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Charles Hampden-Turner
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Why the ability to reconcile dilemmas helps talent developers

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Listening to both sides of an argument and designing a solution that is a synthesis of the two, is a skill set that all developers of talent must imbibe, say management experts Charles Hampden-Turner, Fons Trompenaars, and Raymond Ferris Abelin.

Much of the success that Singapore and its East Asian neighbours enjoy comes from a mixture of Confucian family values and the Taoist capacity to see two points of view as simultaneously complementary rather than opposing.

The UK and US condemn government interference in the economy and dub this ‘crony capitalism’.

Singapore has avoided this trap by ‘intervening’ in a way that improves rather than distorts markets. It prefers high-end to low-end products. Hence, items requiring much know-how are favoured.

The free market operates as before without favouritism, but now at a higher level of knowledge intensity than other nations. Knowledge scarcity elsewhere ensures that such products earn higher margins for Singapore.

China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea have all adopted this policy. That is the advantage of listening to both sides of an argument and designing a solution that is a synthesis of the two.

Straight lines and circles

Westerners tend to think in straight lines, using means-ends rationality. East Asian nations, influenced by Taoism, tend to think in circles. Business in Western eyes is a competitive joust between knights.

When businesses compete, the best company does more than win. It transfers resources from the loser to the winner and puts these under better management by taking over its customers, its revenues and sometimes even the company itself.

Yet those who think in circles ‘bend’ the lances, enabling them to reconcile free competing with community-based cooperation.

Westerners tend to think in straight lines, using means-ends rationality. East Asian nations, influenced by Taoism, tend to think in circles.

Is community enough?

Adam Smith recommended that we prioritise our self-interest and forget the public good. He was mistaken.

Cooperating with each other inside the company and within networks of suppliers, sub-contractors, partners and customers also leads to the self-interests of each one of these parties being better served.

This is why cultures believing in individualism were the first to industrialise.

But cultures believing in community are rapidly catching up. This community spirit is neither communism nor socialism, but rather a legacy of Confucianism and family-style solidarity.

Believing in community alone can be dangerous—think of China’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.

What really creates health, wealth and happiness is the reconciliation of individuality with community, individuals serving their community and, in turn, communities nurturing individuals.

It is possible for a company to increasingly decentralise its activities, while the information about, or from these activities is centralised in a particular locale.

Capitalism and socialism must start learning to co-exist.

When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union came apart, Western capitalism felt it had defeated socialism and set a disastrous course of triumphalism, culminating in the financial collapse of 2008.

While Singapore was badly affected, it has rebounded, unlike the UK and the USA.

New way of measuring

Since its founding, the Trompenaars Hampden-Turner consultancy has been measuring ‘Individual Freedom to Compete’ versus ‘Taking Care of Your Fellow Man and Cooperating’, to find out how various nation score.

Singapore is roughly in the middle, yet more communitarian than individualist on the whole.

But this study fails to distinguish compromise (in which each value partly frustrates the other) from reconciliation (in which more freedom is used to help more members of a community and that community then nurtures more individuals).

So, over the last five years, the consultancy has been developing another kind of measurement that could help nations, like Singapore, and its Ministry of Manpower, to set policies.

Adam Smith recommended that we prioritise our self-interest and forget the public good. He was mistaken.

We have been asking this question in different forms: a) “I work so as to achieve as much autonomy, freedom and self-satisfaction as I can.” b) “I work for the pleasure of helping customers, network members and taking care of the needs of people generally.” We then invite the respondents to transcribe their scores.

Other opposing factors

Other opposing factors include centralisation versus decentralisation. It is possible for a company to increasingly decentralise its activities, while the information about, or from these activities is centralised in a particular locale.

It is even possible to have decentralised centres of excellence, with nations specialising in what they do best. For many years Singapore has been Apple’s centre of excellence for skilled assembly.

Recently, Motorola made Bangalore its centre of excellence for software – due to the skills of local engineers. Kuala Lumpur is ABN Amro’s Asian information hub, since 18 languages are spoken there.

Using the above measuring technique, early indications show that a company’s ability to reconcile is a measure of its financial, human and moral success.

Reconciling dilemmas is vital

The failure to reconcile dilemmas can be disastrous. But dilemmas, if reconciled, may transform the fortunes of a company.

Extremely indicative of the success of a corporation or an entire economy is the capacity to reconcile universal rules, standards, codes, benchmarks and technology with particular exceptions, variances, personalities and contingencies.

Consider this traffic accident scenario, in which respondents must choose between Truth (as a ‘universal law’) and Love (as a ‘particular exception’ or bond):

“Your best friend is driving above the speed limit and strikes and injures a pedestrian. Do you tell the truth in a court of law, or do you express your affection by supporting him/her?”

When it comes to the crunch, many East Asians will stick with their friend, while the generally Protestant West will side overwhelmingly with the truth, even if this means their friend will be jailed.

Once again, Singapore, strongly influenced by America and the UK’s common law tradition, is somewhere in the middle, although more universal than particular.

What qualities distinguish those who prefer to reconcile multiple viewpoints? They are usually interested in long-term, super-ordinate goals and have a broad tolerance of other people’s perspectives and beliefs.

But in using these new measuring methods, early indications suggest that Singaporeans are keener to reconcile the two.

Qualities of a reconciler

What qualities distinguish those who prefer to reconcile multiple viewpoints? They are usually interested in long-term, super-ordinate goals and have a broad tolerance of other people’s perspectives and beliefs.

Rotating an employee around the company and the world encourages this. Reconcilers look for larger meanings, since meanings are the integration of different ideas.

They also have an eye for stories, since most narratives have serial crises or dilemmas. A high tolerance for anxiety (since encountering new people and ideas raises tensions), would also be desirable.

Above all, reconciliation can be taught – as it is a form of inter-cultural competence.

Global expert Dr Charles Hampden-Turner is the co-Founder of Tropenaars Hampden-Turner, which assists Fortune 500 companies in areas of globalisation, mergers and acquisitions, sustainability, training and leadership development, and leveraging diversity. He is also a headline speaker at the upcoming Talent Management Asia 2015.

Find out more about Talent Management Asia, the region’s biggest conference on talent management and human capital strategy, attracting a large audience of senior HR generalists and specialists, as well as other C-level executives involved in their companies’ HR strategies.

To review the topics & agenda, check out the stellar speaker list and reserve your seat visit www.talentmanagement.asia before it’s sold out.

For more information please contact Carlo Reston on +65 6423 0329 or carlor@humanresourcesonline.net.

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