A conversation with Dr. Geert W.J. Heling, professor of organizational behaviorThe critical issue in development is cultural development [Archives:2007/1021/Reportage]

February 1 2007

Interviewed by: Raidan Al-Saqqaf
[email protected]

Professor Geert W.J. Heling is a renowned professor and consultant on organizational behavior and change who is visiting Yemen as a part of the Maastricht School of Management Executive MBA program being held in Sana'a in collaboration with Sana'a University. The Yemen Times met with Heling to discuss the issue of cultural development in Yemen and how Yemenis can help themselves realize their own development on all fronts.

Dr. Heling, please tell us about your background.

Well, I come from Europe, from the Netherlands. My educational background is psychology; more specifically, I studied cultural psychology. I've always been interested in different languages and different cultures, and, actually, that's also what I'm doing for my work.

I began my career as an academic researcher at the University of Nijmegen and later became full professor of organizational behavior at the Maastricht School of Management on a part-time basis. I combine this with my main job, which is management consultancy, and I have my own consulting firm.

Most of my work with the Maastricht School of Management is in outreach, as Maastricht MBA programs are being taught in many different locations worldwide, particularly in emerging economies and developing countries. There's already considerable experience in developed countries; therefore, we're focusing on developing the rest of the world.

We've ventured into countries like China, India and Indonesia, as well as Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Actually, this is my first visit to Yemen. I've been teaching in Cairo and I've visited Tunisia, but I consider this my first real encounter with this part of the world because my previous visits were a long time ago.

Yemen has been implementing a development strategy involving economic, political and social development. However, we've witnessed only limited progress and success via these strategies so far. I think the critical issue in development is a cultural issue.

If that's a question, it's a simple one to ask, but there's no simple answer. Of course, we know about the development of the 'Asian tigers' and other Asian countries. I've been there many times and I've seen it grow. It's booming at the moment and their development is incredible. Is there one key to it? No. Does the cultural issue matter? Yes. Like I said, there's no easy answer to it and I don't want to claim that I can provide you with a simplistic solution to copy.

To a certain extent, from what I see in several Asian countries, it's all about attitude and of course, you can connect attitude to culture. For instance, when I go to China, I see many people working. Even those who are unemployed still are doing something. In the poorer areas, people are doing things like cleaning their streets. Why? Apart from individual drives, they share a social obligation toward the betterment of their communities.

It's this industrious mentality of the Chinese to keep busy and to improve the things around them. This is amazing – something unheard of even in the Western world – and they're growing rapidly. There's something in their values and cultural system that makes them like to work. They feel they have an obligation to contribute to their social environment and to the community.

If we translate this to Yemen – and I apologize if I don't have a complete picture, as I've been here only a few days, so please feel free to fill me in – based on what I've seen so far, the difference is the mentality of how to get from having a plan to actually implementing it. You see, making a plan isn't so difficult. Of course, a certain intelligence and expertise are required to make a good plan, but that's not the difficult part. The difficulty is to actually implement it and start carrying out what was planned to do.

In many cases, the plan isn't implemented and doesn't lead to the hoped for results. People then blame it on the plan itself and think they must have a better plan and start anew. But mostly, that's not the problem. Implementation matters most.

Often in my work organizations, I encounter those with the attitude that having a plan, in combination with the intention to carry it out, is enough. Thus, they stop pursuing implementation because they think they've already done the job. However, this is only the starting point, of course. This is seen particularly in bureaucratic organizations.

Maybe this attitude also exists in Yemen. I see many plans here. I spoke to several people during the past couple of days who talked about the government's many plans, etc. This means you have enough plans – and the plans are probably considerably good – yet why don't you execute them, go through implementation and achieve good results? Something's missing there – the action part.

You can call it culture or attitude or maybe it's just a lack of understanding of the mechanisms behind it because we must understand the behavioral mechanisms that enhance performance. If we look at Yemen's situation, the danger is that we simply could blame it on “the culture.” However, culture isn't some independent thing or an abstract entity – it's you and me. Culture is what people think and do.

The same applies within an organization. An organizational culture isn't something abstract or something being enforced by top management or some consultant; rather, an organizational culture is what we're doing here. It's the behavior of managers, employees and everyone who constitutes part of the organization. Culture is the behavior we exhibit every day. The good news is that people can change their behavior.

If we look at the behavior of a typical Yemeni employee, student or even journalist, we find they work an average 20-hour week and most of their work isn't valuable additions, but repetitive activities to which they've become accustomed. If you want to change this culture or behavior and get Yemenis to work and spend 7 to 8 hours of constructive effort and focus on the quality of their output, how do you do that?

That's a challenging question. People mention to me the habit of extensive qat chews and the time these chews consume at the expense of working hours. It's a simple mathematic calculation. If you only work four hours a day while others work eight or 10 hours a day, it's clear that you have a disadvantage and you'll never get as far as the others.

Referring to your question about how to change that, let me warn you about one thing: the solution never can come from outside. If you want to change this, then the desire to do so must come from within. For example, if you impose a new type of working system within your organization, simply imposing such a system won't change people's attitude. They're smart enough to disrupt it, they're intelligent and creative and they'll find a way around it; thus, it must come from within.

