Several of my articles in the “4000-footer” series touched on the work that I’ve done across cultures. Here I want to share an anecdote that illustrates how things can (nearly) go awry, even when the cultures involved aren’t that different.
The story involves two people who pop up several times in the series.
Jean and I were living in Tuluá, Colombia, in the late 1980s. Monique van’t Hek was my manager, a gifted and dedicated Dutch Field Director; I was her Assistant Director. I learned a huge amount from Monique during those years, and from Leticia Escobar, who was Monique’s manager. Leticia was Area Manager for Colombia and Ecuador, working from the Regional Office in Ecuador. Both Monique and I deeply respected Leticia, relying on her judgement and looking forward to her regular visits.
(As you may have seen, I wrapped up the “4000-footer” series thanking some of the many people who helped me, influenced me, taught me, over the decades described in those articles; Monique and Leticia figure prominently in that group. Thank you Monique, and thank you, Leticia!)
At one point during those years, Monique and I were struggling to deal with one problematic local staff member. “Roberto” (not his actual name) held a key position, leading the implementation of an important initiative. He was a smart and experienced professional but, sadly, he also had a major drinking problem, which was really getting in the way of his work, alienating him from our staff and resulting in poor performance. After discussing the situation several times, it seemed best that Monique speak with Leticia about the situation, at an upcoming visit, and get her advice.
At the end of that visit, Leticia and Monique had a private meeting. I knew that the situation with “Roberto” would be discussed at that meeting so, after Leticia returned to Quito, I dropped by Monique’s office to see what had been decided.
“I’m really confused,” she said. “It turns out that if we want to dismiss ‘Roberto’ we have to pay him $64,000!”
This was a real shock : “Roberto” earned less than $1000 per month, and his severance pay wouldn’t amount to anything near that much…
“What did Leticia actually say?” I asked, with a puzzled look on my face.
“Well, when I asked what she thought we should do, she just said ‘that’s the 64 thousand dollar question.’”
Of course, I immediately realized what was happening. In the 1950s, there was a popular American television game show, in which contestants were asked increasingly difficult questions, winning increasing amounts of money if they answered correctly. It all culminated with the most-difficult question; if the contestant answered that final, nearly impossible question correctly, they would win $64,000.
In the 1950s, $64,000 was a lot of money! Over time, an idiomatic expression entered American culture: when a difficult question was raised, one way of responding was to say “that’s the $64,000 question” – meaning, “that’s a very difficult one!”
Imagine if I hadn’t been there to translate! – “Roberto” might have received a huge windfall! Unluckily for him, I clarified things with Monique, who was rather relieved that we wouldn’t have to spend so much money if we decided that “Roberto” had to leave.
So, even across cultures as similar as Dutch and American, cross-cultural communications can go awry! Imagine the complexity when working across verydifferent cultures! This wasn’t the last time in my career that I would experience the eye-opening mysteries of working across cultures, but it was a good early lesson-learned about how very different cultures can be.
Check out my “4000-footer” series: 48 blog posts about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least4000 feet tall. And, each time, reflections on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 35 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, and experiences along the way:
Just love this quote, from an article in today’s New York Times:
“Kindness and compassion are never wasted. Absolutely never. Understanding opposing views, underlying motives and accepting differences with grace will simply make you more effective at what you do” – David Ackerman
Check out my “4000-footer” series: 48 blog posts about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least4000 feet tall. And, each time, reflections on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 35 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, and experiences along the way.
Last time I shared a few reflections that seemed to cut across these articles, a handful of themes that emerged for me as I prepared the previous 46 blogs. I hope you enjoyed it…
This is the 48th, and final article in the “4000-footer” series. It seems fitting to take time now to thank some of the many people who have helped me along the way.
To skip the description of my ascent of Mt Jefferson, and go directly to my thanks to those amazing people, click here.
The Climb – Mt Jefferson
I left Durham at 6:50am on June 22, 2018, on a beautiful, crisp, clear cool day. My plan was to walk up the Castle Ravine Trail to the top of Jefferson, and then drop down the Castle Trail. I had read about both trails, and noted the warning that it was better to ascend Castle Ravine, on the Castle Ravine Trail, due to the steep and rocky section near the top; this would be much easier to ascend than to descend. Then, descend the Castle Trail.
And so it was!
After stopping for coffee in Ossipee, and a sandwich in Gorham, I began the hike from a parking area just off Rt 2 in Bowman, New Hampshire, at 9:38am. So it was over 2 1/2 hours from Durham. The views of Mt Madison and Mt Adams, which I had climbed the week before, were spectacular as I passed through Pinkham Notch on the way north.
The sky was cloudless, and the temperature was perfect. Perfect conditions for my final ascent of these 48 mountains!
I parked at Bowman.
The beginning of the walk is along a Rail-Trail, but the path soon takes a left turn onto the Castle Trail:
This sign grabbed my attention, as it had been designed to do!
There would be two more signs like this. I wasn’t sure that I was in “top physical condition,” but I was going to give it a try!
Now the trail entered typical White-Mountain forest, and soon after entering the forest there was my first stream crossing. Nothing difficult, but I did manage to fall into the water. Luckily, the water didn’t reach my ankles, so my feet stayed dry!
From there I ascended gently up the Castle Trail until reaching the junction with the Israel Ridge Path at a bit after 10am:
Here I took the left fork, and continued steadily up the Israel Ridge Path for 15 minutes, making the first of what would be 5 or 6 more stream crossings before taking the right-hand fork onto the Castle Ravine Trail:
At 10:25am I reached the junction of the Israel Ridge Path and the Castle Ravine Trail. Here I took a right-hand turn, and began the long walk up the ravine, crossing the Castle Brook several times:
At 11:20am, I reached the junction with The Link Trail, which joined Castle Ravine from the left. The trail was getting steeper:
Just 8 minutes later I arrived at the junction of the Emerald Trail and, a few moments after that, the Link Trail diverged to the right:
I was walking up Castle Ravine, the sides of which were closing in on me! It felt like the pleasant, moderately-steep forest walking was going to come to an end soon, as I reached the end of the ravine!
At 11:45am I emerged into an avalanche area (from 2010, according to the White Mountain Guide), where I could see up to the ridge above me. Lovely blue sky; a few hours later I would look down from those boulders as I descended on the Castle Trail:
Just ten minutes later I came across a famous feature of the Castle Ravine Trail – this short “tunnel” where the path goes underneath an enormous boulder. Literally underneath!
As I took that photo, I saw two legs appear at the other end, and a stream of swearing erupted. The hiker on the other side hadn’t seen me, and (it turned out) had twisted his ankle and was frustrated. When he saw me he was very apologetic!
The hiker was doing a reverse of what I had planned – going up Castle Trail, and down Castle Ravine. He was walking with a nice black labrador dog, and part of his frustration was that they had just descended a large talus field, which had been very tricky for the dog. Very few level areas, which made it hard for the dog to make its way through, so the owner had to carry it for much of the descent, which must have been very difficult. As I would soon see, the rock field is very steep – the White Mountain Guide had strongly recommended ascending this way, and descending on Castle Trail, just to avoid going down those rocks. Hard enough for a person, virtually impossible for a dog, I reckon!
“… parts of the trail are very rough especially where it crosses a great deal of unstable talus on the headwall, which makes footing extremely poor for descending or when the rocks are wet.”
Here’s what that talus looked like, when I was near the end of it nearly two hours later:
Clearly very challenging for a dog! They had taken a long time to drop down that section of the trail, and the owner had carried the dog for much of the way. Plus, the hiker was wearing walking shoes, not boots, which explained why he had twisted his ankle (apparently several times on the way down.)
Underneath the boulder I came across my first ice of the hike – protected from the sun and buffered from the heat of the day, this ice was still here on the day after the summer solstice!
Just after noon I emerged into the alpine area, where I came across the second warning sign – here a bit more explicit than the sign near the parking area had been!
Here I continued to walk up very steeply on loose rock. Must have been very hard for the dog! I took a wrong turn at one point, ascending steeply, and had to drop back down where I found the trail. So I lost some time and energy there!
Spectacular views to the north here, looking down the ravine, the way I had come:
Here are two images of the trail I was walking slowly up:
At 1:15pm, the trail began to level off and I filmed a video of the view to the north:
I had reached a much flatter area here, which was a great relief after a long stretch slogging up the steep talus. Five minutes later I reached the junction with the Cornice trail and the Randolph Path:
And then I was at Edmund’s Col, a saddle between Adams and Jefferson. Now I had a spectacular view to the south and south-east, including Adams and looking to the east across Rt 16 and Pinkham Notch overt to the Carter and Wildcat ranges. This panoramic video captures the scene from where I had lunch:
A gorgeous day! I was well above tree-line, in one of the world’s most beautiful alpine areas.
After lunch, I continued towards Mt Jefferson. I took this photo as I began to climb, back towards Mt Adams; you can see Mt Adams at the top right, with Mt Sam Adams to the left, and the trail (the Gulfside Trail) clearly visible below. I had eaten lunch at the saddle in the foreground:
As I climbed, at 1:55pm, I came to a snow field! Believe it or not, there was still a small patch of snow left to walk across, on this, the day after the summer solstice! Hard to believe:
I had seen this patch of snow from Mt Adams the week before. Soon I arrived at the junction of the Loop Trail and took a right turn to get to the top of Jefferson. At 2:15pm I reached the junction of Loop Trail and Six Husbands Trail:
And at 2:25pm I reached the top of Mt Jefferson! So I had completed climbing all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers – just two years and two months after I had started by ascending Mt Tom:
It felt great to have completed climbing all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers. I spent a bit of time thinking about the journey over the last two years and two months. A great accomplishment, and a good way of using the time that I had after returning from Australia.
It was quite buggy at the top of Mt Jefferson, as can be seen in these videos. But it was also spectacular, with views all the way around:
I put on some Bushman insect repellent and began to descend on the Castle Trail.
At 3:10pm I arrived at the junction of Castle Trail and The Cornice, and continued downward. The walking was difficult, a lot of talus, but not nearly as steep as the Castle Ravine Trail:
Now I started to get great views down towards the Castle Ravine, which I had climbed up that morning:
This video shows the full length of the Castle Ravine, with Mt Adams to the north, and Rt 2 down below:
At this point I left the alpine zone, with the third warning sign:
There was only one other person on this part of the Castle Trail, a middle-aged French Canadian who was going to take the Link Trail. He had apparently climbed Jefferson and Adams that day, and wanted to avoid climbing Jefferson a second time!
I arrived at the junction of the Link Trail, where he took a left, at around 4:15pm.
Here the trail became more forested, small pines and ferns at first. The going was very steep for some time, and my knees started to feel a bit of pain. It was a relief when the trial became less steep, before becoming much steeper again as I got closer to the junction with Castle Ravine. There were signs of trail maintenance here:
At around 4:30pm I crossed the only other hikers I saw on this section of the Castle Trail, a father and son who were ascending. I wondered about that, as it was getting late!
I continued walking moderately downward, and reached the end of the loop at 5:30pm. Here I passed the turnoff I had taken that morning on the Israel Ridge Path, and continued downward, now not steep at all, to the end of the hike:
At 6pm I reached the stream that was near the parking area, where I had dipped my boots that morning:
And the final warning sign!
And here is a video of my last steps on the Castle Trail, walking to the parking area, after having completed the final ascent of the 48 4000-footers!
That last part of the Castle Trail is along an old railway bed, so is flat and easy. But the day had been anything but flat and easy, as befitting a two-year journey up 48 challenging peaks. It felt great to finish!
Some Final Thanks!
I had a great feeling of accomplishment, a serious sense of achievement at having climbed these 48 majestic and formidable mountains, in just over two years. I was sore and exhausted, but left with deep respect and gratitude for this land and these mountains, for the opportunity I was given to experience them, and to learn from them.
In a very similar sense, as I wrap up this “4000-Footer” series, I want to take time to thank some of the people who I was lucky to work with, learn from, across these 35 years. They have been true “4000-Footers” in my life, and I am left with a deep sense of respect and gratitude to each of them… and so, in rough chronological order:
As I wrote in the third article in this series, after my first year as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Annuska Heldring arrived in Azogues, opening Plan International’s new Field Office for Cañar. In that earlier blog, I described Annuska (“Doctorita”) as charismatic, dedicated, and hilarious. But that only begins to describe her, and the influence she has had on me and my career since 1985.
After I left Azogues, and the Peace Corps, it was Annuska who introduced me to Plan and who opened the door for me to join that organization. So in a very real sense I owe my career to her.
Along the way, I would end up working several times directly with Annuska, even becoming her manager at a couple of points as she worked in Colombia, Paraguay, and Albania. Along the years, her instincts were always right, and I learned a lot from her courage and her ability to sweeten difficult discussions with a huge dose of good humor.
Thank you Annuska!
I joined the INGO world properly in 1987, when Jean and I moved to Tuluá, Colombia, and I took up the role of Assistant Director for Plan Tuluá. Monique van ‘t Hek was my first boss there, serving brilliantly as Field Director. Plan had an excellent induction program in those days, which helped a lot. But I was also lucky to have been assigned to Tuluá, because Monique was (and is) an inspiring leader and very effective manager. Not an easy combination, but she did it well, and made it look easy – it’s not!
I was lucky that Monique was my first INGO manager, because along with strong management and leadership skills, she had a very solid approach to building community ownership of the development process, as masterfully illustrated in her stewardship of the creation of a new community – Barrio Internacional – comprised of poor single mothers who would now have their own homes.
As I’ve mentioned earlier in this blog series, Plan Tuluá was a “pilot” office for Plan’s new directions, and Monique managed the sometimes tricky balancing of our local concerns and realities with the need to respond constructively to Plan’s regional and international priorities. Huge learning for me.
Monique has returned to Plan, this time in the huge job of National Director for the Netherlands. They are lucky to have her!
Thank you Monique!
When we arrived in Tuluá, Monique’s manager was Leticia Escobar, Area Manager for Colombia and Ecuador. Leticia worked from Plan’s new, pilot Regional Office, in Quito, Ecuador. She had served in field positions with Plan in Colombia and Bolivia, and was chosen as part of the first Regional Office team, which was established in 1987.
When I succeeded Monique as Field Director for Plan Tuluá, Leticia became my boss. Later, when I moved to the South America Regional Office (SARO), she was my colleague; and then, as these things go, when I became SARO’s second Regional Director, she worked for me!
I greatly enjoyed working for, and with, Leticia. She was a very kind, thoughtful, hardworking, committed professional, who overcame significant personal challenges to carry out her duties to a very high quality. She kept things simple, never put her own ego or personality into the mix, and didn’t complicate matters – a rare talent.
Thank you Leticia!
