Five Oaks Consulting

Evaluation and organizational learning

Organizational culture, national culture and how they come together in INGOs

Evaluation and organizational learning

Questions rummaging through my mind

How do national culture differences affect organizational ways of working — and ways of managing and leading?

How does the presence of many different national cultures among staff shape the organizational culture of an NGO?

To start with the obvious: The staff of INGOs typically consist of people from many different national cultures. This is even more so the case as many INGOs have focused on increasing the diversity of their staff body—including for managers and leaders. National cultures from global North no longer predominate, although global North-imprinted organizational cultures tend to remain in place for a lot longer. So how does the presence of all these national cultures shape the organizational culture of an NGO?

A new resource

Recently, I became aware of an interesting new research-based source on national culture differences—updated research by Erin Meyer, the American-French academic who works at the famous INSEAD business school in Fontainebleau, France. Her book, The Culture Map (2014) has been recommended to me by several NGO types. Erin has launched a new website, the Culture Mapping tool, which allows you to compare specific sets of countries in neat ways with each other, based on the following dimensions:

  • Communications: from ‘high context’ communication styles to ‘low context’ ones
  • Evaluating: from indirect negative feedback to direct ones
  • Leading: from hierarchical cultures to egalitarian ones
  • Deciding: From top-down cultures to consensual ones
  • Trusting: from relationship-based cultures to task-based ones
  • Disagreeing: from confrontational cultures to those that avoid confrontation
  • Scheduling: from linear-based cultures to flexible time-based cultures
  • Persuading: from applications-first cultures to principle-first ones

The questions this sparked in me

Erin’s research sparked the following questions:

  • How does the presence of all these national cultures in INGOs shape their organizational culture?
  • What happens when the NGO manager’s leadership style, informed by national culture, is in clear tension with–let’s say–the espoused leadership model of ‘transformational leadership’, feminist leadership, servant leadership, you name it? This would suggest the person has to be one kind of leader in the daytime, but at night and on the weekend be another person? So much for authentic leadership and ‘bringing your whole self to work’ ideals in that case?
  • Who came up with these newer, aspirational leadership models that are now popular in some INGOs anyway?
  • As leadership and management of many INGOs increasingly is populated by a much more diverse set of people in terms of national culture, when and how will this make the organizational culture less global North-normed?
  • As INGOs have increased their leadership coming from national cultures in the global South, I sometimes see people being ‘spit out’ quite quickly by the dominant culture. Is this because the person’s identity (their lived experience, the non-NGO functional or professional background they may have brought, etc.) is different, and the predominant org culture is unwilling to ‘enlarge the tent’ and embrace this?
  • We know from the research on staff diversity that a greater diversity of people, while definitely beneficial to the organization’s outcomes, productivity, innovation, and creativity in the medium term, in the short term may lead to greater chances of miscommunication, mistrust, increased tension and conflict. As many NGOs are becoming more truly global, will the presence of an ever-greater number of national cultures further enhance these short-term challenges?
  • For those NGOs intent on increasing their global balance of affiliates, sections, members etc, will these new members submit to ‘isomimicry’, i.e. the expectation from the global North members that their organizations will look like them, or will they introduce different forms of ‘organizational being’ to truly diversify the NGO?
  • And what does this mean for change management approaches? To draw from another source on national differences in what’s expected from leaders and managers, (the GLOBE project, following the initial work on national cultures by Geert Hofstede, the Dutch researcher): surely differences in, for instance, performance orientation, power difference, assertiveness, uncertainty avoidance, future orientation, humane orientation, and ingroup collectivism affect how change leaders and change managers need to go about their work?

Many questions, few answers….. but let’s think about this together

 

I have few answers to the questions above (primarily some gut sense and anecdotal observations), but it would be very worthwhile to brainstorm on them together. Let’s talk if this sparks further ideas or thoughts! Ping me at tosca@5oaksconsulting.org

In the meantime, here’s an earlier blog post from me about why I am quite skeptical of hiring and promoting ‘cultural rebels’ as a strategy towards organizational change.

 

Links for further reading and thinking

A summary of dimensions derived from the GLOBE project, a very interesting long term research project on cultural differences in leadership and management models:

https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wm-principlesofmanagement/chapter/dimensions-of-cultural-difference-and-their-effect/

Erin Meyer’s Culture Mapping Tool:  (regretfully, the tool is no longer available for free)

Erin’s book The Culture Map

One could argue that being comfortable in a global North-based national culture is a source of informal power. Here is a handy visualization of this particular form of informal power, plus many others. My colleague-consultant Esther Kwaku and Iare co-created the list based on work we did for the International Civil Society Centre this past year. With credit to MEDA, the Canadian development agency, who had the list converted into this nifty graphic image (they liked the list as a prompt to spur useful conversation).

