Contextual Divide

An organization’s context should determine leadership approach

by Everard van Kemenade

I’ve worked in quality management internationally for more than 10 years, and I realized some quality management professionals think they have a monopoly on the truth. I call it the arrogance of quality management.

For example, in Vietnam, I led a workshop on university leadership, presenting on servant and transformational leadership. Traditional perceptions of leadership evolved from social psychologist Douglas McGregor’s X and Y theories, and extend to author William Ouchi’s Theory Z, which all generally focus on whether an organization believes employees are self-motivated (see sidebar, "A Brief History of Motivation"). Transformational leadership can be characterized as a change from hierarchical relationships between leaders and employees to more democratic relationships.

After I presented this concept to the Vietnamese university deans, they were silent. In the lecture room, I could’ve heard a pin drop, and the tension felt like an enormous weight on my chest. They looked at each other, and around the room, and noticed the president wasn’t there. The vice president spoke up and explained these leadership styles were not fit for Vietnamese society. Hierarchy and strong control were needed.

In Ghana, I facilitated a strategic planning process, and I had little use for my Western toolbox. The authors of Riding the Waves of Culture wrote about sequential-organized cultures and synchronic-organized cultures: Sequential-organized cultures place a high value on punctuality, planning and sticking to your plans.1 Time is money—and people don’t appreciate it when their schedules are thrown off. These are common principles in the Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States.

In synchronic-organized cultures, however, people see the past, present and future as interwoven periods and are always working on several activities at once. Planning is less important than flexibility in cultures such as Japan, Argentina and Ghana.

In Russia, I led a workshop for managers on HR management. I presented old and recent theories on motivation, such as Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Frederick Herzberg’s list of motivational factors. I also showed them a video by author Daniel Pink that explained why using money as a motivator was overrated (see "A Brief History of Motivation"). As I presented, I thought, "So far, so good."

Pink’s video suggested employees are more motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose. The participants completely disagreed. "This," one person said, "only reflects European and American society."

I explained that Pink repeated his research in rural India and got the same results. They responded that India is not comparable to Russia, and this inspired me to do more research on it.

One study confirmed that salaries and bonuses are the best motivators for Russian managers. Swedish managers, however, are more motivated by a pleasant work environment. This study stated, "This finding speaks to the importance of using extreme caution when transplanting the many Western-developed motivation theories, and in fact, management theories in general, to other national contexts."2

A business partnership can provide an example of subtle differences between countries. For example, outside of Europe or the United States, taking time to discuss relationships is often more important than immediately talking about business.

A Likert scale is another process that may not translate correctly in some cultures. My training workshops are evaluated by participants on a five-point Likert scale. In African and Asian countries, I get very high scores—an average of 4.7. Unfortunately, I soon realized these scores don’t mean I’m a perfect trainer. The attendees are using the scale to merely show their gratitude for my efforts.

While these observations demonstrate cultural differences in quality management, I still believe there are some universal principles:

  • Give positive attention to the team, the topic on the agenda and the individual within.
  • Take the context into account.
  • Strive to get commitment from employees and suppliers rather than control them.
  • Organize continuous reflection and action.

Together, these principles—attention, context, commitment, reflection and action—form the acronym ACCRA. This also is the capital of Ghana, which is where I first thought of these universal principles. Unlike the plan-do-check-act cycle, these are not sequential steps. All of these principles must be considered during the entire change and improvement process.

I was a consultant for a hospital in Egypt that embarked on the long journey toward Joint Commission International (JCI) accreditation. At first, there was a lot of resistance to JCI standards. Some staff members felt they weren’t patient-centered and lacked an understanding that could account for the cultural and environmental context of an Egyptian hospital.

It was decided, however, to follow the JCI standards as far as possible and at least increase patient quality and safety. In my consultancy, I used the ACCRA principles. I took time to discuss the standards and train people on how to use them. I built a quality improvement committee to guide the change process. I got to know the individuals who were involved.

I tried to understand the Egyptian context with its political instability, lack of resources and difficulties with unmotivated staff. The aim of the project became to raise staff commitment. This started with the quality improvement committee, and with its help, we created a larger group of advocates for patient quality and safety.

Attaining JCI accreditation was not easy, especially given the circumstances the staff faced. The hospital worked step by step, reflecting and acting after each change. Each year, the progress was audited by an external surveyor team. The baseline survey was done in October 2014, and the score was 36 on a 100-point scale. The score in June 2015 increased to 52 points—a great achievement, but there was still a long way to go.

Effective quality management will differ depending on the context of an organization. The idea that context is crucial in quality management is not new, and it was promoted during the last century in the contingency theory, but it seems to be forgotten.3 Different circumstances require organizations to use different quality approaches, and no one has the monopoly on the truth.

References and note

  1. Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner, Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business, second edition, McGraw-Hill, 1997.
  2. Charles F. Fey, "Opening the Black Box of Motivation: A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Sweden and Russia," International Business Review, Vol. 14, No. 3, pp. 345–367.
  3. Contingency theory suggests there isn’t a singular best practice for organizing and leading an organization. For more information, visit http://tinyurl.com/contingencytheory.

A Brief History of Motivation

Theory X and Y: In the 1960s, Douglas McGregor developed two theories (X and Y) with regard to human motivation and management. Theory X assumes employees naturally lack motivation to work and require managers’ authoritative interventions to complete tasks. Theory Y assumes employees are intrinsically motivated and desire more responsibility, which requires their participation in management’s decision-making activities.

Theory Z: Author William Ouchi’s book, Theory Z: How American Management Can Meet the Japanese Challenge, was published in 1981 and introduced Theory Z. It argues that employees must understand and buy in to the organization’s philosophy; an organization must care about employee happiness and have employee-development programs for increased loyalty; employees must take part in making decisions; and management should allow employees complete tasks as they see fit.

Hierarchy of needs: Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs divides human needs into two categories: basic (physical needs such as sleep, food and water) and metaneeds (such as justice, unity or belonging). Frederick Herzberg’s motivational factors were based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs but more focused on work environments. Herzberg’s factors included dissatisfiers (such as working conditions, salary or co-workers) that must be met before motivators (such as recognition, job challenge or advancement) can be used effectively.

Drive: Daniel Pink states that the influence of money on motivation, above a certain level, is highly overrated. Bonuses do not work, and people are driven by autonomy in their jobs, feeling they master their activities and the purpose of what they are doing. —E.V.K.


Everard van Kemenade is quality manager for MeduProf-S in Geldermalsen, Netherlands. He has a doctorate in management science from Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

Good info.Time well spent.
--Victor Ursan, 11-03-2015

Average Rating


Out of 1 Ratings
Rate this article

Add Comments

View comments
Comments FAQ

Featured advertisers