Psych Siren

I went to a seminar a while back and the British guest speakers were so insensitive to local culture that my colleagues and I decided against joining. They managed to offend us on three counts in a span of thirty minutes. When we arrived, one of the speakers said in a loud, harsh voice—” Participants, we will start with or without you. I see you.” She was referring to some men who were milling about since the rest of the participants were only beginning to trickle in. And then she goes on to say, again in a loud, harsh voice—“Can you keep it down?” This time referring to people in the back engaged in lighthearted banter. As if that’s not enough, they started the seminar with a straight lecture and individual work conducted in complete silence.

To their credit, the had brilliant ideas. Unfortunately, the cultural faux pas was difficult to ignore. We scurried out of there as fast as we could. The enforced silence reminded me of the kind that falls right after disaster strikes!

From the perspective of the foreign speakers, the participants were being “rude and unprofessional.” Unknown to them, the feeling was mutual.

What went wrong in this situation? Nearly everything.

From the vantage point of the Brits, time is very concrete. Hence, they found it rude and unprofessional for people to hang out outside the conference hall, when the seminar was about to start. For most Filipinos, time is still a feeling and is abstract. We tend to think of schedules in terms of “umaga”, “hapon,” “gabi” rather than 7:00 in the morning, 4:00 in the afternoon or 9:00 in the evening.

In general, Brits tend to be a lot more formal and individualistic whereas we are very light-hearted and relational. It is not uncommon for our meetings and seminars to be punctuated with loud, boisterous laughter. Even our wakes, funerals and remembrance of the dead is more often used as an excuse to party.

Cultural and individual frames of reference—the perspective from which we operate from and see the world, define our relationships. On a larger context, our organization paradigm defines our organizational health.

As Filipinos, there is a need to develop an organizational model that maximizes our strengths as a people and provides allowance for our weaknesses. Instead of trying to mold ourselves into the kind of professionals that westerners envision, we need to determine which ones are worth arguing about and which ones are too trifle to dignify with a comment.

As a human resources professional, I have four recommendations towards developing a Filipino Organizational Paradigm. First, whenever possible I recommend what is known as flexi-time. Essentially this means that employees can come in at 10AM but have to log out at 7PM instead of the standard 8AM to 5PM work day. Now I recognize that not all offices have that liberty, that’s why I qualify this recommendation with “whenever possible.”

Second, Filipino workspaces should allow for our deeply relational make-up. Individual offices are fine only if the job requires it—for example you’re a school counselor and need a counseling room to ensure the counselee’s privacy.

Third bureaucracies are the worst possible organization model for our culture.
Whenever possible, make room for creativity, flexibility and synergy in the organization.

Fourth and most importantly, leaders need to be immersed in the shared experience of the people they lead. Contemporary leaders have the added disadvantage of having to deal with the social distance that being in authority puts them in. It is important to note that for over 300 years, those in authority have been foreigners and considered outsiders. Hence, there is a deep-seated tendency to be socially distant around those in positions of authority. This is a stark contrast to pre-Hispanic culture where the Maharlika fought and farmed side-by-side with his subjects. This kind of collaborative, facilitative leadership is typically what works best in our culture.

Ultimately, developing a Filipino organizational paradigm simply entails taking the time to really get to know the heart and pulse of your workforce. This will earn trust and loyalty. Employees who trust their bosses are easier to train. Loyal employees tend to own the organization’s vision and are more likely to invest their lives in its success.

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