A short video with me about how I define organizational culture

When nonprofits conform to common financial management norms, they may sacrifice as much as half of their impact

When nonprofits conform to common financial management norms, they may sacrifice as much as half of their impact

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

By George Mitchell, Associate Professor of Nonprofit Management at the City University of New York. He reports on recently published research, conducted together with Thad Calabrese, Associate Professor of Public and Nonprofit Financial Management, at New York University. (George, Hans Peter Schmitz, and Tosca are the co-authors of the book ‘Between Power and Irrelevance: the Future of Transnational NGOs’, and have collaborated for close to 20 years.)

Charities that conform to common nonprofit financial management norms may be sacrificing more than half of their mission impact over a decade. This is the conclusion of our recently published research on a large population of US registered nonprofits and NGOs (domestic and international ones).

As charitable organizations, NGOs have long been under pressure to make themselves look financially trustworthy by following practices like:

  • minimizing overhead
  • being fiscally lean
  • diversifying revenue sources; and
  • avoiding significant debt.

Many funders, watchdogs, and other stakeholders routinely evaluate NGOs based on their conformity to norms like these. But how does following these norms actually affect organizational performance? My co-author Thad Calabrese and I analyzed data from thousands of US charities over several decades to find the answer. Read more (short article) at The Conversation.

Or check out our original research here  (open access/no paywall) or here (paywall).

Let us know how you react to this — perhaps counterintuitive — research outcome! Email me at george.mitchell@baruch.cuny.edu, or leave a comment.

Anger and grievance among Amnesty staff: should the broader INGO sector pay attention?

Anger and grievance among Amnesty staff: should the broader INGO sector pay attention?

Introduction

When was the last time you read that an entire Senior Leadership Team (SLT) of a major NGO offered to resign? This happened recently in Amnesty International (shy of Kumi Naidoo, the relatively new Secretary General). It occurred after Amnesty made public (to its credit!) an independent report on the state of its staff well- being. The report put allegations of unfair treatment of staff, negatively impacted by a recent big organizational change process, and of racism, gender discrimination and bullying front and center as part of a longer standing cultural issue.

Why I write about this

I have followed these developments in Amnesty closely because I was part of a team that between 2014-2017 undertook a two part External Assessment of Amnesty’s Global Transition Program (GTP) . This big organizational change effort, as embodied in its informal name ‘Moving Closer to the Ground’, in effect decentralized Amnesty’s International Secretariat away from London to 11 Regional Offices, led (among others) to the appointment of many more global South staff and leaders, instilled a greater focus on gaining more global South members and supporters and led to the departure of a relative large number of staff who often had been with Amnesty for a long time.  In effect, GTP also led to some redistribution of power within Amnesty.  The Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University, USA, which I directed at the time, undertook the External Assessment. Co-authors in this effort included Ramesh Singh, Steve Lux and Shreeya Neupane. In addition, I also was the co-trainer in an annual Senior Leadership Development Program for major INGOs including Amnesty since 2013, and in that process have heard many observations about Amnesty culture, including when it comes to interpersonal communication styles.

Our Assessment had a much broader scope than effects on staff of the Global Transition Program (GTP) alone, but it certainly included those effects. We included data on persistent and legitimate staff grievances as a result of especially weak change management capacity and practice, particularly during the first (crucial) stages of GTP implementation. We indicated that Amnesty’s Management seemed to consider these grievances in ways that we found to be unhelpful. Our report came out in May 2017, and from the Staff Well-being report produced by the consulting group Konterra which just came out it appears that our work did not make much of a difference – a not uncommon limitation of externally commissioned work!

It should be said that the internal communication culture of Amnesty was known to be ‘confrontational’ well before the Global Transition Program. By this we mean a style of communicating that is dominated by attempts to persuade others through internal advocacy style communication, the use of argumentation and attacks – instead of on skillful interpersonal communication that leads to greater mutual understanding, conflict management and collaboration. This communication culture, anecdotally, is not just reported in Amnesty, but also in some other campaigning NGOs. The phenomenon is described by David La Piana, for instance, in “The Nonprofit Paradox (Stanford Social Innovation Review, Summer 2010).