SARO’s first Regional Director was Andy Rubi, a person who inspired me, and influences me still, to become the best I could be. Andy had served with Plan in a range of field positions and, when the organization decided to regionalize, and to pilot test a regional structure in South America, nobody better could have been chosen to lead things. So Andy became Plan’s first Regional Director.
It wasn’t an easy task. Regionalization of any large organization, as Plan was becoming, is very complicated and complex, fraught with political behavior and clumsy compromises. To some extent, Plan’s first regionalization was not accompanied by the level of decentralization needed to make things work. That was corrected later, but it is to Andy’s great credit that he navigated these tricky waters with grace, humor, and great success.
When Jean and I went to Tuluá in 1987, Andy had just set up the South America Regional Office, in Quito. He brought me to Quito as Area Manager for Ecuador and Bolivia, three years later, as several of the initial SARO managers moved to help staff the next Regional Office to be established, in Manila. When Andy himself moved to serve as acting International Executive Director at Plan’s headquarters, I was appointed to succeed him as SARO’s second RD.
It would be hard to overstate how much I learned from Andy. Just to note one, of many, lessons: when discussions got heated, Andy would bring us back to our senses with a simple question – “what is the issue?” I often use that approach, and find that it is enormously clarifying.
Even recently, nearly 30 years after I first met Andy, he has helped me with wise counsel in a particularly complicated personnel matter.
Soon Ricardo Gómez would join the South America team as Regional Administrator. We worked together for a couple of years, and during that time Ricardo demonstrated the dedication, and intelligence that characterizes him to this day. Ricardo was transitioning from the private sector (an MBA graduate, he had been working for Exxon/Intercor in Colombia) to where he felt he could contribute and realize himself, in our nonprofit world.
I quickly came to admire Ricardo’s courage. We faced a very challenging, and risky, situation involving a very corrupt senior staff member, and Ricardo faced the situation squarely and with great clarity.
Later Ricardo would move to Colombia as Country Director, and then to Sri Lanka in the same role. Ricardo retired from Plan in Guatemala, where he took a poorly-performing, low-morale Country Office and, through his leadership and courage, molded the operation into an example of effectiveness and team spirit. Today Ricardo has returned to his home country, and serves as HR Director for his family’s business there. But we have remained the closest of friends. We travelled for a month together, in India, a couple of years ago, and will be trekking in Nepal later this year.
Thank you, Ricardo!
When Alberto Neri left Plan, Andy Rubi became acting International Executive Director, the titled used for Plan’s CEO at that time. A new IED was appointed in 1992 –Max van der Schalk joined Plan from a career in Shell Oil.
In an earlier blog in this series I described Max as “Dutch, in his late 50’s, who had just completed a long career at Shell, finishing up as President of Shell Colombia … I found Max to be very easy to get along with. He was a great listener, funny and curious, and very confident in his own skin. Max had just as much business experience as Alberto (something that Plan’s board clearly wanted), but seemed to be a much more accessible, open, and emotionally-intelligent person.”
Max was kind enough to write a guest blog for this series, which is here. And here is a recent photo, from April 2018, of Max and Annuska, with Jean and me:
Thank you, Max!
One of Plan’s superstars was Donal Keane. When I served as program director at Plan’s headquarters, under Max van der Schalk, I had asked Donal to participate in the “skunk works” through which we created Plan’s new operational structure. When I formed that group, I had two goals: to create the best possible draft structure, and to shine a light on what I thought would be the next generation of leaders for Plan.
In the left-hand image, Donal is to the right, with another Plan superstar, Catherine Webster. On the right, Donal is in the center, between Catherine and, I think, Winnie Tay.
Later, as these things go, Donal became my supervisor when I served as Country Director for Plan in Viet Nam, and Donal was Plan’s Regional Director for Southeast Asia. He was an ideal manager, clear and calm and decisive. He was very supportive when I proposed an outlandish pilot test of a new way of organizing Plan’s work. I learned a lot from Donal, from his approach to managing and leading in the NGO world.
Thank you Donal!
Working at any INGO headquarters is challenging. When Max had asked me to work with him at Plan’s head office, I proposed serving there for three years, just to make the point that hierarchical position shouldn’t be the goal inside our sector – get in, contribute and serve, and go back to the field to “face the mess you created” at headquarters.
So after serving as Plan’s program director, I took a year’s unpaid sabbatical and then was lucky to move to Viet Nam for four years, as Plan’s second Country Director in that country.
Those were amazing years. I was very fortunate to work with a stellar team, which I’ve written about extensively in an earlier article. A great team, great people.
There were many special people on that team, but one person really stands out: Pham Thu Ba, our “Operations Support Manager.” Or, as she often referred to her role, “Miscellaneous Support Manager.”
Here I will quote from my earlier article.
Thu Ba became OSM when she was only 26 years old, and is one of the smartest, hardest-working and most effective professionals I’ve ever worked with – in Plan and beyond. Her dedication to Plan’s work was unrivaled, and her ability to supervise the complex financial, administrative, and operational side of our work was very impressive. Again, I can only imagine the pressures that Thu Ba faced in shepherding our financial and operational work, but she made it look easy.
I often tell an anecdote about Thu Ba, which I think describes what it was like working with these amazing people. At the end of my first year, I carried out the performance reviews of the people who reported to me, including her. Even more than most, Thu Ba’s work that year (and later) had been superb, so I had only positive comments to share with her.
Imagine my surprise when, after finishing providing lots of specific, positive feedback, Thu Ba’s response was:
“You’re not doing your job.”
Wow, not the response I had expected. She went on to tell me that, as the only foreigner in the office, staff expected me to bring “international standards” to their work, and to guide them towards doing better jobs. So, if I couldn’t help her improve, I wasn’t doing my job! And, helpfully providing feedback to me (!), she described how people in the office were viewing my style:
“You always start by saying something positive, something we are doing right, or well. Then you sometimes add suggestions for improvement. We don’t listen to the first part, only to the second part, because that’s where we can learn.”
What an amazing response. Since Thu Ba’s work was of such high quality, it wasn’t easy to identify specific areas where improvement was needed, or even possible, but I promised to give her that kind of feedback in the future. I did rise to that challenge, but it wasn’t easy!
That’s one aspect of what it was like working in Viet Nam in those years – the innate intelligence and hard work of the people, combined with the country’s relatively-recent opening to the world, meant that people like me were seen as very important resources that could be learned from. We were automatically looked up to as sources of “international standards.”
Often this status wasn’t really deserved (some of the foreigners I knew in Hanoi couldn’t add much value), and it’s changed now (Vietnamese people I know there now no longer look to foreigners automatically as fountains of wisdom), but I enjoyed it at the time!
My experience leading and managing the great Vietnamese staff in Plan has influenced my style ever since. We American managers take such a nurturing, affirmational approach (for example, we love using tools like “appreciative inquiry”), that we often neglect to indicate where staff can improve. This is what was happening that first year with Thu Ba. And we don’t spend enough time observing our staff. Working in Viet Nam helped me in this regard – I always make sure to complement positive, affirmational feedback with areas where the staff member could improve or develop.
Later, Thu Ba trained in HR management and development at the University of London, and today she manages that side of Plan’s work in Viet Nam, which is a big job. From Australia I would continue to visit Viet Nam several times a year, and was happy to get together with Thu Ba and her husband and two children on most of my visits.
Many thanks to Thu Ba!
After 15 years with Plan, and four great years in Viet Nam, it felt that it was time to lead another life. Plan had been a fantastic, generous place to work, and I would always be grateful to the organization for the opportunities it gave me to serve, to learn, and to realize myself.
But it was time to repot myself…
As I’ve written in an earlier article, a great opportunity presented itself at exactly the right time. As I said in that article: just as I was leaving Hanoi, I got an email from out of the blue, from a person I had never met. Daniel Wordsworth was Program Development Director at CCF in Richmond, Virginia, and he wanted to know if I knew anybody who could help them reinvent their program approach. I thought I knew of the perfect person…
That call led to three incredible years, helping CCF conceptualize, pilot test, and refine a new program approach which we came to call “Bright Futures.” For me, that process was a super example of rigorous, evidence-based, and effective organizational change in a major INGO. So I took the time in this blog series to described it over five articles: here, here, here, here, and here.
Daniel was, and is, a brilliant and insightful person, the perfect person to partner with. Later he left CCF and is now the CEO of Alight (formerly American Refugee Committee), an INGO working in humanitarian aid and disaster relief. When you look at Alight’s website, you’ll come to appreciate Daniel’s gifts as I do.
Thank you Daniel!
By 2005, we had finished developing Bright Futures, and the next phase beckoned. But what would that be?
At that point, Jean and I had been living back in the United States for three years, having left Hanoi in late 2002. Those years – Bush’s Iraq invasion, his post-9/11 assault on civil liberties and use of torture – were sad ones for my country. It felt urgent to face the situation and apply myself to my own country.
Again, I was very lucky. While I was still consulting with CCF, I noticed a posting for the program director position at a Cambridge-based NGO called the “Unitarian Universalist Service Committee” (“UUSC“). I looked into it, and I really liked what I saw: a human-rights organization, working inside the US and overseas to advance social justice. I decided to apply…
I didn’t get that job, but later the president and CEO of UUSC, Charlie Clements, approached me for another role: Executive Director!
At that point, UUSC had defined its program, focusing on three broad areas: civil liberties, economic justice, and environmental justice. As I wrote in an earlier article, we later added a fourth focus – rights in (humanitarian) crises.
Despite some challenges, it was a perfect place for me – I was able to help UUSC thrive as an organization, while learning from Charlie’s long and deep human-rights and advocacy experience and working on some of the key issues of those years, including a large-scale response to our government’s inept and unjust “response” to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
As I said in that earlier article, Charlie was, and is, a gifted and passionate communicator, who has lived his life in service of human rights. He began his career in the US Air Force, and graduated from the US Air Force Academy. While serving in Viet Nam, Charlie refused to fly missions into Cambodia in support of our illegal invasion of that neutral country, and was discharged. Switching professions, Charlie went back to school to become a medical doctor and then practiced medicine behind rebel lines in El Salvador. That experience resulted in a book and an Academy-Award-winning documentary (1986), both titled “Witness To War.”
Charlie was very generous to give me the opportunity at UUSC. I learned a great deal from him – after 20 years in the international development, poverty-focused sector, I was ready to tackle deeper issues of injustice and oppression. Charlie’s life, lived on the front-lines of social justice, and his deep expertise left big impressions on me and helped me grow.
Thank you Charlie!
In 2009, Jean and I moved to Sydney, Australia, where I took up the newly-created post of International Program Director for ChildFund Australia. (CCF was rebranding to ChildFund, and the Australian member had been one of the first to adopt the new name.)
Nigel stands out, both because he was our leader and manager, but also because of his steady, calm, common-sense approach to our work. He delegated well, supported the people (like me) who worked for him, and kept the organization on a clear and accountable course.
It was a pleasure working for Nigel – he got the best from all of us, and navigated the sometimes nerve-wracking changes that I wanted to put in place (see these five articles: here, here, here, here, and here), tried to put in place, without any noticeable nervous breakdowns! Nearly always calm and clear, Nigel made it possible for us to do our best.
Thank you Nigel!
Most of all, to Jean. We have made this journey our own, together, across the years.
And many thanks to you, dear readers! Thanks for taking the time to read these articles. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them as much as I’ve loved writing them!
Here are links to all the blogs in this series. There are 48 articles, including this one, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:
So far, I’ve written about 46 of those ascents, and traced my own journey, reaching nearly to the present day. Last time I shared a case study of cross-cultural conflict, involving two international NGOs. I tried to show how some of the tools and insights described in earlier articles (on conflict and culture) helped me understand the tricky and complex dynamics of that situation. And I described my climb of Mt Madison, my 46th 4000-footer, and one of the highest of the 48, on 12 June 2018.
In this article, I want to start wrapping up the journey thus far, with some reflections. As I write this, it has been just over 35 years since I flew from Boston to Miami, headed towards two years in the Peace Corps in Ecuador. In the previous 46 articles in this series, I’ve described climbing the same number of 4000-footers, and I’ve written about those two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador, and the fifteen years that followed, with Plan International, in Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, headquarters (in the US and then in the UK), and Viet Nam. I wrote about two exciting years as a consultant with CCF, helping create their (then) new program approach (“Bright Futures”), and serving as acting VP for Africa, based in Addis Ababa. Blogs about four great years with UUSC in Cambridge followed, and several more covered the six fantastic years I served with ChildFund Australia, working in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea and Viet Nam. Most recently I’ve described more recent study and work on conflict, culture, and cross-cultural conflict.
In this article I want to reflect on a few themes that emerged for me as I prepared those 46 blogs. I hope you’ll enjoy it!
To jump directly to those reflections, skipping the description of my ascent of Mt Adams, click here.
The 2018 climbing season began for me on 12 June, when I climbed both Mt Madison and Mt Adams (5774ft, 1760m). Scaling both of these 5000-footers, including the second highest (Adams) was very challenging. I was exhausted and a bit battered when I finished!
I described the first part of that long and tough day, getting to the top of Mt Madison, last time. Driving up from Durham at around 7am, I had started up the Great Gulf Trail at 9:15am, and after a tricky fall near the top, which left me a bit bruised and battered, I had reached the top of Mt Madison at about 1:30pm. Now I would continue to the south-west, descending Madison, past the Madison Springs Hut and, hopefully, up Mt Adams. All going well, I would then return to the Hut, and drop down Madison Gulf Trail and Great Gulf Trail to the parking lot:
Here is an image of Madison and Adams, taken on the way down from my second ascent of Mt Monroe, in July of 2019:
The descent from Mt Madison was steep and a little bit tricky; and my right knee, which had really bothered me (the year before) when descending from Mt Monroe, began to hurt a bit. The pounding I was giving the knee as I dropped down was taking a toll.
Descending, I crossed a steady stream of people who must have been staying at the hut, which I passed at 2pm:
Here I turned left, past the Hut, and joined the Star Lake Trail, which would take me to the summit of Mt Adams. Signage was a bit unclear, but I went on:
Star Lake is actually just a tiny and shallow pond, the water source for the Madison Springs Hut. A beautiful spot, in the saddle between Madison and Adams. Here is an image looking back at Mt Madison above Star Lake, as I began the climb up Mt Adams:
A lovely, alpine area. The climb up Mt Adams was arduous, steep and rocky. Here is a view back towards Mt Madison; Star Lake still visible. Earlier that day I had ascended Madison along the ridge that can be seen to the right of the peak:
After some tricky climbing in high winds, I reached the top of Mt Adams at about 3:15pm. It had been nearly six hours getting here, across Mt Madison, reaching the top of the second-highest of the 48 4000-footers. I had now climbed 47 of the 48!
Look how far above Mt Madison I was!
It was cold and very windy at the top of Adams, and I was feeling very knackered. But I did stay at the top for a few minutes to savor the accomplishment. And the views were fantastic!
