Combating the "That Won't Work Here" Attitude

Published on 2014-09-08

Source: Stephan van Es @ Flickr
FOR TEN YEARS, DOCTOR GREGORY HOUSE was the hottest fictional medical practitioner on US television. On a weekly basis, he found the cure that no other Doctor could find. His secret? He refused to take any answer he received from his patients as fact, and instead dug deeper to discover the root cause. When it comes to listening to feedback on proposed change in a company, international managers could do worse than take a leaf out of House’s book. Very often, the feedback you receive will point you towards the truth rather than actually be the truth.

This is not to say that senior managers should adopt House’s attitude of ‘Patients lie!’ Such a cynical approach would soon lead to a total breakdown in trust between staff and management. However, understanding that, particularly in cultures where direct language is not the norm, it is a wise manager who can distinguish between a symptom and a core issue. [quote float=”right”]…it is a wise manager who can distinguish between a symptom and a core issue.[/quote]

A common example of misleading reaction to suggested change is the statement that ‘that will not work here/ in this country.’ This is the ace in the pack of feedback replies from locally employed staff who work in foreign enterprises. In one sentence, it manages to throw a huge spanner in the works of the manager, whilst at the same time absolving the staff from any responsibility. After all, ‘we want to work with you on this, but unfortunately your plans are culturally abhorrent’ sounds much better than ‘we don’t like the sound of this change’. However, unless you are planning to introduce beef to the canteen menu in your Indian plant or abolishing prayer times in your factory in Indonesia, it is worth considering what else this answer can tell you.

As often as not, the ‘won’t work here’ answer really points to a lack of buy-in on the part of your team. Management have failed to clearly explain the benefits or necessity of a change and have allowed fears of the negatives to become the focus of their staff.[quote float=”left”]As often as not, the ‘won’t work here’ answer really points to a lack of buy-in on the part of your team.[/quote]Implementing change without the buy-in of staff becomes an exercise in force, and when we are pushed, we naturally push back. This leads to a battle of wills between management and staff. Even if management do manage to win this battle, they will often be left with a frustrated and distrusting workforce. Hardly a recipe for success.

In 1986, Nissan opened a manufacturing plant in Sunderland in the North East of England. For centuries, the North of England had been the engine room of British industry. Northerners are proud people, traditionally xenophobic (to the extent that any British citizen not from the North is treated as a foreigner), set in their ways and not as open as they could be to ideas from anywhere south of Nottingham, let alone Asia. The scene then was set for a clash of cultures. East versus West. Two totally different approaches, with battle lines drawn up between managers and staff.

This is not a tale of intercultural infighting however. Within a few years NMUK had become one of the most productive plants in Europe, building more cars per man than anywhere else. This despite the fact that Nissan had introduced many new ideas which would have previously have caused uproar amongst British workers. The Japanese systematic management approach (SM), which included allowing only one union to represent all employees, job rotation, and Kaizen (continuous improvement), meant creating a culture of almost constant change, and yet this was accepted totally by the workforce. This level of buy-in demonstrated that change management is far less about culture difference and far more about clearly communicating benefits.

The advantage that Nissan had in introducing their changes to standard British working practices was the economic situation in the North of England. They had access to a large workforce of highly skilled but disenfranchised British workers. Industry in the North had long been in decline and these workers were both grateful for a chance to return to full time employment and also to regain lost pride. They viewed the Japanese investment as a sign of faith, and repaid that faith tenfold.

Managers in many parts of Asia will face similar situations. Set up an operation in areas of high unemployment or poverty and you get staff who are determined to make it succeed. [quote float=”right”]Set up an operation in areas of high unemployment or poverty and you get staff who are determined to make it succeed.[/quote] Leaders in China, however, may have to work harder. Often their staff are made up of workers who have never known a recession and have become accustomed to a certain way of doing things. This just means that the need to obtain buy-in and the efforts required to communicate the reasons and benefits to any change are even greater. Chinese staff have shown themselves to be incredibly adaptable when they see a benefit in an action.

In short, be like Dr House. Don’t waste time treating symptoms. Instead recognise them for what they are, pointers to the root cause of an issue. When you hear ‘it won’t work here’ dig deeper.