The Adventure of Scotland Yard in Pakistan, and Why it is not Hopeless

A team of investigators from Britain’s “Scotland Yard” was invited by the Pakistan government last week to help investigate the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Media reports suggest that their role will be to provide technical expertise not available locally. Mazhra Zaidi of the BBC Urdu language service also added “... a major question to be answered is how much co-operation the British detectives will get from the various police and intelligence organizations in Pakistan, some of whose members may be far from inclined to want to work with foreign police”, according to the transcript “Scotland Yard's Pakistan casebook “ at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7169540.stm

Of course they will be “far from inclined”, and rightly so. You don’t need to be an expert in communications or team dynamics to know that any team will resent the intrusion of a group of foreign “experts” sent in to tell the poor natives how to do things properly. Added to that are the complications caused by cultural differences and the very limited time for preparation – I don’t think they has more than a day for packing and I suspect they read the files on the plane – and it looks like a hopeless case.

Yet this is not a rare situation. It is usually in an emergency that the management decides to put aside the feelings of their own people and fly in some outside experts and this means that the situation is already more tense and there is too little time to prepare to think about relationship or culture training.
But it is still possible to minimize the inevitable tensions and conflicts by giving the expert team at least some concise cultural guidelines, possibly a single page of bullet points or a short podcast that can address the top priority issues. Add to this a fast, on-demand coaching service by phone, mail or chat and you can make a difference to the results

Take, for example, the situation of the British experts in Pakistan. What could they do to work better with their local counterparts?

To begin with Pakistan is a much more hierarchical society than the UK. This means that you need to be careful to respect the hierarchy of the local team, speaking to people at the right level and avoiding any contact that might seem to be an attempt to bypass the boss. Remember also that lower level people will not feel comfortable answering your questions in front of their boss. They might also be uncomfortable about talking to you at all if they think you are a very high status person.

At the same time you need to be clear about the hierarchy in your own team and be aware of how people’s status will be perceived by the Pakistanis. They judge status depending on your position in the organization, you age (old is better) and also your academic qualifications. While the British tend to minimize their education and rarely mention their qualifications, this does not work in Asia generally.

In addition they tend to be indirect communicators, who are reluctant to say what they really think, preferring a more diplomatic response. British people are also quite indirect but not quite to the same degree. You need to be aware of this when asking questions, because people find it hard to say no or be openly critical.

And finally don’t forget that the majority of people in Pakistan are Muslims and this means that they are “outer directed” or believe that destiny rules their fate, rather then they themselves being in control of everything – the exact opposite of the average American. In practice this mindset can define the approach to problem solving. To an American all problems are to be solved – death included – but to many people in the world you just have to live with them – a Que Sera Sera attitude.

Apart from the cultural differences it is also important to address the intrinsic tension of the situation. Nobody loves an “expert” sent in from the outside to tell them how to do their job, with the implication that they are incompetent. To deal with this you have to understand that the problem exists, try to empathize with the local team and ask yourself how you would feel in that situation. Translated into practical advice, this means being careful to clarify that your role is limited to assisting them in their investigation and to show respect for your hosts.

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