But soon I began the long descent, now favoring my right knee in a major way. It took me over an hour to drop most of the way down Mt Adams, carefully rock-hopping most of the way. It was 4:15pm by the time I approached Star Lake again:
Here I took a right turn onto the Parapet Trail:
And soon I reached the junction of Madison Gulf Trail. Here I left Parapet, and began to descend steeply down Madison Gulf:
I felt quite tired, and my knee was in some pain, so I took a couple of pain relievers!
Soon I regretted not having come UP Madison Gulf instead of descending it: very steep, large boulders, so quite difficult to descend. It seemed to go down very steeply for a very long time, which was not pleasant at all. No choice now!
At 5pm I took a short video of a wet, mossy patch:
It was not until 5:30pm that Madison Gulf Trail flattened out significantly, so it was over an hour of steep descent. Very slow going… torture! Here is an image of a makeshift bridge, taken just after 5:30pm:
Madison Gulf Trail was not well-maintained, so even when it got to be a bit less steep it was still slow-going. Now I was into typical White-Mountains forest, with small waterfalls:
Even though it was getting a bit late in the day, since I was hiking in mid-June I had plenty of time before it would be dark, so I wasn’t too worried. Even so, I was somewhat concerned that I had missed the turnoff for the Osgood Cutoff trail, relieved when I reached it at just after 7pm:
Here I would turn left briefly, and then continue downward to join the Great Gulf Trail. This would take me down the West Branch of the Peabody River to reach the junction with Osgood Trail that I had taken at 10am that morning (seemingly decades earlier!)
A few moments later I passed a tree growing out of a boulder, slightly reminiscent of Angkor Wat!
Reaching that junction with Osgood Trail at 7:30pm, I continued downward through the pleasant evening light to reach the parking lot at 8:15pm. A pleasant walk, soft path underfoot, with a few mosquitoes in the late evening:
Arriving at the car, I was in pain and exhausted. It had taken me 11 hours to reach the top of Madison and Adams, and return to the trail-head. Although I enjoyed it a lot, and felt exhilarated by the day, this hike was beyond my capabilities, a bit too much. I did recover a bit, got more energy after finishing up the steep descent down Madison Gulf Trail from Mt Adams. And I had climbed to the top of two of the highest 5000-footers in one day, an accomplishment for sure. Worth celebrating!
I reached Durham at 10:30pm, finishing a long and incredible day! One more 4000-footer to go: Mt Jefferson, and the end of the journey (for now), awaits!
Since this is my penultimate article in the “4000-Footer” series, I want to share reflections on a few of the themes that have emerged for me as I looked back. It was a great, long ride from my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer to today, almost exactly 35 years later as I write this. So this article is in some ways a bit of a look back at the 46 articles that preceded it…
It’ll be a briefer article this time, just a few thoughts.
I’ve been lucky to work across the globe, and in many different roles. I’ve learned that there is a big difference between leadership and management. Both are important in our sector, but I think that leadership is about being authentic as a human being, and management is about having the tools needed to run a business. Different things. I was lucky to learn a lot about both over these years.
My career has been in the social-justice arena, and I’ve been very lucky to work with great people doing good work. So, are we “do-gooders”?
It always made me a bit uncomfortable when I would hear colleagues talking about helping “poor people.” To be fair, there weren’t very many who talked that way, and I often thought about why that kind of description didn’t work for me…
One day during our staging in Miami they put on a role play, with a PCV named Rita (I think) playing the part of a Volunteer who kept using the phrase “I’m here to help…” They were making an important point, of course, about humility and entitlement. “Don’t ever say that” was the message!
And, inadvertently, I think they were making the point I’m trying to make here: that those years of working in international development, overseas, and advancing social justice, domestically and internationally, were important for me and to me. I was learning, and I was realizing myself, and I was experiencing life across dozens of countries, and I was having a lot of fun. Yes, also, I was realizing myself and my potential through service, in a great cause, but I think it’s important to note that I benefitted enormously.
So when I hear people talk about having worked to help poor people, or when people praise us for our “sacrifices,” it makes me nervous about motivations. It seems to me that if our motivation is about others, a whiff of “white-man’s burden” or “mission civilisatrice” creeps into us, which can puff up our egos. Better, I think, to recognize that we are lucky to do the work we do, that we grow as people along the way, and that as we are accompanying people living in poverty and facing oppression, we learn as much as we give.
Across the years described in this series, our understanding of the fundamental nature of human poverty changed pretty dramatically. From even before I went to Ecuador as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and through my time with Plan International, until early in the 21st century, much of the “international development” sector was focused on “basic needs” – helping people increase income, achieve better education and health, etc.
As progress was made on the MDGs, however, it became clear that our thinking about poverty had to shift. Sure, progress was dramatic, on average, across the world, but many people were being left behind, not included in the general progress being made. For example, it should be no surprise that several of the MDG indicators that were lagging behind related to women and girls. Finally, we began to think about justice and equity, not just basic human needs, as we thought more deeply about why people – such as women and girls – were being left behind.
(Very important to note here that many, many people were thinking about social justice and human rights all through this time, and long before. The labor-rights movement, the civil-rights movement, the women’s liberation movement, the abolitionists long before, of course they were fighting for justice. It’s just that the INGO world, and the bilateral and multilateral agencies, perhaps the public at large, and certainly I, myself, was still looking at poverty as the lack of things. Nothing wrong, for the time. And soon we would learn better…)
The work that I did as a consultant with CCF, and in particular with their Program Development Director Daniel Wordsworth, is a good example of how my own thinking was evolving. We put together, and tested, a new program approach for that organization, which we named “Bright Futures.” Bright Futures placed an emphasis on human dignity and stigma, not just basic needs, and we included a clear focus on building the collective action of marginalized people for children’s rights. Good stuff, and an example of the evolution that was happening.
This evolution took me, for a time, out of the “development” sector and to UUSC, an organization focused on activism, social justice, and human rights. At ChildFund Australia, I helped design a program approach that included building the power of people and children living in poverty. It led to a new formulation of international goals, the “Social Development Goals” that have more of a focus on “getting to zero,” peace and justice, and climate action.
What’s missing in the new formulation? Conflict, of course… more on that below.
So as rapid progress was made on fulfilling “basic human needs” and the international community’s view of human poverty evolved to include more of a focus on social justice, many international NGOs struggled to adapt.
In a sense, they were victims of their own success: it was hard to let go of the tools and concepts that had been so useful. These large organizations were doing very good work and, by the turn of the century they had annual budgets of millions, even hundreds of millions of dollars, and thousands of employees – the stakes were very high, and institutional survival became a fundamental driver. Perhaps that drive for self-preservation, growth, dominance in the sector, distracted many of these organizations from their missions…
Today some of the INGOs that were prominent in the 1980s have adapted well to the new age, but others struggle to remain relevant. One big mistake that our sector made was our unthinking incorporation of private-sector culture into our organizations. As I argue in my “Trojan Horse” article mentioned in an earlier post in this series, “… the influx of private-sector culture into our organizations meant that:
We began increasingly to view the world as a linear, logical place;
We came to embrace the belief that bigger is always better;
“Accountability” to donors became so fundamental that sometimes it seemed to be our highest priority;
Our understanding of human nature, of human poverty, evolved towards the purely material, things that we could measure quantitatively.”
As we fell into those traps, my sense is that we began to lose some of the spirit that had motivated us from the beginnings of the sector. This was a significant mistake, one that, perhaps, undermined our confidence as a sector to some extent…
I will attach a copy of the article I published on this topic here: mcpeak-trojan-horse. (For another take on this, see the insights of Daniel Wordsworth that I discussed in an earlier blog in this series.)
I’ve been very lucky to work, over 35 years and across six continents, with many hundreds of highly-motivated, committed, passionate people. In some ways it wasn’t luck, because the nonprofit world, the NGO sector, attracts people who want to make a positive difference – these are overwhelmingly good, dedicated people.
(Of course, there were a few bad eggs along the way, but very few and, anyway, no matter…)
The advantages of working with such passionate, dedicated people are many, and obvious: I almost never had to work to motivate the teams I managed, commitment and dedication was nearly never lacking. What a pleasure, and an honor working with these people: once we were able to clarify the task, inspire and connect it with our mission, build a collaborative approach, and align efforts with people’s passion, we were able to move very quickly.
The only challenge – a big one – was that such committed, inspired, motivated people tend to associate themselves, their personal identity, very closely with their work. Again, the result of this association is, mostly, very positive, but when it became necessary to change things, to make sometimes-tricky management decisions, firmly, our people can take things very personally.
I wouldn’t change this characteristic of our people – it’s a huge asset, and trading our dedicated people for wage-earners would be catastrophic! But it does mean that leaders and managers in our sector have to lead and manage in a very consultative and empowering way, and we have to face great resistance when, for whatever reason, we have to make top-down, unpopular decisions.
Managing in consultative and empowering ways – that’s something that I think the for-profit sector can learn from us: see the Trojan horse article I’ve linked to above for more on this.
There are of course times when we as leaders and managers have to make unpopular decisions. The danger is that our commitment to participatory values makes us hesitate to make decisions which aren’t seen as being consistent with that ethos. I’ve described a couple of these situations in this series (for example), and it’s been a good learning for me: sometimes I had to do the right thing for the mission, for the organization, in ways that weren’t consultative or empowering. There were a few times when I should have moved in that way, and paid the price for hesitating. A good learning for me… I got a bit tougher across the years, in this respect.
Thousands of international NGOs sprang during the years after the 1980’s crisis in the Horn of Africa, with many growing into very large organizations.
Back in the 1990’s, many of us thought there would be a shake-out in the sector: there were just too many INGOs. Most of us thought that the sector would likely split into two groups:
a few very large, generalist INGOs working on mass poverty, “basic needs”; and specialized. These agencies would gain economies of scale through growth, by merging with other agencies, and would occupy a market position characterized by efficiency. So we saw a consolidation coming;
a larger number of specialized, focused NGOs working on particular issues, with specific capabilities, presenting themselves to the market as issue “experts.” We thought that this kind of smaller, specialist organizations would emerge.
Some of that happened, but we missed two important developments. Firstly, as I pointed out above, poverty was changing, and “mass poverty,” “basic needs” poverty, was quickly disappearing, at least in the main, on average. But we also missed the emergence of “Southern” NGOs – that is, NGOs and INGOs formed in the Global South (the “developing world”.)
These two trends have had a big impact on our sector, in ways that we hadn’t foreseen when we predicted consolidation and the emergence of specialist NGOs. Yes, the larger, generalist INGOs have consolidated to some extent, and emphasize their efficiencies. But, responding to these additional trends, many of them have also tried to focus on particular issues, pivoting away from “basic needs.”
For example, I worked for 15 years for Plan International, and across those years we worked mostly on community development issues, even when we began to speak in the language of human rights. Today, Plan presents itself as an organization advancing the rights of girls – a laudable position that narrows their focus on a particular excluded population. (What this positioning means in practice is another question…)
And loyal readers of this series will recall that I worked for two years as a consultant with ChildFund US, and six years as International Program Director with ChildFund Australia. The wider ChildFund Alliance worked for years to reduce violence against children, and now presents itself as focused on child safety – another laudable position that seeks to address a particular issue of injustice.
Our earlier thinking was right, however, about the trend of specialization. In these articles I’ve mentioned my admiration for the work of Daniel Wordsworth and the American Refugee Committee – focused on the humanitarian crisis of our age.
And I’ve mentioned that I’ve recently finished six months as interim COO at the Disability Rights Fund (“DRF”), a participatory grantmaking organization that seeks to empower persons with disabilities, including internally inside the organization, and in their governance. As a participatory grantmaker, DRF illustrates another of the trends that I’m seeing – the emergence of capacity in the Global South. DRF is not operational in the Global South, it operates by supporting grassroots people’s organizations. In these ways – focusing on a particular issue of social-justice exclusion, and working to support local people’s organizations – I think DRF represents the way that our social-justice sector should be working now.
So the trend toward specialization is clear, driven by changes in poverty. And I think we’ll see more organizations begin to operate as grantmakers, like DRF, supporting NGOs in the Global South rather than being operational themselves. The big INGOs should watch out!
Globalization and information technology helped the many advances in human development that I’ve described here. But these same trends are also contributing to the rapid increase in conflict that we are seeing across our societies and, inevitably, inside our organizations. (We can’t isolate our organizations from the societies they are part of…)
Conditions for widespread conflict are emerging in front of our eyes, all around us: economic inequality rises; the climate warms rapidly; people move in their millions escaping war and poverty; the public loses faith in government, the media, and post-War institutions; and populist political movements fan the flames of resentment and intolerance. It’s ironic that these trends are arising, given the massive improvements in human wellbeing that have taken place, but it’s our reality.
This means that conflict will be one of the most important characteristics of our age, becoming only more and more important in the future. We need urgently to address the causes of this trend, working to build fairer economic systems, more responsive democracies.
But – make no mistake – conflict in our societies will grow. So as we work on the causes of conflict, we also need to build resilience in our communities, learn to appreciate diversity, develop the ability to manage difference through dialog, and we need to equip ourselves with tools to manage conflict. To mitigate and to adapt. We’ll need to do this with urgency, because conflict creates a negative feedback loop: more conflict will exacerbate the causes of conflict.
It’s easy to see this happening in our societies, and equally easy to understand the urgency. But our organizations are not isolated from our societies and our communities, which means that we will need to manage, prevent, and resolve conflict inside our workplaces, too, as an urgent priority.
But we are not equipped for this challenge. Our educational systems don’t teach conflict resolution, and in our professional development these same skills are almost never prioritized. In my own case, late in my career I realized that a crucial key set of tools had been neglected: leaders and managers alike needed to be able to manage, resolve, and transform conflict inside our organizations. So, as I’ve described, I decided to take a deep dive into conflict, working to gain a second Masters degree, this time in Dispute Resolution at the Law School of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
So now I’m focused on helping organizations, in particular in our sector, navigate this new world of internal conflict. It’s going to be a key skill for their survival, and I think I can help.
There are probably many other reflections to share, but … enough for now!
It’s been a great journey, sharing climbing the 4000-footers of the White Mountains of New Hampshire with you, and looking back at the last 35 years. One more blog article will complete the series: next time, I will described climbing my final 4000-footer, Mt Jefferson, and I will take the time to thank a few of the many people who I’ve learned from, and been inspired by, along those years.
So, stay tuned for one last article!
Here are links to all the blogs in this series. There are 48 articles, including this one, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:
So far, I’ve written about 45 of those ascents. Last time I continued describing a new phase, late in my career, related to conflict. I focused in particular on conflict and culture, a very important topic for our globalized time. And I described my climb of Mt Monroe, my 45th 4000-footer, and one of the highest of the 48, on 27 October 2017. I had climbed Monroe after getting to the summit of Mt Washington earlier that day.