If we talk about commitment as a motivator, you can't impose this on people. I can't motivate anyone, I can only help others motivate themselves and create conditions within which they can commit themselves. Now, here's an important key and something a lot of managers and leaders misunderstand: you can never impose a change of behavior upon someone. Sure, you can enforce it, but that only works for the short term. However, for the long term, he must convince himself that it's beneficial for him to change his behavior and that's not a simple thing to do.

For example, you can't convince a person that smoking cigarettes or chewing qat is bad for him. He probably already knows it, so if you try to convince him with rational arguments, it doesn't work. He must convince himself and I think the only way is by helping him see and feel what the benefit is for him. He must see for himself the rewards of his behavior.

If he can see the reward of working eight hours instead of four, then he can choose to change. If you force him, he'll only act like it, but he'll never really change, and this acting like it is what we see so often in organizations. Managers and leaders demand that we must act differently and that we must change, but people just don't commit themselves to it, so they'll just act as if they comply. When the manager turns his back, they just fall back into the old behavior patterns.

In theory, when we question why people don't get to the stage where they really see and feel the rewards of changing their behavior, I think they focus too much on the input and the work side of it instead of on the reward side and what will be the outcome. They focus too much on making plans instead of on achieving results.

If I see that working longer hours is rewarding for me, not only in payment but also in job satisfaction, sense of achievement and maybe even higher status, that will help me convince myself to take action and really change my behavior. Of course, the social context is important too because people must feel that the new behavior is acceptable or even more desirable. You can call that culture, but it's ultimately about the choices people make themselves.

As you said, development is a choice on a personal level. However, there are misconceptions around the concept that development is inflicting alien concepts upon society. How should we as educators deal with this?

I see that there's a misconception about development and progress in many societies, as if it would mean changing their culture to match those of Western societies. A change of culture should be such that it enriches the culture itself while developing its own unique set of characteristics without losing its own values or identity.

For instance, collectivist values are very important in many societies – so don't try to get rid of them and become individualistic! That's a misunderstanding many people have. Globalization (many fear that it's synonymous with what I call 'Americanization') doesn't necessarily imply that you give up your own identity.

On the other hand, one can't deny that the economy is a global thing, so you can't separate Yemen from the rest of the world. For development, I think we should develop mechanisms that foster economic growth through individualists' profits, etc., but combine it with more collectivist values.

When talking about social responsibility in economic growth for a nation or for a people, you can say, “We want this to be balanced and we want companies and governments that also look at the social issues of economic growth.” So regarding development in Yemen, I think people will change their behavior, but not necessarily lose their values or cultural identity.

I asked my students in this class their reasons for joining the MBA program and most said they want to learn and improve themselves. That isn't incompatible with a collectivist society because every one of them realizes they also have a social responsibility. I'm glad they affirmed their commitment to social development in this country.

We spoke about education, about globalization, about what sparks changing one's behavior and about one's social responsibility. How do we spark a desire to change and discover the positive rewards of executing more work via a collective approach?

Again, there's no simple answer, but allow me a few remarks in this regard. First of all, we really should study what 'development' is because I've noticed that many people in the world see development as becoming like the Western world. That's not my conviction because I'm not so sure development in the Western world has gone in the right direction, at least culturally speaking.

I'm an optimist and I believe that some day there will be a global culture – not a uniform one, but one that contains a lot of diversity. So I hope the whole world won't be Westernized, Americanized or even 'China-ized,' but rather will look more like a multicolored blend that preserves each society's main values with mutual respect toward each other. I believe this will be the case some day.

But how can you get from underdeveloped to developed? You can answer this question in an economic way regarding how you can grow as an economy and this is fairly simple. Work harder, be more efficient, invest more and trade more with the rest of the world. Learn from others, act on it and you'll see the benefits rapidly.

However, if you talk about cultural development, then I hesitate. Don't try to change Yemeni culture to a Western culture. You may want to develop Yemeni culture into a new, future Yemeni culture coinciding with economic development as well. But such change never can be imposed or done from outside – it must happen from within. It's the people's choice. If they choose not to develop, then no one can ever make them develop.

If you want to develop as a nation, challenge the people and try to set the conditions so they can commit themselves to development. I strongly believe in education as a development tool, not to change a culture, but to develop it. Education makes people see and understand more, as well as understand more about their own position and background. It doesn't bring something radically new; rather, it mainly allows them to grow and see things from different perspectives. It's like building a tower with many bricks – the higher the tower gets, the more you can see when you're standing on top of it.

With education, people develop a broader view, they know more and can interpret things differently and they can choose to take up action accordingly. That's what education can do in contributing to develop a society. Also, exposure to those from other places and cultures is crucial in order to develop different perspectives.

You ask how long it takes. I estimate it would take approximately 15 years to really achieve the results from such kind of development, which, relatively speaking, is a short time period. But you mustn't stop at merely having plans and intentions – act on them and guard the progression!

Thank you for your time and for discussing this issue of cultural development. I look forward to welcoming you in Yemen in the future.

Thank you. I truly hope to come back again. And if I may add, my visits to Yemen and to other countries are helpful for me too. Through my travels, I have the opportunity to meet new people and learn from their views and opinions. I've already learned so much here, especially from my students, and this enhances my understanding of your culture too. I get to learn more about Yemen from the inside. Now when I go home, I'll meet those in my country who've never gone abroad and I can explain to them what Yemen is all about and tell them about its fascinating people.