness. Be that as it may, on the day the fast began, our Three monk was heard to say, “I’m going to loose more weight than anybody in the monastery.” Yes, he was going to win by losing. He would exhibit his Three-ness within the context of being a monk.
The Brits really felt taken by storm when Brad arrived at the London office with a replica of the American Liberty Bell on a wooden stand. He placed the bell on a table in the middle of Total Info’s sales room and announced. “OK. Let’s get excited about breaking this new sales target. Let’s really get into it. Whenever anybody makes a sale, get up and ring the bell. Let’s celebrate our successes every time we have one.” You can imagine how that went over with the Brits. As one of them told me during her interview, “We’re English. We don’t get excited.”
Using the Enneagram to diagnose the situation was the easy part. Next I had to use it to help relieve the mounting conflict and to get the Brits to trust Brad and Big Brother. Eventually, I would teach them that they needed to be committed and accountable to the new business philosophy and leadership if they were going to achieve results together. In my experience of working in similar conflict situations, nothing works better than the Enneagram to lower stress, create understanding among different people, and build mutual trust. Knowledge of someone’s Ennneagram type can shift a person’s thinking from, “My new boss is jerk. He doesn’t understand me, or care about me. Unless he changes, this will never work,” to “My new boss is a Three and I’m a One. We each look at the world differently. We need to understand each other’s perspectives, be open, empathetic, and appreciate each other’s strengths.” The Enneagram, properly understood, moves one from rejection to acceptance.
I have found that Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a model that works very well with the Enneagram. I prefer to turn the dysfunctions into functions and speak of them as: first, building trust, second, dealing with conflict, third, making a commitment, fourth, holding each other accountable, and fifth, achieving term results. It is a simple, sequential process whose foundation is trust. It goes like this: if we trust each other we can deal with conflict; if we can deal with conflict we can make a commitment to each other; if we can make a commitment to each other, we can hold each other accountable for achieving tram results.
But it all begins with trust and that’s were the Enneagram comes in. Once people see that their differences are in large part due to personality styles—different strategies for approaching problems—and not character flaws, evil intentions, or just “being a jerk,’ trust can be established.
Here’s a quick analysis of the situation between Total Info’s British team and Brad, using the Five Dysfunctions and the Enneagram.
- Building Trust: Brad was not aware of his “American” style (3, 7, 8) and the impact it may have on the “British” style (1 and 5). He was a Three and had succeeded in each of his marketing assignments and organizations because of his focus on being competitive and achieving quick, goal-oriented successes. He was the poster child for the “American” style, but in this situation the Brits viewed him as the “Ugly American.” They didn’t trust him.
- Dealing with Conflict: Conflict was high, and the ability to deal with it was low. Like ships passing in the night, agreement was far away and hard to see. And to complicate things, Brad preferred to avoid conflict, be positive and focus on goals rather than on the feelings or frustrations of the British team. The Brits became rigid, indignant, and silently angry—and avoided dealing with the building conflict.
- Making a Commitment: No commitment could be made because trust had never been established, and the ensuing conflict had never been aired, let alone talked about or resolved. The British team, in true One-ish fashion, was taking “American” phrases too literally, and in some cases misinterpreting them. It was at the point of saying things like: “We can’t function like this. We don’t ‘crush the competition,’ we cooperate with colleagues. We don’t believe in ringing bells and the “hard sell”; we believe that dignified, superior service results in repeat business.”
- Holding Each Other Accountable: The Brits’ ability to hold each other accountable in the London office was high. However, because they didn’t trust Brad, they’re willingness to be held accountable to Brad and Big Brother was low. They felt that his brash style would never fit in, that his competitive nature was too individualistic and could not be relied upon. What the Brits were missing, and what Brad was failing to communicate, was that this was no longer a local team, it was a global team, with global goals. There was an air of exclusivity and cultural refinement (be it real or imagined) that the Brits did not want to trade for what they perceived as unsophisticated and ill-mannered American standards.
- Achieving Team Results: The Brits pushed toward team results based on their high work ethic. However, they began to take a “wait and see” attitude. They told me confidentially that they wanted Brad to leave. The change that Big Brother needed to initiate was not happening under Brad’s leadership style.
So the analysis part was over. Now how could I, with the Enneagram, a one-day team building exercise, and a subsequent coaching assignment, make a difference? As I’ve already mentioned, all relationships, all team functioning, all team achievement begins with trust. The Brits felt that Brad was over-confident, lacked any sense of humility, and saw little value in their way of operating. To them he was a “know it all.” They felt that he had failed to take the time to learn about their culture and to respect the way they had built their business. They didn’t trust him.
I knew that what they saw was a stereotype of the “Ugly American,” not Brad. They saw a representative of an overly ambitious, my-way-or-the-highway, super-star who had no appreciation for their tradition. But was that really Brad?
Brad was a Three, and an unfortunate aspect of the Three is being “unknowable,” or “too good to be true,” or “all things to all people.” Brad was a bit too perfect and way too cocky. They wanted to see him fail, to slip on a banana peel and fall flat on his face. They wanted to see him as human, not the image of Tony Robbins that he projected at them. The upcoming one-day team exercise with Brad and the Brits was going to be a nail bitter or worse. So I decided to give Brad a challenge, to present him with a goal, and a chance to be in the limelight, albeit not in the way he was used to.
I delivered the feedback from all the interviews and told him everything I’ve discussed in this story. Most of the feedback came as no surprise to him. He knew things were bad. I said to him, “Half of the people coming to this meeting want you to fail, but I believe there’s a way for you to succeed, but it requires you to do something very difficult.”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Something very unlike you, I’m afraid. I want you to admit that you’ve made some serious mistakes, and to ask for forgiveness.”
“It’s the only way I can see for the team to trust you. They have to see you as human, with flaws, and willing to change. Right now they see an image that they can’t relate to. You need to shatter your “American” image of always being right and superior. They need to see you as a leader with some humility.” There was a long pause. “Can you do that?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said slowly, “if it will turn things around.”
“Great,” I said, “and don’t worry, we’ll rehearse it. You’ll do great.”
Two days later Brad started the team meeting with an impassioned speech. He asked for forgiveness and asked that the team consider this their first day together. He asked them to wipe the slate clean. You could have heard a pin drop and see jaws drop. The feedback I got from people after the meeting was overwhelming positive. Brad had opened a path for reconciliation and trust. They saw the “real” Brad not the “ugly American.” Brad, like so many sincere leaders, was starting to appreciate the differences in people and cultures. He was beginning to break through limited, “local” thinking and to think and communicate globally. A common language is essential to keep international teams working. The less time team members spend trying to manage cultural differences the more time they have to achieve common business goals. The Enneagram is invaluable in helping people resolve cultural differences and develop strong, global communication skills.
BOB TALLON is and writer, speaker, teacher and coach, and the author of The Enneagram Connection: Using the Enneagram and Emotional Intelligence to Transform Personal and Work Relationships, and the co-author of Awareness to Action: The Enneagram, Emotional Intelligence, and Change. He specializes in team building, and executive and life coaching. Visit him at www.bobtallon.com.