It was a real challenge, and very exhilarating, as I hope you have read. It was also my last climb of the 2017 season: the days were getting colder, and shorter, so I would take a break until the spring of 2018. In the meantime I spent the month of November, 2017 traveling in India with my old friend Ricardo Gòmez, retracing the steps of the historical Buddha…
To skip the description of my ascent of Mt Madison, and go directly to the case study of culture and conflict, click here.
The Climb – Mt Madison
The 2018 climbing season began for me on 12 June, when I climbed both Mt Madison (5366ft, 1636m) and Mt Adams. Scaling both of these 5000-footers, including the second highest (Adams, which I will describe next time) was very challenging. I was exhausted and a bit battered when I finished!
A fun way to start the season…
I climbed Mt Madison going up Osgood Trail from the Great Gulf Trail. Leaving Durham at 7am, I drove up Rt 16, through Pinkham Notch, arriving at the parking area for the Great Gulf trail at 9:15am. It was a cool, bright day, high hazy clouds up above: a great day for climbing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Here is an image of Madison and Adams, taken on the way down from my second ascent of Mt Monroe, in July of 2019:
I had waited a bit longer than normal to start hiking this year, into June, as there had been some late snow in the spring and I was concerned about conditions at elevation; I had no desire to fall on icy “monorails” as I had done two years earlier, descending from Mt Field!
As I drove past the Pinkham Notch Visitor’s Center, I could see patches of snow on the east side of Mt Washington, near the summit, which was worrisome, but the rest of the Presidential Range looked clear. Even though I was hopeful that there would be no ice on my climb that day, I carried micro-spikes with me, just in case.
As usual I stopped at the Subway sandwich shop in Ossipee, which shares space with an Aroma Joe’s coffee shop. So when I arrived at the trailhead I was ready to go!
The Great Gulf Trail begins at the parking lot, and soon turns left to cross over the Peabody River:
15 minutes later I reached the junction with the Great Gulf Link Trail, which runs northwards to the Dolly Copp Campground, where I have stayed a few nights in this odyssey. I went left, continuing on the Great Gulf Trail.
It was a nice day, but I was a little bit nervous about wearing new boots on what looked like such a long and arduous hike:
Near here I would take what I thought was a wrong turn, at an unclear junction with a ski loop. I ended up doubling back when it appeared that I was on the wrong trail, but it turned out that the two paths merged a bit farther up, so I wasted a bit of time, maybe 15 minutes.
Just after 10am, after walking pleasantly uphill for about 45 minutes and covering 1.8 miles, I arrived at the junction of the Osgood Trail. Here I went to the right, taking the Osgood Trail towards Mt Madison:
This was the beginning of a long loop, which would take me (if successful) over Mt Madison and Mt Adams, and then back to this point. The Osgood Trail became quite a bit steeper here, and I began to sweat through my shirt!
At 10:30am, I reached the junctions of Osgood Trail with the Osgood Cutoff Trail, where there is a tentsite:
I continued up Osgood Trail here, which is the Appalachian Trail in this section, with another 2.5 miles to go to reach the top of Mt Madison. The trail continued to get steeper, and I started to feel like I was a bit out of shape, my legs felt heavy! Up to this point I had not seen any other hikers, but at about 11:15am an older man and his daughter crossed by, heading down. They were quite curious about how far it was to the Osgood Cutoff, because a group ahead of me had told them it was two hours away, which was quite an exaggeration… it had taken me 45 minutes.
After passing another couple of hikers, and the larger group (with large packs, which explained it – they were moving slowly!) that had misinformed the first man-and-daughter, the forest began to thin out, as I gained elevation, emerging now above tree-line.
At 11:52am, the trail began to be less steep, as I entered the alpine zone, and the views were stunning! Now I could see the snow on the slopes of both Mt Washington and Mt Jefferson, and had a view of the Auto Road that goes up to the summit of Washington (and I could hear the motorcycles ascending, echoing across the Mt Washington valleys!):
(A few weeks later I would get to the summit of Mt Jefferson, completing all 48! Stay tuned for that…)
Fantastic views to the north and east – over to Moriah and the Wildcat and Carter ranges.
And I could see both of the summits that I was hoping to reach that day: Adams on the left, and Madison on the right. Adams looked far away and very high!
I like this view looking down Osgood Trail, looking back where I had ascended, starting up the rocky summit of Madison. The Wildcat Range is on the right, and the Carter Range is on the left, with Carter Notch in the center:
It was fun remembering hiking those two ridges last year. And I had another good view of Mt Washington:
Above the tree-line the going was harder, hopping up what seemed to be small volcanic boulders. Tricky to navigate, especially as it got VERY windy and quite chilly. In fact, so windy that I was blown over at 12:45pm, before reaching the summit of Mt Madison. I was slightly injured, just a few scrapes and bruises, a twist to a knee, but it was scary, because a smack on the head up here, by myself, could be a challenge… so I slowed down a bit, and decided to have lunch here. That was a good decision.
I ate quickly; after lunch I put on my jacket, and soon (1pm) reached a major junction of trails just below the summit of Mt Madison. Here the Daniel Webster-Scout Trail, the Parapet Trail, and the Osgood Trail cross:
At about 1:20pm I crossed the Howker Ridge Trail, and felt like I was getting close to the summit. Sure enough, at 1:30pm I reached the summit of Mt Madison – number 46 of the 48 4000-footers in New Hampshire had been climbed! Here I took a photo from the summit, looking over at Mt Adams, which I HOPED to climb next!
As I began to descend from Mt Madison, I could now see the Madison Springs Hut below me in the saddle between Madison and Adams:
Stay tuned for a description of my ascent of Mt Adams, and the long and painful descent back to Rt 16!
A Case Study of Culture and Conflict
In my last article in this series, I looked at culture and conflict, and shared a range of ways of understanding culture, and how culture and conflict interplay. Fundamentally, my thesis was that culture underlies all conflict: obviously, if several cultures are involved, the dynamics can be very tricky, and a good understanding of the differences a play is essential. But even if only one culture is involved, that culture has its own ways of dealing with culture, which we should take into account.
This time I want to share an analysis that I prepared for an international NGO, in which I tried to understand a serious cross-cultural conflict involving two members of a global NGO Federation.
The case study shared here involves a particular set of people in a particular time and setting; but the dynamics and complexities they faced are pretty common. Therefore, because I hope to use it to illustrate more general points about culture and conflict, I will generalize my description and avoid identifying the people (who mostly have moved on) or organizations involved.
“An understanding of culture is central to an understanding of negotiation.”
Dean G. Pruitt, ‘Foreword’ in Michele J. Gelfand and Jeanne M. Brett (eds), The Handbook of Negotiation and Culture (Stanford Business Books, 2004) xi, xii.
In the late 1990’s, two members of a major international NGO federation were interested in working in Myanmar. One of these affiliate NGOs (“INGO A”) was from a developed Asian country, and the other was from a Western nation (“INGO W”). The international group (the “Federation”), to which both NGOs belonged, had a range of common policies, one of which covered how members would work together in third (developing) countries.
Despite having clear rules about this kind of situation, and despite having agreed on several occasions how things would work in Myanmar, the two affiliated NGOs found themselves in significant conflict. Years later, when studying Principled Negotiation at the University of New South Wales, I decided to use the Myanmar situation as the subject of my term paper, approaching it as a case study of cross-cultural negotiation: how should these two federated organizations have negotiated working together in Myanmar?
The policy that was relevant to the conflict between theSE two NGOs, related to their collaboration in Myanmar, included the following text:
The “Federation is committed to the principle that there will be one Affiliated Organisation registered in a territory. Whilst operations in a territory will be initiated and led by one Affiliated Organisation, all affiliates recognise the value of a collective, collaborative, transparent and strategic approach; the Lead Member will proactively consider requests from other Affiliated Organisations to work in that territory so as to maximise the effectiveness, reach, influence, capacity and efficiency of programmes and operations.”
The policy also envisioned that the President of the Federation would mediate disputes when the parties could not resolve differences.
Using a related procedure, it had been agreed formally that INGO W would be the “Lead Member” for Myanmar – this agreement was unanimous, including the assent of INGO A.
It is relevant here to point out that this particular INGO Federation was fairly “loose” in terms of how strongly the individual member organizations are bound by policies, join up their operations, etc. Other similar groupings are highly centralized, but this one allowed each member to operate fairly autonomously, gaining the benefits of being seen as very “local” in their market, yet at the same time realizing some of the advantages of working together globally. In addition, and perhaps partly as a result, this Federation was quite conflict averse, preferring to avoid conflict rather than confronting matters directly.
Soon after agreeing the “Lead Member” arrangements, in which INGO W would lead operations in Myanmar, INGO A expressed an interest in collaborating with the Western “lead” member. Public opinion in INGO A’s home country had become very focused on Myanmar, due to events there, and INGO A felt that there were big opportunities for fundraising at hand. On the other hand, it seemed that if they were not seen as working in Myanmar they would lose credibility at home. This situation rapidly became of the highest importance to INGO A’s CEO and Board of Directors, central to the long-term prosperity of the organization.
The Western member responded enthusiastically, and the two affiliated INGOs quickly reached a formal operational agreement, consistent with Federation policy, that INGO W would act as “Lead Member” for Myanmar, and would accommodate the Asian member’s interests as much as possible by providing support for marketing activities.
Importantly, INGO A seemed to view the situation as requiring them to work operationally, in Myanmar, themselves. Working through INGO W would not be good enough: they needed their own people there, on the ground, to be seen (at home) as credible. Since the Asian member wished to gain operational experience, the Western member agreed that INGO A would directly manage all aspects of programming with one (of eight) local partner.
The operational reality in Myanmar, for the two agencies, soon became quite unsatisfactory, and relations became tense. When INGO A began sending staff to Myanmar, without informing INGO W, working directly with government and with local partners (beyond the one that they had agreed to manage), tension quickly evolved into conflict. Staff relations on the ground in Myanmar, and between the two home countries, were becoming very tense and stressful.
Through informal discussion, it appeared that the leadership of INGO A had a strong view that the “Lead Member” rule was unfair, as had been agreed before its “rise” as a nation; as a result, countries of interest to them have been “taken.” This seemed to evoke a kind of “colonialist” dynamic, and was a new insight for INGO W, whose staff hadn’t considered this area of sensitivity. As a result, the Asian member sought to interpret the Federation policy cited above as allowing it broad autonomy to operate in Myanmar: other than not registering independently, it felt that it should be able to conduct operations as it saw fit, without any operational restriction.
The Asian member further seemed to feel that the specific operational agreements made with the Western member obstructed its ability to do more for people living in poverty in Myanmar, and (importantly) thwarted its need to build market share in its home country. From their point of view, if agreements reached previously constrained these aims, any such agreements should be revisited and revised accordingly, for moral reasons.
INGO W, on the other hand, felt that the Asian member was in obvious and clear violation of Federation policy by operating in a separate and un-collaborative fashion in Myanmar, breaking key aspects of recent operational agreements. It further felt that the Asian member’s methods of working with the Western member in Myanmar were having detrimental effects on staff morale and operational effectiveness.
In retrospect, it seems possible that the two NGOs had rather different interpretations of the word “consider”, from the applicable Federation policy:
the Lead Member will proactively consider requests from other Affiliated Organisations to work in that territory …
For INGO W, as “Lead Member,” the key word here was “consider” – there was no obligation to agree that other Federation members could work in Myanmar. From the point of view of the Western member, Federation policy was applicable and the agreement between the two agencies was very clear. And INGO A was in equally clear violation! So, obviously, INGO A should desist from operating independently in Myanmar unless and until agreements were changed; this, obviously, would require open and direct bilateral negotiation and binding written agreements.
For INGO A, the phrase “proactively consider” seemed to imply a great deal of flexibility and, especially when considering how important it was that they work operationally in Myanmar, great flexibility was required, in the interests of children living in poverty in Myanmar. At any rate, what right did any “Western” country have to tell other countries what they could and could not do?
A two-part problem-solving meeting was convened, with the Western member’s CEO, board chair, and the author meeting with the Asian member’s CEO and several of his senior staff members.
In the first part, when the Western member’s CEO described the operational challenges that the NGO was facing in Myanmar as a result of the Asian member’s violations of the operational agreements, the Asian member’s CEO became angry and emotional, stating that if such agreements got in the way of helping poor children then the agreements should be changed… and that, in fact, he had reprimanded staff who had been involved in the negotiations. He insisted that the “Lead Member” rule allowed the Asian member to operate autonomously in Myanmar, as long as it did not pursue separate registration with the government.
At one point the Asian member’s CEO strongly and emotionally expressed his view that if the Western member continued to block their working directly in Myanmar, it would be evidence that the Western NGO’s team really didn’t care about children living in poverty. When I objected in equally strong and emotional terms, the Asian staff across the table from me burst out laughing. This certainly took me, and the Western CEO and board chair, by surprise!
In the second session, the Asian member’s CEO apologised for his emotional behaviour at the earlier gathering; the discussion itself, however, was no more productive.
Several months later a second problem-solving meeting was scheduled, this time between the two CEOs without staff. I decided to prepare a term paper for my “Principled Negotiation” class at UNSW, outlining how the CEO of INGO W could have approached the meeting.
All conflict is cultural, and this one was no exception. So it was very important to establish a clear understanding of how cultural differences were contributing to the conflict here.
Last time I shared a range of tools and insights related to culture and conflict, including a description of Hofstede’s six dimensions of culture:
Power distance: “the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally”;
Individualism: “the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members”;
Masculinity: “the fundamental issue here is what motivates people, wanting to be the best (masculine) or liking what you do (feminine)”;
Uncertainty avoidance: “the extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these”;
Pragmatism: “how people in the past as well as today relate to the fact that so much that happens around us cannot be explained”;
Indulgence: “the extent to which people try to control their desires and impulses.”
Of course, as I repeatedly emphasized last time, we MUST keep in mind that analyses like Hofstede’s represent averages, and therefore even when they are founded upon good research we must use them as STARTING POINTS only, for analysis.
So with that in mind I used Hofstede’s framework to compare cultures of the two countries directly involved in the negotiation related to work in Myanmar. When looking at Power Distance, we see a large difference between the two cultures, a difference that had been quite apparent during the first problem-solving meeting, where the Asian member’s staff had deferred totally to their CEO and, in particular, where he dismissed all earlier agreements that had been made without him being present in the negotiations.
Hofstede’s “Power Distance” Dimension
The Western Member
The Asian Member
(In fact, in retrospect it is clear that when staff of INGO A laughed at my emotional outburst, which was much more subdued than the outburst from their CEO that had provoked me, they were not mocking me; they were, in fact, embarrassed that I would dare to speak to their CEO in such a way!)
