“We share the truth between us” – Lunch Talk with Charles Hampden-Turner
by Vanessa Meyer.
Charles Hampden-Turner is a British management philosopher currently based at the University of Cambridge Judge Institute of Management Studies. He received his masters and doctorate degrees from the Harvard Business School and was the recipient of the Douglas McGregor Memorial Award, as well as the Columbia University Prize for the Study of the Corporation.
Cornerstones of his academic career were the creation of Dilemma Theory and co-founding the Trompenaars-Hampden-Turner Group in Amsterdam, where he is the Director of Research and Development. Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars had and still have a profound impact in the field of transcultural leadership, with publications like “Building cross-cultural competence: how to create wealth from conflicting values” (2000) or “Riding the Waves of Culture” (2012). Furthermore, Hampden-Turner worked as a consultant for Shell, BP, Digital Equipment, The Economic Council of Canada, the BBC, Philips, Nissan, DSM, Dow Chemical, AMD, Sematech and Apple computers among others.
With this much experience and knowledge in the field, we were of course very excited and thankful to get the opportunity to ask Mr. Hampden-Turner a few questions about transculturality, which you can read underneath.
Q: In what way has transcultural leadership the chance to change the world?
A: Transcultural leadership brings different values together and combines them, which is very important for a successful economy. Think about China for example: They used to be very collectivistic and communistic and had no time for individualism. But the moment they let in western individualism they suddenly began growing. Now their economy is growing three to six times faster than the USA’s. In contrast, like many western cultures, the USA is very individualistic and sceptical towards community. You’ll see that both values, individualism and community, seem to work best combined. If you have competition and cooperation you grow very fast. If individualism puts down cooperation or the other way around, as communism used to, you get total stagnation. But if you bring these two values together you can grow. China did that with the ‘two systems, one nation’ solution for Hong Kong. There you have Western and Chinese economy side by side, comparing them, borrowing from each and they are far more flexible than we are. Also, China is what you might be calling a listening culture. We are a talking culture. And people, who talk, often don’t listen. If you listen first and then talk you have the advantage of both.
Q: In which context do you think transcultural competencies are most important?
A: In all forms. When we take on another culture, we begin to see that things are different. It is fine to look at rules but soon enough an exception will come along. Now either the exception is your enemy and you stamp it out or else you say: Something must be wrong with the rule or otherwise there wouldn’t be an exception. If you incorporate the exception into the world, by modifying your rules, they will get better and better, because they cover more exceptions. This applies to the whole interaction between cultures. We share the truth between us. Part of the world puts the individual before the community and part of the world puts the community before the individual. It is like a chicken and egg problem: The purpose of the individual is to serve the group; the purpose of the group is to nurture the individual. So, if we put the two together we have happiness – are healthy, wealthy and wise. But if we polarize them and attack them it kills both values. Values should rather work with one another.
Q: What role plays transculturality in the business world?
A: It can help in containing complexity. People are overburdened when they have too many choices. The balance is important. Complexity and simplicity have an optimum level. If you produce more variety than somebody’s cognition can handle you will confuse them. If you produce less than they can handle you will starve them of choice. You need to get it just right.
This goes for society in general as well: Society gets more complex in the sense that there are more and more values and more and more diversity. Different countries have had different historical experiences. The conditions in which you live elevate one value or the other. But the art of living lies somewhere in between. The values of competition and cooperation are absolutes but their combination is relative. Every situation needs a different combination of these two values. That will solve the problem.
Q: What is your number one tip for someone wanting to strengthen his or her transcultural competencies?
A: I think you have to jump in the deep end. I think you should go to a foreign country, preferably one that frightens you. I am not saying that you should put yourself in danger but you should go to a culture that bewilders you and that you don’t understand and make as many mistakes as possible. If you have misunderstandings at least you’ll learn. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. If you have good will, people will understand and correct them in a friendly way.
Interview by Julika Baumann Montecinos and Vanessa Meyer
»There can be no culture except where there is some consensus. Consensus is a matter of understanding. It is transmitted through communication, through example and through participation in a common life.«