The Celtic Tiger Roars at Work

Queen’s IRC Facilitator Lucinda Bray is a management development consultant based in Dublin, Ireland. In the following piece, she discusses the chaos in work and organizational life being wrought by dramatic, prosperity-related change in her adopted country.

Ireland has been dubbed Europe’s ‘miracle economy’ with good reason. In the past 10 years, the GNP has nearly doubled, with annual growth rates reaching seven percent and higher. Unemployment has dropped from 15 percent to four percent. In the dark days of the early 1980s, the inflation rate was running at 20 percent, and interest rates were astronomical. Today, inflation is below three percent and interest rates remain at an all-time low. And from being a country of emigrants, Ireland has seen its population increase by 12 percent since 1995.

Overnight, Ireland has been transformed from a stagnant, agricultural economy to a booming high-tech powerhouse. The only comparable examples of such rapid change are the ‘Tiger’ economies of Asia. There is no Western equivalent of the tumultuous changes that have taken place here, and thus no culturally similar example to follow, no road map, no guidelines, no historical references. As a result, we were taken by surprise when we started to feel the Tiger’s effects – particularly on our work lives.

In fact, Ireland’s Celtic Tiger is a perfect illustration of the “limits to growth” systems archetype, so elegantly explained by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline. According to this maxim, any change process set up to create growth also creates inadvertent secondary effects which eventually slow down the success. That is precisely what has happened here.

The growth cycle started with the upswing in the IT sector, creating thousands of new jobs Irish emigrants returned to fill, thus further fueling the consumer economy, all of which coincided with a period of record low interest rates.

But limiting effects became obvious very quickly. After decades of neglect, the Irish infrastructure was still in the 1940s. Roads, rail connections, public transportation, and telecommunication systems were all far behind the rest of Europe. There was very little new housing, and nothing in the way of apartments or condominiums. Education and health were in slightly better shape, but there was no organized system of daycare, since few women worked outside the home.

The result has been chaotic and frequently frustrating for those of us who live and work here. The sudden demand for housing has pushed real estate prices up at the rate of 15 percent per year (Dublin is now one of Europe’s most expensive cities). In order to find affordable housing, people must move farther and farther out of Dublin and commute to their jobs. Suddenly the roads and railways are jammed, and country towns such as Navan and Arklow are becoming sprawling bedroom communities.

Social norms have also been affected: house prices are so high that it now takes two generous salaries to support a mortgage. This means that women must think twice before starting a family, even assuming they can find affordable daycare.

And overnight, Ireland has become a multicultural society as immigrants arrive to take up the slack in the service sector. (This morning I heard a radio announcement in Polish).

The effect of all of this on organizational culture has been profound. Contrary to popular belief, Ireland has always had a strong work ethic, but the workplace atmosphere was laid back and very sociable. Lunch breaks were an hour and half, and everybody stopped work promptly at 5:30. Overnight, Ireland has joined the global economy, with its 24/7 imperative and instant communication technology blurring the boundaries between work and private time. Occupational stress has increased at all levels: a recent survey carried out by the Royal College of Surgeons for the Irish Management Institute found that senior managers have a lower quality of life than terminally ill patients. (Irish Times, March 2, 2006)

Occupational stress is further exacerbated by increased commuting time. Because of poor public transport, most people rely on their cars to get to work. For those working in Dublin this can mean leaving home at 6 am to beat the rush, and spending at least two hours in congested traffic every day. Added to this is the additional burden for parents, when daycare costs on average 500 euros ($680) per week, paid for with after-tax euros.

Not surprisingly, “work/life balance” is a hot topic, and organizations are being encouraged to create flexible working policies. Attitudes, however, die hard. A recent study by Dr. Margaret Fine-Davis of Trinity College Dublin found that “there are more negative perceptions towards people who participate in family-friendly programmes. Both men and women who work part-time or job-share are seen as less serious about their careers.” Despite this, other surveys have found that a significant percentage of Irish employees would prefer a lower salary if it meant a shorter work week.

Meanwhile, the government is building new roads and railways as fast as it can. The Dublin skyline is silhouetted with construction cranes, as entire sections of derelict industrial land are turned into high-rise housing. Primary schools are expanding to take in the children of new immigrants, who are learning English for the first time. Child care is moving up the political agenda: in the last budget, the Minister opted to give women 1,000 euros ($1,370) per child under six (which avoided discriminating against full-time mothers, but failed to solve the affordable day care problem). To paraphrase the Irish Rail slogan, “A long way to go, but we’re getting there!”

What will Ireland look like 10 years from now? By then, we hope that the Celtic Tiger and its consequences will have come into better balance, especially in the work world. Nobody would ever want to go back to the grim conditions of the late 1980s, but many are starting to query the price of prosperity and to look for ways of bringing back some of the social, easy-going quality of life for which Ireland is (was?) famous.

A Tale of Two Future Searches: A Methodology for Large Group Change Planning

One of the most frequently asked questions in change management is how can we  build genuine and inclusive support for change within our organization, and do  it quickly? One answer to the dilemma of time versus wide participation is to  use a large group whole systems change process. In this article, the author  examines one of the whole systems processes, Future Search, and presents two  case studies of its application in two very different change management  scenarios: a regional economic development story from Canada and the creation  of a national suicide prevention policy in Ireland.

Download PDF: A Tale of Two Future Searches: A Methodology for Large Group Change Planning

You Think You Have Language Issues at Work?

Queen’s IRC Facilitator Lucinda Bray is a management development consultant based in Dublin, Ireland. In the following piece, she muses on the brilliant cultural chaos of the European Commission workforce.