One of the greatest cultural differences between the two members related to Individualism:
Hofstede’s “Individualism” Dimension
The Western Member
The Asian Member
When we consider Masculinity / Femininity we find another of the greatest differences between these two cultures, with the Asian member’s culture typically displaying “feminine” qualities, seeking consensus where possible, with the Western member being highly competitive:
Hofstede’s “Masculinity” Dimension
The Western Member
The Asian Member
Large differences are also seen in Uncertainty Avoidance between the two cultures:
Hofstede’s “Uncertainty Avoidance” Dimension
The Western Member
The Asian Member
Perhaps the most relevant cultural difference at play in the Myanmar situation related to Pragmatism, with the Western member’s culture exhibiting great respect for rules and traditions, and wanting quick results, whereas the Asian member’s society was one of the most pragmatic in the world, seeking long-term agreements and guided by virtues and practical good examples:
Hofstede’s “Pragmatism” Dimension
The Western Member
The Asian Member
This difference seemed to explain much of the problem that the two agencies were experiencing: staff from INGO W felt that INGO A was violating agreements, and that abiding by such formalities was of great importance; INGO A felt that the INGO W was being rigid…
Finally, it could be seen that the Western member’s culture was quite indulgent, with a positive attitude and a tendency towards optimism, while the Asian culture was more restrained:
Hofstede’s “Indulgence” Dimension
The Western Member
The Asian Member
Culture and Negotiations
I spent a bit of time in my term paper deepening my understanding of how culture and negotiations related, in general. The results were very interesting; for example:
Goh (1) asserts that “culture does play a significant role in a negotiation. Its role, particularly in a cross-cultural negotiation, cannot be ignored… A lack of cultural literacy really is not a case of ‘ignorance is bliss’; it is more a case of ‘ignorance is perilous’.” Hendon (2) agrees, stating that “certainly in today’s (multi-cultural) business environment, managers must be able to negotiate successfully…”
Lee and Rogan (3) assert that “each culture defines what constitutes conflict and the appropriate behaviours for dealing with conflict. In other words, while conflict itself may be an inevitable condition of human existence, the communication styles utilised to manage conflict could vary depending on one’s cultural heritage.”
Brett (4) indicates that several cultural values “… are relevant to norms and strategies for negotiation… includ(ing) individualism versus collectivism, egalitarianism versus hierarchy, and direct versus indirect communications.” Hendon, Hendon, and Herbig (5) found that “collectivist societies tend to stress abstract, general agreements over concrete, specific issues. Collectivist negotiators tend to assume that details can be worked out if the negotiators can agree on generalities.”
Herbig and Kramer (6) emphasize that “the way one succeeds in cross-cultural negotiations is by fully understanding others and using that understanding to one’s own advantage to realize what each party wants from the negotiations, and turn the negotiations into a win-win situation for both sides.” “The proficient international negotiator understands the national negotiating style of those on the other side of the table, accepts and respects their cultural beliefs, and is conscious of his or her own mannerisms and how they may be viewed by the other side.”
Adair et al (7) “expect that, in general, negotiators from hierarchical cultures will use power strategies more than negotiators from egalitarian cultures.” Citing Brett et al and Pruitt, it is found that “hierarchical cultures in comparison to egalitarian cultures were more likely to espouse norms for distributive tactics. Distributive tactics (i.e. making threats or using arguments) are power strategies that are focused on individual, not joint, gains.” On the other hand, Cai et al (8) find that the more that parties in a negotiation exhibit collectivist traits, the more that joint profit is increased.
Adair and Brett (9) conclude that “if people from Eastern cultures believe negotiation is more about relationships, the interplay between cooperative and competitive goals may represent an attempt to create a long-term relationship that is not too cooperative but has enough social distance to justify claiming value.”
Bangert and Pirzada (10) apply Hofstede’s work on culture to Fisher and Ury’s Principled Negotiation Approach. They consider that Fisher and Ury’s approach “is the product of an Individualistic-low Power Distance-Masculine-low Uncertainty Avoidance society. As such, its prescriptions may not lead to the desired results in a Collectivist society.” One of their conclusions is that while cross-cultural negotiations may face significant process-related challenges, due to communications challenges manifest across cultures, results may tend to be more positive, because differences in values across cultures may lead to more opportunities for win-win outcomes.
The Asian Member’s Business Culture
It was obvious that I needed to probe business culture in a bit more depth if I was going to understand what was happening, getting beyond the interesting but general insights about culture and negotiations. So, even though there were two NGOs negotiating, not businesses, I looked into the business culture of the Asian member’s culture. My findings were quite surprising, and very helpful!
One reference indicated that “in a Western sense, (the Asian member’s) morality is seen as irrational and unethical because it ignores the very foundation of Western thought: rational behavior based on universal rules of conduct that transcend personal feelings and personal relations”. The society is “authoritarianistic and there exists a strict order or separation of power in relationships of superior-subordinate…everybody is expected to adhere to those who are ‘higher’ than they are in the given social structure.” The author goes on to advise that “contracts, among a list of many things, are viewed differently. Business culture in this country does not see anything as set in stone and they may change the terms of agreement. They believe that if the circumstances have changed, then it is only natural that the details of the contract between companies change as well.”
Another researcher depicts business negotiators from this Asian culture as “clever and forceful. Their politeness masks a shrewd, never give up, and never lose business sense.” Their “negotiators are aggressive, quick to express anger and frustration” and are “irritable and cannot stand a long time period negotiation.”
A third research paper discusses values and business practices. Although the country continues to evolve, the authors feel that its agrarian, collectivist past and the deep influence of Confucian ethics mean that “emotional and authoritarian attitudes of management are dominant rather than democratic and rational ways of behaviour.”
Similarly, a fourth article links “an attitude of collectivism” with the country’s agricultural past, where “a good portion of the work, including planting and harvesting, was performed in groups.” They cite studies that describe contemporary members of the society as “impatient and hot-headed,” traits that “stand in contradiction to the teachings of Confucianism, and are arguably undesirable traits for a chief business negotiator.” “Chief among the criticisms voiced about their approach to negotiation was that negotiators can appear to be too aggressive at times… they do not learn how to debate when in school. As a result ‘they are not rational. They argue without evidence, facts, logic. They do not listen to others… they rely on emotion.’”
A fifth researcher describes the Asian member’s culture’s negotiation behaviour in detail. “businesspeople are often shrewd and skilful negotiators who should never be underestimated.” “It is very important to emphasize frequently the long-term benefits and your commitment to the business relationship you are seeking to build.”
“… they often employ distributive and contingency bargaining… Although the primary negotiation style is competitive, they nevertheless value long-term relationships and look for win-win solutions.” “… they may get very emotional and show strong anger. Remaining constructive and professional usually helps refocus the negotiation… Foreigners may perceive a dichotomy in their negotiation style: on one hand, relationships matter a lot and must be maintained at all times, while on the other hand negotiations may become very emotional, aggressive, or outright adversarial.”
“It is important to realize that businessmen from this country have a very different view of written agreements and contracts from the one most Westerners have. In the traditional view, agreements are just snapshots in time and contracts are similar in role to historic documents: they reflect no more than the agreement that existed at the time they were written up and signed.” “Signed contracts may not always be honored. Because of their view of the role that contracts play, people from this culture regularly continue to press for a better deal even after a contract has been signed. They may call ‘clarification meetings’ to re-discuss details. If you refuse to be flexible, allowing the relationship to deteriorate, contract terms may not be kept at all…”
Along those same lines, an article described “an important point to keep in mind concerns the nature of reaching an agreement with a firm from this culture. Westerners attach great importance to a written contract which specifies each detail of the business relationship. People from this culture, on the other hand, value a contract as a loosely-structured consensus statement that broadly defines what has been negotiated, but leaves sufficient room to permit flexibility and adjustment.”
Meyer’s Wheel of Conflict
In an earlier blog article in this series, I describe how Meyer’s “Wheel of Conflict” could be used to understand particular situations. I think it’s helpful to use this tool to summarize background to this case study thus far:
Needs and Interests:
The interests of the two parties seemed to be as follows:
Interests of INGO A (the Asian member):
Raise profile and market share in country by working in Myanmar as it sees fit, without restriction;
Ensure that the “Lead Member” rule is interpreted so that INGO A can operate autonomously in locations of interest, including Myanmar;
Maintain positive relations in the Federation, and maintain the current loose arrangements;
Gain more direct program management experience, learning in particular from INGO W’s approach.
Interests of INGO W (the Western member):
Continue to lead program implementation in Myanmar;
Obtain increased financial support from INGO A for programs in Myanmar and elsewhere;
Ensure that the “Lead Member” rule is interpreted so that INGO W retains the management of operations in Myanmar;
Maintain positive relations in the Federation, and encourage the Federation to become more coherent and effective as a collaborative body;
Reduce the heavy management burden and stress involved in collaborating with INGO A in Myanmar.
The best negotiating strategy would take these varied interests into account, along with (fundamentally) the differing cultures of the two home countries.
History was very relevant here, in particular the recent “rise” of INGO A’s home country, and its feelings that it was being treated in a “colonialistic” manner.
The nature of the “Federation” that both organizations belonged to, in particular the ‘loose’ nature of the grouping, was very relevant.
A range of differing values seemed to underlie this conflict, some of which were described in the cultural analysis carried out above.
Lots of emotions were present in the negotiating room, some of which were used as bargaining tools; others were vivid and contributed to emotional flooding (certainly on my part!)
There were language differences, and some differences in culture impeded clear discussion until we recognized what was happening.
INGO A was growing quickly, much faster than INGO W; and INGO A had a much bigger budget. This put INGO A in a stronger position in the Federation.
Data didn’t seem to play a strong role in this conflict.
While the personalities of the people involved were very relevant in this conflict, my sense was that cultural differences outlined elsewhere in this article were more important
I found Meyer’s tool to be very useful as I thought about the conflict.
A Negotiation Strategy
Based on this insights described above, taking into account the interests of both parties, as I perceived them, the nature of the Federation and differences between the two cultures, in particular the significant differences in how business contracts and negotiations were viewed, I set out recommendations for how INGO W’s CEO should approach upcoming negotiations.
Firstly, preferred outcomes seemed to be quite different: the Asian member preferred to work autonomously in Myanmar, and beyond, while the Western member preferred that both sides respected a literal reading of the Federation “Lead Member” policy and that all support for work in Myanmar be channeled through INGO W.
But there were also some shared interests: both Members wanted to avoid damaging the Federation and resolve bilateral tensions, both wanted to raise their profile in their home markets by working in Myanmar and, most importantly, both wished to support progress for children there (and beyond).
Second, use of a principled-negotiation approach had not resolved the conflict in Myanmar. Given the hierarchical nature of the Asian member’s society, it is possible that the lack of direct involvement of their CEO in designing the first agreements meant that his interests were not satisfied; at any rate, the strongly hierarchical nature of the Asian member’s culture meant that negotiations without him were not likely to be supported. Also, as Bangert and Pirzada point out, the use of principled-negotiation approach may be less suitable to collectivist societies, and INGO A’s country was strongly collectivist; Katz finds that negotiators from the Asian member’s country “often employ distributive and contingency bargaining.” Thus it is likely that an element of distributive bargaining would be useful in the upcoming meeting.
Thirdly, I had found strong evidence that business culture in the Asian member’s society placed much less importance on contracts and rules than other cultures, much less that in the Western member’s culture. That finding needed to be taken into account in any next steps.
Finally, and positively, the fact that the culture in the Asian member’s country was strongly collectivist, which means that they were likely to hold a strong desire to remain an appreciated member of the Federation.
These findings gave me some glimmers of what INGO W’s negotiating strategy should be. But first, what were the interests of the two parties?
So my recommended negotiation strategy started with a few assumptions:
Both organizations placed a high value on the Federation, and wanted to remain a part of it in good standing. This meant that the Federation as such, even if it was rather loose, could be a key element of any negotiation strategy;
The Federation to which both INGOs belonged held autonomy as a strong value. This meant that the emphasis earlier placed on the “Lead Member” policy by INGO W, as binding on both parties, was probably misplaced. That policy needed either to be ratified and upheld by the Federation, even strengthened, or INGO W would have to assume that it would not be applied and thus abandon it as a key part of their strategy;
As shown in my research, INGO W’s reliance on written agreements that would be respected by both parties was also probably mistaken. This meant that INGO W would need to prepare for frequent revisiting of the situation in Myanmar and in INGO A’s home market, and be willing to engage in periodic problem-solving, and ongoing negotiations. This way of working would have to replace some of INGO W’s earlier reliance on contracts and formal agreements;
Given the cultural attributes found, direct involvement of INGO A’s CEO was imperative.
Given the relatively loose nature of the Federation, and the obvious “loophole” in the “Lead Member” policy, it looked to me that INGO W was in a fairly weak position. INGO A was unlikely to change behavior, because their CEO was behaving consistently with some very fundamental values and cultural traits. And the Federation would be unlikely to discipline this seemingly-minor violation of policy, when even more serious policy clashes were not resulting in enforcement or willingness to engage in mediation.
Despite this, I recommended that, in light of the strongly collectivist nature of INGO A’s society, INGO W should reframe the discussion away from Myanmar and towards the Federation, emphasising the benefits to the collective group by the two members working together, and the harm to the group that an open split could cause.
In particular, I recommended this should involve reviewing the “Lead Member” policy and formally proposing that it be strengthened and upheld. I suggested specific language changes, as illustrated below:
Proposed Stronger Language
the Lead Member will proactively consider requests from other Affiliated Organisations to work in that territory so as to maximise the effectiveness, reach, influence, capacity and efficiency of programmes and operations.
operations in a territory will be initiated and led by one Affiliated Organization, which will proactively consider requests from other Affiliated Organisations so that work in that territory maximises the effectiveness, reach, influence, capacity and efficiency of programmes and operations.
I realized that such a significant strengthening of the policy was unlikely, and in fact it seemed much more likely that the policy would be further weakened as a result of the conflict over Myanmar. But pushing for it seemed to be only way to put INGO W in a stronger negotiating position.
After seeking to change the nature of the discussion in this fashion, two different Tracks could be considered by INGO W’s CEO, depending on results of the “Lead Member” discussion. (Note that here I am using terminology from Principled Negotiation techniques, such as – primarily – the Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement” – “BATNA”)
Track 1: the policy is (at least) not weakened. In this case, the Western NGO’s CEO should reassert the validity of the agreements made earlier. Recognising that such agreements were not seen as binding in INGO A’s business culture, INGO W’s CEO should propose a high-level, ongoing joint problem-solving body. He should make it easy for INGO A to say yes by outlining how this solution would bring more harmony to the relationship while enabling INGO A to satisfy its interests. Wording could be used such as “we feel proud of our work and approach. Can you tell me why supporting us as called for in the policy is not an option for you?”