This made me reflect on some things[1]:

  1. Symbolically, the offer of collective resignation by Amnesty’s Senior Leadership Team was a necessary and useful action – this is irrespective of whether it accomplishes anything ‘structural’. It met the emotional needs of some staff (though not all) and the political needs of Amnesty’s  Board. 
  2. It gives the current Secretary General a free hand to start afresh with new leadership – even if Kumi decides to hold on to some SLT members while accepting the resignation of others. This can help with top leadership getting ‘unstuck’ with regard to certain ‘mental models’ of how staff grievances should be understood.
  3. Based on work I have done with other mid to large size NGOs who have gone through big change processes, I wonder if two realities co-exist in terms of whose voices counted or were privileged in the Staff Well-being report: on the one hand, there is a widespread, deeply shared and easily understood set of grievances. At the same time, it is my sense that there is also a set of voices that is critical of all the attention that has gone into ‘looking to the past’, who think that the power imbalances within the movement as well as the very identity of Amnesty needed to change, and who think the Staff Wellbeing report is (somewhat) overblown. The latter people just want to move on with the direction of travel that Amnesty is on, because they deeply believe in this direction and feel that the significant amount of change the organization went through was badly needed. I would have been interested to see in the Staff Well-being report, for instance, whether the latter voices had certain characteristics in common or not?
  4. And I also struggle with this question: on the one hand, a human rights organization cannot be seen to violate staff rights within the organization. And people certainly cannot work productively and contribute to worthwhile outcomes if they feel strongly aggrieved. On the other hand, all this attention is inward looking instead of outward looking, to rights holders who Amnesty aims to support and promote. And this is after the GTP change process itself already instilled a strongly inward looking climate for staff in the International Secretariat for several years.
  5. We all know there is a perennial debate within civil society as to what is the importance of having ‘passion for the cause’ and having ‘the right values’ (reflected in what some call the ‘soul’ of civil society), relative to the aim to professionalize. And it is obvious that mission and values-focused NGO staff are driven more by intrinsic motivations than by extrinsic rewards such as salary.  However, we as staff still need to be competent (professional) in how we communicate and treat each other; and we also may need to be more concerned with external effectiveness, and less with ‘good intentions and passion’.
  6. This in turn reminds me of the time I facilitated a senior leadership training, and we discussed the concept of a ‘psychological contract’. This concept (developed by Denise Rousseau) points to the set of – often unspoken – mutual beliefs and perceptions with regard to the informal obligations that may exist between employers and employees. As trainers, we asked each participant to indicate what their psychological contract was with their NGO employer. I recall how one set of participants indicated that theirs consisted of two things: having passion for ‘the cause’ and a willingness to work long hours for not that high a salary. I remember thinking to myself: but what about actual outcomes for the people or causes you work on? Outcomes did not seem to be part of the equation.
  7. This also brought back memories of the time when I set out to work in the international development field – a long time ago. I never saw myself as a ‘do gooder’ even though that was the assumption that many people had about young people like me. I did want to work on public causes, but I was weary of any notion of ‘saving the world’: the arrogance and ego that was personified in that idea was not something I was comfortable with. II just wanted to do meaningful work well. Please note that I am not saying I always succeeded! But doing work well was my main mission.
  8. Coming back to Amnesty’s current situation, this sentence in an editorial of The Times (after the publication of the Staff Well-being report therefore stuck with me: “Staff and managers employed … may pride themselves more on their commitment than on their professionalism. Being morally right all the time can induce an attitude towards fellow employees which is characterised by impatience and intolerance. Due process can come to be seen as an impediment to doing what seems to be the right thing, rather than as an assistance. Nothing is as “toxic” in the workplace as the resulting arbitrariness.” (The Times, February 6, 2019)

In conclusion, perhaps we as a sector should get better at balancing being ‘morally right’ (which is in any event depending on one’s viewpoint of the world), with being focused on skillfully interacting with our colleagues, so that we may support the creation of better outcomes. Why does our ‘moral outrage’ entitle us to treat others badly? Does this showcase a certain amount of ego and self-gratification, while masking as ‘doing good’? Should we apply a bit more humility, honesty and self-awareness?

This is a highly complex situation. What do you think? I look forward to hearing your comments and to learning from your perspective.


[1] I am grateful to Catherine Gerard, my colleague at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University (USA), who has been my mentor as well as co-trainer in the Senior Leadership Development Program since 2011, for inputs received.

Is it a good idea for NGOs to aspire to measure their results at the agency level?

Is it a good idea for NGOs to aspire to measure their results at the agency level?

As NGOs increase their ambitions regarding outcome measurement, some have started experimenting with ‘agency level measurement’. Tosca co-write a white paper on real NGO experiences (good and bad!) with this approach to measurement (initiated and commissioned by InterAction members), and captures some lessons learned about the complexities, value and limitations of such an approach

Levine, Carlisle J., Bruno-van Vijfeijken, Tosca and Jayawickrama, Sherine. 2016.  Measuring International NGO Agency-Level Results. InterAction. (pp 1-48)