The Head of the Department is Italian, who also speaks fluent French and passable English. Her deputy is from Finland, and has excellent English and useable Russian. They have just hired a new project manager from Lithuania, whose second language is Russian and who is currently learning English. The rest of the department is a mixture of European nationalities and languages: Greek, English, Dutch, Portuguese, French, Austrian, and Czech.

Welcome to the European Commission.

The European Commission is the public service of the European Union which, since May 2004, now includes 25 countries and operates in 20 official languages. Within the Commission itself, there are three working languages – French, English, and German, which means that everybody has to be able to speak at least one of these. To add to the complication, most of the staffers come from previous careers in their member states and bring different organisational cultures with them.

The Italian Head of Department wonders if her Finnish deputy is a bit slow because he says very little and shows no reaction to her comments. The Finn admires his boss (of course he won’t tell her!) but finds her a little emotionally overwhelming. They are both wondering how the Lithuanian project manager will turn out – she’s only 30, so won’t have been molded by the Communist work ethic, but still… And the Lithuanian is starting to get frustrated by all the bureaucracy and red tape.

I have been leading management development seminars within the Commission for the past 10 years, and am fascinated by the place. At first glance, it looks chaotic. By any normal organisational standard, it shouldn’t work. The whole thing should have collapsed years ago. Traditional bitter enemies working side by side? Twenty official languages? No majority language or working culture? Crazy!

In fact it works very well, by capitalising on those enormous cultural differences. Canadians are used to multinational workforces, but there is always a dominant organisation culture to which the various nationalities are expected to adapt. This does not exist in the Commission. Although the organisation structure is modelled on the French civil service (very hierarchical and vertical), the day-to-day working culture varies from department to department, depending on the nationality of the senior manager. And because of the Commission’s mobility policy, managers must change positions every four years, so the working style in any department shifts constantly.

This multicultural vegetable soup appears to be one of the Commission’s major attractions for new recruits, who look forward to the challenge of working with such a wide cross-section of people. Surprisingly, the Commission provides almost no diversity training apart from an initial induction programme. Yet the atmosphere in the offices is one of respect, tolerance, and good-humoured willingness to accept others’ differences. Racism is almost unheard of.

So… the Italian department head learns that the Finn only speaks when he has something constructive to say, and that he can sum up entire discussions in a single sentence. The Finn learns not to be distracted by his boss’s exuberant body language. The Lithuanian starts to streamline the department’s procedures. And the work gets done.

The Great Divide: in Europe, North American management concepts often strike a sour note

Queen’s IRC Facilitator Lucinda Bray is a management development consultant based in Dublin, Ireland. In the following article, she talks about the gulf between European and North American ideas about leadership — and the hidden perils this presents for an HR consultant training executives in the Old World.

Although there have been many books published on how to manage a multicultural workforce, not much is available on how to teach management and leadership across cultures. As a Canadian HR consultant working in Europe, I have long felt uncomfortable with much of the management development literature from North America because it just didn’t fit. A recent book by Jeremy Rifkin provides some insight into the cultural values that underpin North American management and leadership models, and why these may not travel well.

In The European Dream, Rifkin compares the assumptions behind the American Dream with those he sees emerging as the European Dream. “The American Dream,” writes Rifkin, “is the idea that anyone, regardless of the circumstances to which they’re born, can make of their lives as they choose, by dint of diligence, determination, and hard work.” “Freedom” in a North American context means autonomy, self-reliance, and personal independence. In contrast, Rifkin identifies the characteristics of the European Dream: a focus on interdependence rather than autonomy, quality of life rather than workaholism, and sustainable development rather than perpetual economic growth.

These differences present hidden challenges for the management development consultant. For starters, the cornerstone of the American Dream is the notion of individual self-determination; that anyone can become President (or Prime Minister). Much of current North American thinking about management and leadership (e.g. empowerment, personal goal-setting, servant leadership) rests on this fundamental belief in personal autonomy. Yet European history has taught some very different lessons about personal freedom, and the ability of the individual to create his or her own future, and this leads to deep skepticism about North American “flavours of the month.”

Let’s start with the notion of empowerment — the idea that organizations should push decision-making down to the lowest level, and give staff the responsibility to manage themselves. In his book The Empowered Manager, Peter Block describes empowerment as “a way to treat all members of the organization as entrepreneurs so that employees feel that their units are their own businesses and that they, and they alone, are in the process of creating an organization of their own choosing.” While this idea fits fairly well with Scandinavian and Northern European cultures, it is completely foreign to the more hierarchical and formal working cultures of Central and Southern Europe.

And what about leadership? Even the word itself is loaded. After a leadership workshop I led in Brussels, two Spanish participants came up to me and said, “We understand what you mean by ‘leadership,’ but you need to know that the word ‘leader’ is associated with ‘dictator’ in Spain.” And as for the concept of the ‘servant leader,’ which rests on the (North American) assumption of an egalitarian society, this appears dangerously naïve within Europe.

I could go on. ‘Collaboration’ does not refer to a conflict-resolution style. ‘Performance management’ has fascist overtones to many European ears. And the prospect of giving individual feedback to subordinate staff can be almost humiliating to those coming from more formal, hierarchical working cultures.

While the Canadian culture shares many aspects of the American Dream (including the pioneer belief in an egalitarian society based on individual effort), it is closer to the European Dream in the value it places on sustainable development and a multicultural society. Perhaps that puts us in an ideal position to develop the new leadership models that would combine both the American and European dreams.

Recommended Reading:

The European Dream, by Jeremy Rifkin

Cultural Intelligence: People Skills for Global Business, by Kerr Inkson and David Thomas

When Cultures Collide, by Richard Lewis

Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business, by Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars

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