He should make it hard to say no by emphasising the clear statement in the draft “Lead Member” policy that “operations in a territory will be initiated and led by one Affiliated Organisation”, proposing that if this option is not feasible for INGO A, then INGO W will pursue the mediation option contained in the policy, with the likely negative impact on relationships.
If the “Lead Member” policy is not weakened, the option of continuing with the earlier operational agreements, with the addition of a joint problem-solving mechanism, will likely be seen as better than each organisation’s BATNA, and as complying with policy (thus, legitimate.)
Track 2: the policy is weakened. The position of INGO W’s CEO in this case is not strong. He should thus propose the creation of a formalised joint venture agreement, through which governance of operations in Myanmar is shared, and the establishment of an operational problem-solving mechanism. This option might be meet the interests of INGO A, at least for some time, preserving much of INGO W’s role and position.
This agreement could be seen as legitimate as it complies with the option contained in the “Lead Member” policy that the Lead Member “… proactively consider requests from other Affiliated Organisations to work in that territory so as to maximise the effectiveness, reach, influence, capacity and efficiency of programmes and operations.”
If INGO A does not accept this option, or if experience with this option over time does not resolve conflict between the two agencies, then INGO W’s CEO should implement his BATNA: cancel the operational agreements made earlier, agree that INGO A operates autonomously in Myanmar, and begin to discuss funding arrangements for INGO A in other countries managed by INGO W. In other words, to seek to extract financial support for INGO W’s work outside of Myanmar.
Experience and analysis indicate that this is the most likely outcome.
Given the sensitivity of INGO A to belonging to the Federation, the likelihood of agreements (Track 1 or Track 2) being sustained would be increased by formalising matters during a future meeting of the CEOs of all members of the Federation.
This case study seeks to illustrate how a comparative analysis of cultures can help lead to a deeper understanding of conflict. In this case, the insights gained were very useful, at least to the extent of gaining a clearly view of why the situation was so challenging.
My own experience with this situation certainly confirmed for me the centrality of culture in conflicts, and helped me see how useful certain tools (Hofstede’s Six Dimensions of Culture, Principled Negotiation, etc.) were when dealing with seemingly intractable conflicts.
The INGO Federation involved in this case study is one of several global groupings, most of which are less “loose” than this one. Despite this difference in degree, these Federations all face a range of very interesting challenges involving commonality and difference, culture, history, differing markets, etc.
Do they emphasize their scale and reach, their international and global aspect? The trends I’ve explored earlier in this blog series, of NGOs becoming more “business-like” would encourage this – seeking to dominate their “markets” by growth and acquisition…
Or do they market themselves as local organizations, in tune with their local market? This would mean forgoing some of the supposed benefits of having a global “brand” and some of the supposed efficiencies that might come from scale.
Since I’ve worked for a couple of these groupings, perhaps this would be a good subject for a future blog article!
Next time I will begin to wrap up this series with some reflections about a recent experience as interim COO for a disability-focused organization. And I’ll describe the rest of the hike that day in June of 2018, climbing up my 47th mountain, the second-highest of the 48 peaks, Mt Adams!
Here are links to all the blogs in this series. There are 48 articles, including this one, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:
(2) Donald W. Hendon, ‘Negotiation Concession Patterns: A Multi-Country, Multi-Period Study’ (2007) 6 (2), Journal of International Business Research.
(3) Hyun O. Lee and Randall G. Rogan, ‘A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Organizational Conflict Management Behaviors (1991) 2 (3), The International Journal of Conflict Management.
(4) Jeanne M. Brett, ‘Culture and Negotiation’ (2010) 35:2, International Journal of Psychology.
(5) Donald W. Hendon, Rebecca Angeles Hendon, and Paul Herbig, ‘Negotiating Across Cultures’ (1998) 42, Security Management.
(6) Paul A. Herbig and Hugh E. Kramer, ‘Do’s and Don’ts of Cross-Cultural Negotiations’ (1992) 21, Industrial Marketing Management.
(7) Wendi Adair, Jeanne Brett, Alain Lempereur, Tetsushi Okumura, Peter Shikhirev, Catherine Tinesley, and Anne Lytle, ‘Research Report: Culture and Negotiation Strategy’ (2004), Negotiation Journal.
(8) Deborah A. Cai, Steven R. Wilson, and Laura E. Drake, ‘Culture in the Context of Intercultural Negotiation: Individualism-Collectivism and Paths to Integrative Agreements’ (2000) 26 (4), Human Communication Research.
(9) Wendi Lyn Adair and Jeanne M. Brett, ‘Culture and Negotiation Processes’ in Michele J. Gelfand and Jeanne M. Brett (eds), The Handbook of Negotiation and Culture (Stanford Business Books, 2004) 158.
(10) David C. Bangert and Kahkashan Pirzada, ‘Culture and Negotiation’ (1992) 34 (1), The International Executive.
Since then, in 44 posts (so far), I’ve described climbing some amazing 4000-foot mountains. I’ve reflected on two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador; my 15 years with Plan International; the deep, disruptive changes in the development sector over that time; the two years I spent consulting with CCF, developing a new program approach for that agency that we called “Bright Futures,” and most recently my time as International Program Director at ChildFund Australia.
Last time I continued to describe a new phase in my career, related to conflict. I focused in particular on conflict analysis, and I described my climb of Mt Washington, my 43rd 4000-footer, and the highest of the 48, on 27 October 2017. Washington is the highest of the 4000-footers; in fact, it’s the highest mountain in the eastern United States, a place where some of the harshest weather on earth has been recorded.
On that October day, after climbing Mt Washington, I also got to the top of Mt Monroe (5384ft, 1641m), which I will describe here. And I will expand on one important topic I highlighted in my first conflict-related article: the role of culture in conflict.
To skip the description of my ascent of Mt Monroe, and go directly to exploration of culture and conflict, click here.
The Climb – Mt Monroe
I was quite out of shape that day, having spent the previous month (September, 2017) wandering around India with my old friend Ricardo Gómez. At this point, I wasn’t sure I was up to climbing two of the highest mountains in New Hampshire in one day, but the first part of the climb had been great: cool but not cold, bright blue skies. Getting to the top of Mt Washington was a challenge, and it got colder and steeper as I neared the summit.
But I had succeeded! Now the question was: did I have the energy, and the daylight, to climb Mt Monroe?
Eric had driven up from Durham with me, but had decided not to do the climb that day. Instead, he would drop me at Pinkham Notch, and then pick me up at Glen Ellis Falls parking area, saving me a mile hike on the Direttissima Trail.
I had a decision to make after I ate lunch at the top of Mt Washington. The days were getting much shorter now, as we got into autumn, so I hadn’t been sure if I would have time to climb both Washington and Mt Monroe. So I decided to make the call once I got to the top of Washington. I could see Mt Monroe from the top of Mt Washington, down below me. At least I wouldn’t have to climb much more, and it didn’t look too far off. I was making good time, and wasn’t feeling too exhausted…
I decided to tackle Mt Monroe.
I figured that, if all went well, I would take the Crawford Path down to the Lake of the Clouds Hut. From there I would climb Mt Monroe and double back to the Hut, and then take the Camel Trail over to the Davis Path and down to the Glen Boulder Trail.
This looked like a challenge, especially since I was leaving Mt Washington at a little after 1pm and the sun would set by 5:40pm. Would I have enough time?
I mentioned last time that there were a few late-season tourists with me at the top of Mt Washington. Most of them were now queuing to take the Cog Railway back down. They were bundled up and seemed very cold in the wind; likewise, I began to shiver as I finished lunch, so I put on another layer of clothing, my cap, and a pair of gloves.
Leaving the top of Mt Washington, at first I couldn’t actually find the trail – it was so windy and cold that I wasn’t really thinking clearly because of the cold. After wandering around the top for a while, stumbling about in confusion, looking for the Crawford Path and shivering, I returned to the Cog Railway queue, where I found a large relief map on the wall. It seemed that the Crawford Path began near the antennae that are clustered in one area of the summit. So I backtracked over there, but still couldn’t find any signs… but I could see rock cairns leading downward.
I started down from the summit. The wind was so strong that I was blown over several times; I was really depending on my walking pole and began to worry that I would damage it as I was tossed around by very strong gusts of cold wind. There was a heavy dusting of snow, that had blown into drifts in areas, and plenty of ice on the trail as I went downward, and I slipped quite a few times.
The hiker in red that can be seen in the photo above had stopped to talk with me; he was working at the Mt Washington observatory and was heading back up that way. I guess he could see that I was nervous at the weather conditions, because he took the time to assure me that those gale winds would end in about 1/4 mile and from there it would be calmer.
Ahead of me, down the slopes of Mt Washington, I could see the rock cairns marking the trail and, beyond, Mt Monroe. Above the cairns and Mt Monroe were the White Mountains around Franconia Notch, and a blue sky beginning to cloud:
Light snow, but there were plenty of drifts that were icy and quite slippery. It was scary, I can tell you!
After about 0.4 miles I came to the intersection of the Westside Trail. It was steep walking, as you can see from the angle!
I had descended a fair way; the antennae at the top of Mt Washington were visible far above me:
You can see that the gale winds had lessened, since my eyebrows had calmed! (And you can see that I had calmed down a bit, too!)
Soon after 2pm I arrived at the junction of the Crawford Path with the Crossover and Camel Trails; the Lake of the Clouds Hut was directly below me. I would return here after looping over the summit of Mt Monroe:
What a spectacular day!
From the Lake of the Clouds (the lake, and the Hut) I could look back up at Mt Washington:
I pressed on from the Hut towards Mt Monroe, with increasing doubts about when I would finish the hike. Despite some steep climbing, and some icy stretches, I got to the top of Mt Monroe at about 2:30pm. The views from there were spectacular:
So I had climbed 45 of the 48 peaks!
There was no time to waste celebrating, it was getting late… so I headed back down. The sun was starting to drop back behind Monroe as I descended:
The icy patches that I had encountered on the way up Mt Monroe were trickier on the way down, so I had to slow down to avoid slipping: a fall on the way down would be much more dangerous than on the way up! So I took my time, but that fed into my nervousness about making it down before dark…
At 3pm I was back at the junction of the Camel Trail, which I took.
After a short, steep climb, I reached a long, fairly-flat section of the Camel Trail, and then of the Davis Path. On my left, to the north, the peak of Mt Washington accompanied me, always visible, as you can see in these photos, taken as I crossed the high plateau towards the descent down Glen Boulder Trail:
Some sections along here already had some moderate snow buildup:
The views were amazing, but I was beginning to be quite tired and my left knee was starting to give me some trouble, so I was paying less attention to my surroundings. It was beginning to be a slog, verging on being a “torture hike”!
I reached the junction with the Glen Boulder Trail at a little after 4pm, and I was very tired. But I remained optimistic, because I thought that it would be downhill all the way down to the road, which would be easy (unless the long, pounding descent made my knee hurt, which it did!):
Because Eric would be waiting for me down at Rt 16, I wouldn’t have to walk all the way to Pinkham Notch, so instead of having 3.2 miles to go, it was more like 2.8. Easy, right?!
But I was still worried about the sunset that was due to come at 5:40pm. I only had around 1 1/2 hours to get all the way down Glen Boulder Trail before sunset…
For a while I walked through some high-altitude scrub trees:
But soon I began to approach the steeper descent, and could see the road below. Wildcat Ridge (which I had climbed in 2017: getting to the top of Wildcat “D” and Wildcat Mountain, with the Carter range beyond) was across the way, now in direct sunlight from the west: the sun would be setting behind me as I descended Glen Boulder Trail:
At just past 5pm I passed Glen Boulder, a major milestone hereabouts:
Here the trail began to descend steeply, and I began to lose my enthusiasm completely. My left knee was really hurting, and the walking was on top of large granite boulders, which made things much worse: the rocks jarred my knee as I dropped down onto them, again and again.
By 6pm it was getting quite dark and, honestly, I was not enjoying the walk at all. I followed along behind two other hikers for a while, and finally passed them just before it got completely dark. I took one last photo before getting out my flashlight:
As you can see, I was at the junction of the Direttissima Trail, which is still nearly a half mile from the Glen Ellis parking area. The trail descended steeply nearly the entire way from the Glen Boulder, until perhaps 0.2 miles from the parking area. I delayed getting the flashlight out of my pack for too long; the moon was peaking from behind the clouds occasionally, so I was able to manage, carefully.
But once I did get the flashlight going I was able to move more confidently, and soon the trail leveled off and I could walk without too much worry that I would trip and slide down the hill!
I don’t think that I ever, ever, have finished a hike in the dark, at least since my very first backpacking trip way back in high school! So it was an interesting experience walking into the parking area at Glen Ellis using the flashlight, and finding Eric waiting for me. Not something I’d like to repeat too often, because even with a good light you can’t see around you very well, of course… but it went OK.
Eric saw my flashlight approaching, and he flashed his car lights. It was 6:30pm and I was completely exhausted and my left knee was in serious pain. But I had conquered two of the last, and two of the highest, of the over-4000-foot White Mountains! Just three more to go…
We stopped in North Conway for a good Mexican dinner before heading south, and I got home to Durham around 9:45pm. It had been a very long day!
So, at the end of October 2017, only three 4000-footers remained: Madison, Adams, and Jefferson. But the days were getting shorter, and temperatures were steadily dropping; Washington and Monroe had been real challenges. My knee hurt, and I wanted to rest it.
I decided to postpone finishing the 48 peaks until the next season. 2017 had been very productive: I had climbed 22 of the 48 4000-footers despite having been in India for an entire month right in the middle of the climbing season. Added to the 23 mountains I had climbed in 2016, I was very close to finishing – just three more to go for 2018…
But I had run out of time. And even though I had climbed 45 of the 48 peaks, I had only published 26 of the blogs. So I figured I would spend the next few winter months catching up on the blogging!
Culture and Conflict
As I mentioned last time, late in our years in Sydney, I took a couple of courses at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), first in Mediation and then on Principled Negotiation. At first I looked at this coursework just as a way of acquiring skills that would be useful in my work. Plus it had been a long time since I had done any formal study, so it felt like it was time to wake up the side of my brain that might be a bit under-utilized!
I ended up really enjoying that academic work, and learning about conflict and dispute management…
In my first blog posting about conflict, I shared five key insights that I had gained as I worked through my masters in dispute resolution at the University of New South Wales. Of the five insights I shared in that article, the fourth was that “all conflict has cultural aspects. Conflict is culturally defined – these are good starting points, but be careful!” I fore-shadowed then that I would be preparing an article focused entirely on this topic, so read on!
When you find yourself in conflict, and suspect that there is a cross-cultural element to it:
Analyze the conflict using Bernie Mayer’s “Circle of Conflict” that I described in an earlier article in this series. Culture is a key element in Bernie’s framework; so, next,
Carefully consider the culture or cultures involved. And remember: culture is ALWAYS involved! Use insights from Hofstede as starting points;
Develop and use your cultural fluency to put Hofstede’s insights to work in the particular situation you face;
Analyze how culture is influencing the dynamic of the conflict;
With these insights, determine how you will approach the conflict.
