Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Why the Office Weasel Can Play a Useful Role in Hierarchical Organizations

People from the few societies that are not hierarchical -- Netherlands and Scandinavia mainly -- often have difficulty grasping how strongly hierarchical societies can function. When I explain this point in culture workshops they usually ask how any organization can function when people are unable to contradict the boss or even to report that something doesn't work. This happens not just in faraway countries that you have only ever seen in National Geographic. It can also happen closer to home in those organizations where the culture is more hierarchical than usual for the region.

Yet societies that are strongly hierarchical -- what culture experts call "high power distance" cultures -- can be highly effective. Look at Japan, for example. This is possible because in any culture where hierarchy is always very strong the people are also raised in this environment and have learnt how to behave to make things work. One very typical compensation is for people to use more indirect language, hinting rather than stating an opinion unequivocally. Another is to rely on alternative channels. Perhaps you would not say in an open meeting that an idea was doomed to failure to save the face of whoever is in charge, but you might mention the fact discretely in the corridor during a break.

But another way that managers can learn the truth about what is happening is to make use of employees who privately report to them the news that they have heard in the office. Other employees might refer to them as the office snake or weasel and if you work in an organization with any sort of hierarchical culture you have probably already seen this happening.

Like court jesters in the olden days, weasels have a kind of license to pass on bad news in confidence and are tolerated because of the context.  The weasel allows the boss to receive sensitive information without losing face because there are no witnesses present and the weasel is not stating personal opinions but merely reporting overheard conversations. Because of the inevitable confidentiality of the situation the boss also knows that the conversation is not going to be reported back to the employees.

Whatever the boss and the weasel might think, most employees are actually well aware of what is going on and they exploit the situation. To pass on unpalatable information to the boss they just discuss the point "privately" within hearing of the weasel, who dutifully reports it at the next opportunity. At the same time everyone is careful not to reveal any real secrets when the weasel is listening.

In this way there is a dependable flow of information through a channel that allows effective communication but in a way that protects the status of everyone. The boss gets information without losing face and the employees can say what they really think without embarrassment or fear of punishment. And the weasel? What's in it for them? Weasels are usually rewarded for their services with a cubicle by the window, a promotion or other advantages. These rewards seem inexplicable to puzzled colleagues, who are baffled why everyone but the boss seems to know that they are a weasel. But the boss does know and, perhaps subconsciously, the reward is precisely for that.

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Related posts about intercultural issues:

Why the Office Weasel Can Play a Useful Role in Hierarchical Organizations
Managing Across Cultures Three Non-obvious Issues to Watch For
Three Non-Obvious Ways Culture Affects Email 
Three Non-Obvious Issues in Multicultural Meetings  
Culture, Innovation and the Curious Case of Pandora Radio.  


Lectures, Workshops, Coaching on intercultural issues.


All of these articles are based on lectures, workshops and webinars on intercultural communication and management created by the author. For more information about these visit andrewhennigan.com contact me by mail at conseil@andrewhennigan.com or call 0033 6 79 61 42 81.



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