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Was It Something I Said - Or Didn't? - HIP HOP MINUTE
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Was It Something I Said – Or Didn’t?




Max DePree posits that leadership is an art. Thomas D. Zweifel explains that leadership has disparate global definitions. Morgan W. McCall, Jr. and George P. Hollenbeck add that leadership styles in one venue do not necessarily work in another. Daniel Kahneman asserts that context affects decision-making. Edward T. Hall expounds that meaning is a function of information in context.

Consider the following statements: (i) “Let’s eat grandpa!” and (ii) “Let’s eat, grandpa!” Cannibals may be indifferent to the presence of the comma. However, to most people, the statements have profoundly different meanings. Hall is right. Context matters. (So do syntax and punctuation!) Charles Ess and Fay Sudweeks impart that prudent marketing strategies include contextual considerations. For example, web designs align imagery and text with the contextural proclivities of target markets.

What happens to the art and style of leadership when the protagonist encounters a diverse global cabal of teammates? This article will probe the challenge using Hall’s cultural research.


Hall intoned, “Meaning and context are inextricably bound up with each other.” Hall continued that “most of the [low-context] information must be in the transmitted message in order to make up for what is missing in the context.” One of Hall’s cultural juxtapositions is low-context versus high-context.

Low-context people tend to be independent and individualist. Their prose and speech are direct, literal, and explicit. Ambiguity is tantamount to effrontery. These people say what they mean and mean what they say. They engage casual relationships across many groups. In their element, low-context people are clearly understood. Metaphors are used for communication clarity-not euphemisms.

Outside of their element, low-context people may be perceived as rude-even crude. Low-context denizens communicate much like a computer algorithm with an if-then syllogism. America is the poster-child among low-context cultures. Indeed, this highly correlates with the “ugly American” phenomenon. Americans have low-context cousins. The list includes Canada (except Quebec), Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Germany, Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

Imagine the discomfort of the uninitiated when encountering a low-context person. One may easily empathize with their potential anxiety in both commercial and social settings. Some practical steps might benefit the neophyte before encroaching on the low-context person’s lair. The counterpart’s company website is a good place to start, beginning with their posted values. Next, a few leaders and followers in the organization-or familiar with the organization-may be discretely polled for stories imparting how these values are manifested in acculturated behaviors. Finally, these same people may be asked for examples of effective communications with the group. The odds are high that the cultural novice will glean some clues for sharpening the form and substance of the message.


Hall imparted, “High-context transactions feature pre-programmed information that is in the receiver and in the setting, with only minimal information in the transmitted message.” The easiest means of anchoring a high-context perspective is first reminding oneself that the majority of communication is non-verbal. Stephan Dahl explains relevant components of non-verbal communication: body language, personal space, eye contact, tactile functions, intonation, inflexion, cadence, and dialect. Whereas low-context people may harbor a blind spot for this fact, high-context people wield the subtleties of high-context with distinction. Even with word usages, it is more than the words; rather, it is the words in context.

Whereas cultures may have propensities, sub-cultures may differ. Consider an encounter between two mavens of the Deep South. One says to the other, “Why, isn’t that an interesting pair of shoes with that dress?” An outsider might regard this as an innocuous exchange, yet a native southerner recognizes the profundity of the insult! To wit, the real meaning of the parry is that the recipient of the message is devoid of any redeeming fashion sense.

Cinematic examples display the power of high-context cultures. The 1980 miniseries, Shogun, based on James Clavell’s novel, dramatizes seventeenth century Samurai culture. Richard Chamberlain portrayed the English Protestant protagonist, John Blackthorne. The merchant ship captain is chronically challenged to rewire his cognition to understand a culture whose powerful messages elude his perceptions. A decade later, a more contemporary movie, Rising Sun, based on a Michael Crichton novel, revisited Japanese culture for a twentieth century version of high-context. Sean Connery played a sensei to Westley Snipes, an impulsive detective investigating a Los Angeles murder mystery. Both films are classic examples of low-context versus high-context contrast.

High-context cultures are more plentiful than low-context cultures. They include the Asian countries of Japan, China, Thailand, Korea, Russia, India, Iran, Turkey, and the Philippines; the European countries of Greece, Hungary, France, Spain, Italy, and Portugal; most Arab countries; most Central and South American countries; and most African countries.

When transitioning from a low-context to a high-context environment, the leader must first resolve to invest the time to understand, and immerse in, the group. Acceptance is paramount. Indoctrination comes with collective support. Moreover, the leader should expect the line of demarcation to fade between professional and personal realms. Depending on the masculinity or femininity of the culture, a patriarch or matriarch, respectively, may be a definitive source of coaching and insights.


Another of Hall’s cultural juxtapositions is expressed through the coined terms of “monochronic” and “polychronic.” Monochronic people tend to focus on time management and task orientation. Indeed, time is a limited resource that must be wisely managed. “Monochrons” are the stepchildren of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management, whereby efficient processes drive productivity through economies of scale. For monochronic people, tasks have a precise, linear order largely devoid of exceptions. Such orientation also follows Edwards Deming’s plan, do, check, act rigor. Factory assembly lines are monuments to monochronic behavior.

Harry Chapin’s iconoclastic “Cat’s in the Cradle” tune frames the monochrons’ typical lifestyle. The rat-race doomed father had “planes to catch and bills to pay.” His son mimicked the steps of his dad’s role model. The father got things done, but at the expense of personal relationships. Once retired, the father pined for time with his son. Verse four of Chapin’s epic pays a painful dividend to the father:

I (the dad) called him up (the son) just the other day. I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind.”

He (the son) said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I could find the time. You see the new job’s a hassle and the kids have the flu…”

And as I (the dad) hung up the phone, it occurred to me (the dad), he’d (the son) grown up just like me…

Interestingly, Gen Ys entering the workforce are rejecting this lifestyle wholesale in favor of work-life balance. Specifically, Gen Ys want to experience things in sharp contrast to their monochronic parents. These Gen Ys view their parents as cottoning to a lifestyle encapsulated in a couple lines from the Eagles’ “Take It to the Limit:”

You can spend all your time making money.

You can spend all your love making time.

Perhaps Gen Ys have figured out something that eluded their parents: the winner of the rat race remains a rat. Rhetorically, one might ask whether Gen Ys are becoming higher-context polychrons. Polychrons are our next subject.


To monochronic people, polychronic people, or “polychrons,” may appear to have attention deficit disorder. Polychrons are flexible and malleable. They are the quintessential multitaskers. Daniel Pink reminds us that multitasking is inefficient, but to polychrons, this is the Ecclesiastical point: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven…” Tasks are evaluated for their contribution to the macro objective in keeping with personal values-not expediency.

Life for polychrons is heuristic and relational. Connectedness to a group is sacrosanct. To polychrons, the idea of a Gordian knot may be more appealing than perplexing. The compatibility of polychrons and high-context people is readily apparent in Latino cultures. Hall communicates that polychrons welcome change as an escape from monotony.

One of the prime polychronic behavioral traits is the nonchalance about time. Punctuality is its casualty-and this to the chagrin of monochrons. Carol Kaufman-Scarborough and Jay D. Lindquist point out a seeming irony: compared to monochrons, polychrons organize goals more easily, feel more likely to reach daily goals, are less inclined to procrastinate, and are more likely to be comfortable performing under pressure.

Normal Rockwell’s depiction of grandma might be the polychronic prototype. She was always baking something, doing the laundry, cleaning house, weeding the garden, answering the phone, sewing, carry a covered dish to sick neighbor, volunteering for church functions, reading to grandkids, and painting the parlor-a typical day for a polychronic woman in Rockwell’s era. What’s the punch line? Grandma was unflappable. The grandkids adored her and never recall grandma having an indisposed instant. Grandma had chi before chi was cool.


Navigation through low-context and high-context, and monochronic and polychronic attributes is increasingly relevant. William B. Gudykunst and Young Yun Kim impart that people are more cognizant of their behavior when interacting with people from other cultures than is the case when engaging their own cultures. This is a good thing. A local leader may need to be more globally cognizant than is immediately obvious. A simple example frames the point. American technical universities, e.g., The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are magnets for international students. Some of this genre of students remains in the United States to launch fabulous ventures such as Google which require superb software engineering competencies. While marquis case studies are easily recognized, more modest examples are abundant.

A staple component of my project management coaching to middle market companies is a video clip of Laurel and Hardy’s classic routine, “Who’s on First?” The objectives of this allegorical enlightenment include operational definitions for terms, a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities, and recognizing process critical path. The clip has provided consistent, predictable utility for making the desired points-until an eventual group defied the norm and mysteriously sat quietly through the video with no apparent reaction.

The root cause was hiding in plain view. The business model is high-tech, providing global software solutions to a complex life sciences clientele, i.e. B2B. Half the group was non-Anglo immigrants; their childhood national pastime was not baseball. To acculturated U.S. participants, the clip was about a low-context, monochronic example of miscommunication. To the remainder of the group, the example was high-context, polychronic gibberish, and a waste of their time. True to their high-context heritage, they were too polite to ask what the clip had to do with the big picture.

The take-away is clear. The U.S. has prided itself for generations as the cultural melting pot of the world. As the population is diverging from its western European roots, even local leaders must think more globally in order to connect with their increasingly mixed employee ranks. Such competencies are integral elements of effective communications for inspiring teams toward strategic success.

Source by John Lanier

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