The rest of this article will focus on culture and on how culture influences conflict, and vice-versa.
First: culture. There are many frameworks for culture, which is a tricky concept, with different approaches and plenty of disagreement. And, as a consequence, there are also many different ways of looking at cross-cultural conflict. In this article, I will be sharing the important work of several authors and experts:
Geert Hofstede, whose culture-related research and frameworks have influenced many across several decades, while not being immune to controversy. Much more on Hofstede below…;
Kevin Avruch, whose thinking and writing on conflict and culture is some of the clearest and most complete that I have come across;
Michelle LeBaron and Venashri Pillay, whose excellent book “Conflict Across Cultures: A Unique Experience of Bridging Cultures” was the text for my final course in the UNSW degree in Dispute Resolution, which I actually took at James Cook University in Cairns, returning for the in-person workshop soon after having relocated to the US from Australia;
Finally, I’ll be drawing on outstanding presentations made by Steve Fisher and Maria Rodrigues, who led that final course in Cairns.
What is “culture”? I want to share three definitions here, all of which make sense to me.
For Avruch, culture is the “learned and shared ways of behaving appropriately in social settings. It’s things that people learn by virtue of belonging to a social group. These things are encoded in cognitive structures, schemas, paralinguistic structures like metaphors, and language. Then they’re also publicly encoded in symbols and values. Culture is learned; it’s shared, more or less. The degree of sharing that is always an empirical issue is a social setting, and it’s passed down from generation to generation, which gives it some kind of traditional force. But it is also created. It is also emergent because it represents people in ways in which people face the dilemmas, such as the problematics in everyday social life, including conflicts and disputes. What it is not, is it is not encoded in the human genome. It’s socially created”;
For Hofstede, culture is: “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others”. This definition appeals to me because the metaphor of an operating system helps me understand how culture manifests in human reality. Of course, I can understand how this definition would not be as appealing to others: I am an American white male, trained (long ago) as an engineer, so it’s perhaps not surprising that this kind of framing for culture would work for me! (In my defense, I’m at least somewhat aware of my bias!)
Finally, taking from a presentation given by Maria Rodriques as part of the cross-cultural conflict course I took in Cairns, culture is the lens that we look through when we view reality. Take for example a yellow flower: it appears to be orange if we look at it through the red lens, and green if we look through blue glasses. Just so, a particular set of events, or behavior, can appear quite different to us when viewed from our, or another’s, cultural point of view.
Of course, to emphasize here something I already have outlined above, as Avruch says, “… a conception of culture is inadequate, (a) if it fails to reflect the ‘thickness,’ or complexity, of the phenomenological world it seeks to represent, that is, if it oversimplifies; or (b) if it is connected, overtly or covertly, to a political or ideological agenda…”
Later I will argue that all conflict is cultural in nature; to a greater or lesser degree, culture is always there. But before we discuss conflict and culture, I want to introduce the important work of Geert Hofstede, one of the most significant researchers in the field of culture, and his six “dimensions” model has been widely influential, though somewhat controversial.
Hofstede’s research originated in his work at IBM International in Holland, in the 1970’s, where he was involved in employee surveys spanning many countries. Analyzing the data, Hofstede discerned patterns that seemed to cluster in what became his “dimensions.”
So Hofstede’s concept of culture was originally based on work with IBM employees, a population that certainly doesn’t represent the rich diversity of our world; but, over time, his research grew to cover many more countries and a much broader population, and has become one of the most common and widely-used ways of studying culture. I will be using his framework in this article.
There are two dangers here, traps that we must avoid. Firstly, Hofstede often seems to conflate culture with country; on his website, which we will explore in more detail below, we will find amazingly rich and useful detail for comparing cultures, listed by country. The problem is that all countries contain a rich mixture of cultures, so we must avoid the trap of assuming that Hofstede’s description of a culture in a country represents the particular situation we are analyzing. The danger is that we construe a majority culture as describing an entire national population.
Secondly, even assuming that a particular country can be described as one, homogeneous culture, which it certainly can’t, there still will be a wide spectrum of cultural traits across that theoretically-homogeneous population. For example, although, in general, Australians are much more individualistic than South Koreans, there are certainly some Australians who are less individualistic than some South Koreans.
So we must avoid the trap of assuming that the culture in any country, no matter how homogeneous, is uniform across the population. This means that it is imperative that any conflict professional, or anybody seeking to better understand a cross-cultural situation, must use Hofstede’s Dimensions, and his incredibly rich data set, as a starting point only! In other words, to benefit from Hofstede’s research and insights, we must use his framework as a starting point for our analysis, not as a true representation of the particular situation we are studying. Making a stereotypical generalization based on his findings could lead to great errors.
Use this very helpful tool with caution and discernment.
Keeping those caveats firmly in mind, let’s unpack Hofstede’s six “dimensions” of culture, which we will be using as starting points for analysis. During his career at IBM, collecting information on the personality preferences of company employees, Hofstede noticed six poles, across each of which people tended to cluster in national / cultural commonalities:
In other words, Hofstede asserts that people in particular cultures (which, again, he seems to conflate with countries) cluster in certain places in each of these six poles or dimensions. Some cultures (countries), on average, will typically express higher, or lower, rankings for “Power Distance,” and “Individualism versus Collectivism,” etc.
As I mentioned above, vast research underpins Hofstede’s Dimensions, from their origins in studies of IBM employees through to the much wider and deeper data now underlying the concepts today, and their relevance goes well beyond application to conflict. They are very useful in unpacking conflict behavior.
Space precludes me from fully describing Hofstede’s dimensions; for a complete explanation, consult the website noted in the figure. For now, I’m taking the liberty of adapting the following outline from Hofstede’s work:
Power Distance: This dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. The fundamental issue here is how a society handles inequalities among people. People in societies exhibiting a large degree of Power Distance accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. In societies with low Power Distance, people strive to equalize the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power;
Individualism versus Collectivism: The high side of this dimension, called individualism, can be defined as a preference for a loosely-knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families. Its opposite, collectivism, represents a preference for a tightly-knit framework in society in which individuals can expect their relatives or members of a particular in-group to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. A society’s position on this dimension is reflected in whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “we”;
Masculinity versus Femininity: The Masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented. In the business context Masculinity versus Femininity is sometimes also related to as “tough versus tender” cultures;
Uncertainty Avoidance: The Uncertainty Avoidance dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen? Countries exhibiting strong UAI maintain rigid codes of belief and behaviourand are intolerant of unorthodox behaviourand ideas. Weak UAI societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles;
Long-Term versus Short-Term Orientation: Every society has to maintain some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and the future. Societies prioritize these two existential goals differently. Societies who score low on this dimension, for example, prefer to maintain time-honouredtraditions and norms while viewing societal change with suspicion. Those with a culture which scores high, on the other hand, take a more pragmatic approach: they encourage thrift and efforts in modern education as a way to prepare for the future. In the business context this dimension is related to as “(short term) normative versus (long term) pragmatic” (PRA). In the academic environment the terminology Monumentalism versus Flexhumility is sometimes also used;
Indulgence versus Restraint: Indulgence stands for a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having fun. Restraint stands for a society that suppresses gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms.
Comparison of the Dimensions between a wide range of cultures can be sourced on Hofstede’s website; but be careful to recall my caveats, above, about conflating country and culture!
For example, here I’ve compared Australia and South Korea, plotting them together across Hofstede’s six dimensions:
It’s easy to see how conflict could emerge, and intensify, in an interaction between these two cultures: one party might well be focusing on gains over the long term, while the other could be placing much more value on short-term benefits; and perhaps one side of a negotiation is looking at discussions from the point of view of their organization, while the other side is thinking about how various options might be good, or bad, from their personal, individual standpoint. The discussions could very easily become tense, and then “Power Distance” could come into play, leading one side to communicate very indirectly and to be offended by the other side speaking directly.
You can create similar plots across a vast range of countries on Hofstede’s website. Try it, it’s fascinating.
I’ve found that colleagues overseas are often very familiar with Hofstede, but that Americans are much less so. Highly recommended!
So how does culture relate to conflict? Here I want to acknowledge the text we used in the final course in my masters degree: “Conflict Across Cultures: A Unique Experience of Bridging Cultures,” by Michelle LeBaron and Venashri Pillay.
First time through, the book was a bit hard to grasp, partly because the concepts are complex but also because the authors take a very unusual approach of framing the presentation around how the, together, experienced their collaboration. Second time through, accompanied by the excellent lecturers at JCU, I found the book to be very impressive, deeply considered, and extremely useful.
Speaking of which, I want to recognize the lectures given by Steve Fisher and Maria Rodriques in that course. Steve conducted the course in-person, in Cairns, while Maria prepared lectures that were were presented via PowerPoint.
Three key concepts help us understand the relationships between culture and conflict: cultural fluency, culture-conflict dynamics, and cultural “carriers.” I have found that a thorough grasp of these concepts, together with a clear view of culture itself, really helps me to understand conflict in cross-cultural settings.
To understand how culture and a particular conflict are relating, we need to be fluent with the concept of culture itself. According to one of the co-authors of the LeBaron and Pillay volume, Arai Tatsushi, cultural fluency is defined as ‘our readiness to internalize, express, and help shape the process of meaning-making’ (p. 58). Tasushi uses the following figure to illustrate cultural fluency:
Tatsushi uses the metaphor of viewing a flower through different-colored lenses to illustrate how we gain cultural fluency:
We need to anticipate that others might see the flower differently from us;
We need to gain a better understanding of the nature of our own lenses, and those of others, and gradually reshape our perceptions to include other possibilities instinctively (embeddedness);
We must express how our lenses are shaping our perceptions and encourage others to do the same;
Finally, we have to navigate to take action and move forward in a constructive manner that builds on this enhanced and nuanced understanding of the situation.
This is not always a sequential process – sometimes we make mistakes and need to go back and alter our ways of anticipating, etc. As with many things in life, gaining cultural fluency is, fundamentally, about being self-aware and cultivating a non-judgmental sense of curiosity.
The next concept to grasp is culture-conflict dynamics. It turns out that there is a dynamic and intertwined relationship between culture and conflict:
culture shapes conflict by attaching meaning to it, prompting our response to conflict, how we view conflict. The lens we look through shapes how we interpret events, and strongly influences how we behave in a given situation, which can be viewed quite differently by people from other cultures. Culture defines who is “us” and who is “them” – and since many conflicts are strongly influenced by tribal identities, the history of ethnic loyalties or enmities, this is a very powerful way that culture shapes and expands conflict across long periods of time and expanses of geography. At the same time, culture can provide us with opportunities to transform conflict, can be a positive “lens” to view conflict;
And, over time, conflict has a deep impact on culture by changing the way we view a particular situation.
That’s how culture shapes conflict. But the influence goes both ways: over time, conflict influences and shapes culture also. Here the concept of “cultural carriers” is very helpful.
“Cultural carriers” are things like institutions, songs, symbols (such as flags), stories and histories, metaphors such as proverbs, and so forth. These are “containers” – concrete objects as well as abstract ideas – that carry our culture across social contexts. Conflict shapes and reshapes these cultural carriers, which then become embedded in our world view. (For an excellent article about how differing “worldviews” can create and exacerbate conflict, see this chapter of a great book about the Waco catastrophe.)
As Tatsushi says in the text, “conflict affects culture most deeply when it transforms the kind of cultural carriers that penetrate our identity.” And, looking at Mayer’s Wheel of Conflict, we can see that when values become involved in a conflict, enormous fuel is added to the fire.
Tatsushi mentions examples of four types of conflict-related phenomena that shape cultural carriers: protracted violence (war, or domestic violence); forced movement (such as mass migration or individual change of household); cultural mergers (such as when a new country is formed from smaller nations, or when a couple marries across two cultures), and new systems of thinking (in a national revolution or even as a human being moves from adolescence to adulthood.)
So culture influences how individuals or groups interpret behavior and engage in conflict. Conflict influences the “cultural carriers” that, over time, symbolize and define our culture, shaping who we are and how we see ourselves, thus influencing future conflicts.
All conflicts are cultural. I start with Mayer’s “Wheel of Conflict.” Then I dig deeper in terms of culture: when I face conflict working within my own culture, I start by reflecting on how my culture influences me. I review Hofstede’s analysis of US culture and use it to start to analyze my behavior and approach. Across cultures, I bring the cultural fluency I’ve gained over my career (and from Tatsushi!) to enhance my self-awareness and authentic curiosity: I ask, “what’s going on here?!”
It’s sometimes easier said than done, but adding in a dash of compassion and forgiveness always helps.
In a future article in this series I will describe a real conflict involving Western and Asian parties from an international NGO (which I will not name!). Looking at Hofstede’s analysis of Australia and South Korea, above, it’s easy to see how easily conflicts could emerge between people from these two cultures: just consider the vast differences shown in “Individualism,” “Long-Term Orientation,” and “Indulgence”!
Stay tuned for that!
Postscript: I climbed Mt Monroe again on 1 July 2019, after having completed all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers late in 2018. This time I ascended from the west, from near where the Cog Railway begins:
In this map, I show my July 2019 hike in black, and part of the October 2017 route in red. That time, I came from the east, over Mt Washington, and then climb Monroe. This time, I parked at the Ammonoosuc Ravine parking area, at around 10:30am, and walked east towards Monroe…
Walking up the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail was pleasant, only a few bugs, but very humid. We had a rainy late spring, so there was plenty of mud, but not too bad. So I was sweaty almost from the beginning!
I walked up the ravine.
There were a couple of nice, small waterfalls along the way:
Around 12:15pm, I entered the alpine zone, and approached Lake of the Clouds hut, which had been closed for the season on my last ascent of Mt Monroe:
I stopped at the busy, crowded, joyful hut to have a quick lunch. Mt Monroe was very close, and visible, closer than I had recalled. But Mt Washington was in heavy cloud, as it had been thus far in my hike.
I left the hut at around 1:15pm, headed up Mt Monroe:
Before I knew it, I was at the top of Mt Monroe, and started down again.
From the hut, I took the Crawford Path, which is the Appalachian Trail here, with lots of company – the Lake of the Clouds Hut was full, and everybody wanted to get to the top of the highest mountain in the eastern United States. Sadly, at least most of the time, it was in the clouds…
But after getting most of the way up Mt Washington, walking with a group of young men in white short-sleeved shirts in the cold and windy afternoon, I diverged onto the Westside Trail, hiking north just underneath the summit of Mt Washington. There, I left the crowds behind.
I was in no hurry, so I stopped halfway along the Westside Trail, and sat for a while, all alone, on a gorgeous White Mountains day. It was a spectacular sight:
This was a very special place, full of a sense of well-being and peace. I hope you can get a feeling for how calming and peaceful it was. Unusually for me on these hikes, I stopped for quite a while just to watch the weather and the mountains around me, in the wonderful silence.
Continuing along to the north, soon I came to the Cog Railway. This being the 4th of July week, it was busy, so I was able to film a car going downward:
In the background you can see Mt Jefferson, which was the final 4000-footer I had climbed in June of 2018, just over a year before…
Crossing under the tracks, I came to a spot where I had a great view back towards Mt Jefferson and Mt Adams and Mt Madison. Looking the other way, I could see Mt Washington in the clouds:
I turned back towards the west here, onto the Jewell Trail, which was a pleasant and uneventful White-Mountains walk down to the parking area, where I arrived at about 5:15pm. It had been a wonderful climb.
Here are links to all the blogs in this series. There are 48 articles, including this one, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:
Since then, in 43 posts (so far), I’ve described climbing some amazing 4000-foot mountains. And I’ve reflected on two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador; my 15 years with Plan International; the deep, disruptive changes in the development sector over that time; the two years I spent consulting with CCF, developing a new program approach for that agency that we called “Bright Futures,” and most recently my tenure as International Program Director at ChildFund Australia.
Late in our years in Sydney, I took a couple of courses at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), first in Mediation and then on Principled Negotiation. At first I looked at this coursework just as a way of acquiring skills that would be useful in my work. Plus it had been over ten years since I had done any formal study, so it felt like it was time to wake up the side of my brain that might be a bit under-utilized!
The eight classes that comprised my degree were informative and interesting, useful in my work and in life. And several of the professors I studied with were world-class, including Rosemary herself, for sure.
One of those, amongst the best, was Dr Bernie Mayer, one of the world’s foremost thinkers, researchers, practitioners, and teachers in the area of conflict. It was my good fortune that Bernie undertook a sabbatical in late 2015, and taught “Skills in Dispute Resolution” at UNSW. Rosemary suggested that, if at all possible, I enroll; I leaped at the opportunity… and I’m very glad I did!
One focus of that course was “conflict analysis.” Bernie had developed a framework that could be used to understand any conflict, as a prelude to addressing it. In this blog entry, I want to try to summarize that approach: how can we understand specific, particular conflicts?
But first… this time I want to describe my climb of Mt Washington (6288ft, 1917m), my 43rd 4000-footer!
To skip the description of my ascent of Mt Washington, and go directly to my exploration of culture and conflict, click here.
I climbed both Mt Washington and Mt Monroe on a spectacular day in late October 2017 – they would be my last climbs that year. The day was clear and cool, ideal conditions for climbing two of the highest mountains in New Hampshire.
Mt Washington is the highest of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and is in fact the highest mountain in the eastern United States. The highest wind speed ever recorded, on earth, was measured at the top of Mt Washington, and stories of extreme weather at the summit are common. As are, tragically, fatalities, so one does not approach climbing Mt Washington lightly, in any season.
My hope was to climb both mountains that day, doing a long loop, but I was a little bit concerned about the time this would take, because the days were getting shorter in late October. So Eric and I left Durham at about 7:15am, hoping to get an early start.
On the way up Rt 16 we stopped to have breakfast at the Miss Wakefield diner, and to pick up a Subway sandwich for me – that’s because Eric was going to skip the climb this time, as he was recovering from shoulder surgery. He would spend most of the day working from a Starbucks in North Conway.
My plan was to hike up to the top of Mt Washington from Pinkham Notch via Tuckerman Ravine, and then loop over to Mt Monroe on the Crawford Path, and then down Davis Path to Glen Boulder Trail to the Glen Ellis parking area:
Another challenge was that I was somewhat out of shape. I had just returned from a great month in India, travelling with my old friend Ricardo Gómez to eight places that are especially significant in the life of the historical Buddha, and had gotten very little exercise during that time. A fascinating and illuminating and exhausting month, but upon my return I wasn’t sure I was ready to climb two of New Hampshire’s tallest mountains.
I left Pinkham Notch just before 10am, heading up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail:
It was a beautiful day, clear and cool, perfect for hiking. After about a 1/2 hour I passed the turnoff for Huntington Ravine, which is about 1.2m from Pinkham Notch. To that point the trail had been pretty steadily and moderately upward, not too steep yet. The barren summit area of Mt Washington was just beginning to appear:
Fifteen minutes later I passed the junction with the Raymond Path, which was unmarked, and soon after that I passed the turnoff for the Lion Head Trail:
Just after 11am I arrived at the Hermit Lake Shelters, at the eastern end of Tuckerman Ravine. This area is spectacular, and the day was perfect:
I walked up into Tuckerman Ravine; soon some light snow was on the trail:
It was only 1.8m from there to the top of Mt Washington, but it looked like it would be a grueling 1.8 miles!
At about 11:30am I reached the beginning of Tuckerman Ravine, in the bowl, and began to climb up very steeply, surrounded by many small waterfalls. This is a dangerous area in the winter and spring, when avalanches are common:
I arrived at the top of the Ravine at around noon. There was a surprising amount of water at the top of the Ravine, testimony to the recent rains we’ve had I guess.
Here is a video taken near the top of the Ravine:
I remember climbing up this trail, years ago, and nearing the top, and several young men began to throw rocks down into the ravine. I don’t think they could see me, down below the edge; one rock came so close to my head that I could hear it fly past. I scolded them severely!
On this day there were no rock-throwers, and it was simply amazing at the top of the ravine: I could see the large, fairly-flat area between Washington and Monroe, and the mountains off in the distance to the southwest:
But Washington itself loomed above me now, about 0.6m away in terms of distance, but way above me in elevation! Here the antennas at the top of Mt Washington can just be seen up above:
That final climb up to the summit of the highest mountain in the eastern United States was brutal. The wind started blowing, and the temperature dropped steadily; the walking was a challenge in the wind; just trying to stay on two feet while dodging around and on top of granite rocks of all sizes was hard enough, but with the wind blowing so strongly I did lose my balance a few times!
I got to the summit area at around 12:45pm, where I found a small crowd – a few hikers like me, along with a bunch of tourists who had taken the Cogg Railway up the mountain.
So I had climbed 44 of the 48 4000-footers! Now including the highest one, and though I had climbed Washington a half-dozen times over the years, it felt very good.
But it also felt very cold and windy: I had a quick lunch at the top, sheltering between rocks from the strong wind and cold. I started shivering, so put on another layer of clothing.
Once I had finished my sandwich and carrot, I went back over to the summit marker, as most of the people who had been queuing to take pictures were now queuing to go back down on the railway.
OK: I figured I had time to climb Mt Monroe so, after hunting around in the cold, and starting to shiver mildly, I found the beginning of the Crawford Path, and started down. I’ll describe the rest of the day – getting up Mt Monroe and arriving down at Rt 16 in the dark (!) – next time.
So I had launched into a masters degree, studying conflict, and much of the coursework I undertook was focused on gaining the range of tools needed to address, transform, resolve conflict: “Principled Negotiation,” mediation, conflict coaching, etc.
Bernie Mayer’s class focused, in part, on what I soon realized was a missing, foundational piece for me: how can we understand a conflict? How can we gain insights about the roots of a specific, concrete conflict?
Because without gaining an understanding of a conflict, of course, it would be much harder to achieve a lasting and positive transformation, even using the tools I was learning. One of the texts we used for this course was Bernie’s book, “The Dynamics of Conflict.” Highly recommended:
This book goes well beyond understanding conflict, and is in fact a survey of the conceptual understandings and skills needed to engage with conflict productively.
In this article, I want to unpack Bernie’s “Wheel of Conflict,” which is included in “The Dynamics of Conflict.” The “Wheel” is a very helpful tool that can be used to understand specific conflicts:
The graphic illustrates, both in terms of content and form, the essential lenses through which we should look at any conflict as we seek to understand the situation more deeply. At the center are the deepest motivating forces (needs), surrounded by five domains in which conflicts develop and intensify. At the outside are general contextual factors that can contribute to the conflict.
Let’s move through each component of Bernie’s Wheel: firstly, at the center of all conflicts are Needs – and the more fundamental the Needs involved, such as Identity or Survival, the more intense the conflict might be. Human needs are at the core of all conflicts, and people engage in conflict, situations become conflicts, either because people have needs that are fulfilled by the conflict itself, or because they have needs that they can only attain (or believe they can only attain) by engaging in conflict.
Then Mayer describes six domains that are directly determinant in understanding a conflict: the history of a conflict: how it has emerged and transformed; how parties to the conflict communicate; the emotions involved; the underlying values that are related to the situation; and the structure in which the conflict develops: the legal or organizational setting.
These domains are in the middle of the Wheel:
History: conflict cannot be understood independent of its history. The history of participants in a conflict, of the system in which the conflict is occurring, and of the issues themselves has a powerful influence on the conflict. The example that I focused on in my term paper, and described and included below, was the conflict then ongoing in Ferguson, Missouri, which emerged in full, violent form after the killing of Michael Brown. In this conflict, the tragic killing of a young man can easily be seen to be formed and strongly influenced, in part, by the long history of racism and oppression, and of violence by and against police officers. Clearly, societal conflicts have their histories, as do even the most individual, personal conflicts – so understanding events that led to the present situation can be very informative;
Communications. We are very imperfect communicators. Sometimes this imperfection generates conflict, whether or not there is a significant incompatibility of interests, and it almost always makes conflict harder to deal with effectively. Several conflicts that I can recall in my own life were strongly influenced by (mis-) communications: for example, our use of the term “excluded” to refer to how a contract would not apply to a particular person, in a positive sense (as a positive exception, because the particular relationship predated the contract, she would not be bound by the agreement), but who interpreted the use of that word to be a reference to racist discrimination that was vivid in her past;
Emotions are the energy that fuels conflict. If we could always stay perfectly rational and focused on how best to meet our needs and accommodate those of others, and if we could calmly work to establish effective communication, then many conflicts either would never arise or would quickly de-escalate. But of course that is not human nature. At times emotions seem to be in control of our behavior – as I mentioned last time, our “lizard brain” takes over and deskills us. The conflict mentioned above certainly resulted in very inflamed emotions, which significantly impeded our ability to deal with the situation;
Values are the beliefs we have about what is important, what distinguishes right from wrong and good from evil, and what principles should govern how we lead our lives. When a conflict is defined or experienced as a struggle about values, it becomes much more difficult to manage. In an article I hope to publish here in a few weeks, I will describe a couple of real conflicts that I experienced over the years, in my career, and the most-intense of these disputes did indeed involve deeper beliefs about my own self-image, my values and self-worth;
Structure: the structure or framework within which an interaction takes place or an issue develops is another source of conflict. Structural components of conflict include available resources, decision-making procedures, time constraints, legal requirements, and locations. In other words, understanding the context of a conflict can help us understand how it is emerging and how it might develop and transform, or be resolved.
Finally, Mayer shows four wider, contextual factors on the outer rim of the Wheel, which will help us understand the broadest setting for the conflict:
Culture affects conflict because it is embedded in individuals’ communication styles, their history, their ways of dealing with emotions, their values, and the structure within which conflict occurs. I will focus on this topic, extensively, which is fundamental in the INGO work that I’ve described in this series, and indeed in our globalized world, in my next article. And the examples from my career that I will share in the near future will all have significant cross-cultural components. So stay tuned for that;
Power is a very elusive concept, one that can obscure the roots of a conflict but can also help us understand the interaction. Power is partly embedded in the structure within which the conflict is occurring but it has to be understood as a product of personal styles and interpersonal interactions. Readers of this blog series will recall that an earlier article was focused on precisely this subject. Certainly feelings of relative powerlessness can be powerful drivers of conflict, and a power analysis can lead to a deeper understanding of conflict behavior;
Personality is a very broad concept, perhaps best understood in terms of styles of conflict engagement and avoidance, a topic I covered in my previous article in this series;
Data: how data are handled and communicated can exacerbate conflict. In today’s United States, how we handle data, often now by dismissing science and objective facts – “Fake News” – is of fundamental importance in terms of understanding the conflicts that we are immersed in…
I’ve found the use of Bernie Mayer’s Wheel of Conflict to be very helpful as I’ve addressed conflict in the years since I studied with him. It’s a great way to understand a conflict, as a prelude to addressing it, and I’ve used it in work contexts, and in life.
Perhaps my first in-depth use of the Wheel was in the class itself. Each of the eight classes that I took to complete my Masters in Dispute Resolution required the preparation of a research essay. For Bernie’s class, we were asked to analyze a particular, present-day conflict, and he encouraged us to be ambitious as we selected our subject.
I proposed analyzing the then-current conflict in Ferguson, Missouri, between the African-American community and local police. Of course, this tragic situation was one of the sources of the “Black Lives Matter” movement; emerging at around the same time as other movements gained momentum, part of a general push-back against long-standing domination and oppression in the US since then, in particular of women (via the #MeToo movement)…
Bernie was keen for me to attempt an analysis of this conflict, though he cautioned me that it would be a very complex situation to unpack!
I will share my essay, below, and welcome your comments. The essay’s introduction reads as follows:
Just after noon on 9 August 2014, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. Civil unrest and protests, many of which became violent, erupted the next day in Ferguson, and beyond. Violence continued for 10 days. A further wave of violent protests was prompted by the announcement, three months later, that a grand jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.
The conflict that took place in Ferguson in August 2014, and beyond, can be understood as a dynamic combination of the actions and backgrounds of two human beings, one black and one white, who encountered each other
in a town suffering deep “injustice … (and a) calcifying system of inequity — economic, educational, judicial — drawn largely along racial lines” (this was a reference to a 2014 article by Charles Blow in the New York Times);
deeply fearful, due to pervasive racial stereotypes and the ubiquity of guns in American society .
The purpose of this paper is not to explore how the conflict in Ferguson could be resolved, nor will it suggest how relations between African-American communities and the police could be improved. Rather, this paper seeks to describe and understand a particular, complex conflict in the specific context of Ferguson, Missouri, surrounding the killing of one black teenager by a white police officer. Given limitations of space, the paper will focus only on some aspects of the conflict.
Firstly, the events surrounding Michael Brown’s death are summarised, with a brief reference to other, similar events that took place in the months before and after his killing. A framework for analysing conflict is then presented, and the framework is used to deepen understanding of the situation in Ferguson. In conclusion, some final reflections and thoughts for further analysis are offered.
So that’s the “Wheel of Conflict,” as designed by Bernie Mayer, a very helpful tool for understanding conflict. Soon, in my next article, I will describe the rest of the hike, climbing Mt Monroe, and I will write about culture and cross-cultural conflict.
Stay tuned for that!
Here are links to all the blogs in this series. There are 48 articles, including this one, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development: