Tag Archive: psychology

Apr 16 2019

Book review: The Culture Map by Erin Meyer

More work-related reading for this post with The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, it has the lengthy subtitle “Decoding how people think, lead, and get things done across cultures”.

The Culture Map
The Culture Map

Meyer’s thesis is that there are national cultures which can be described by a countries location on a set of eight axes, and managing fruitful international collaborations requires recognition of this fact and an appreciation of where the team members lie on this scale.

The book is divided into eight chapters, each concerning one of the axes. Typically a chapter will start with what one might term an anecdote or case study which introduces an incident which illustrates the wider point of the chapter. These are all very personal and individual, there are names of people and companies, and specific meetings and scenarios. This is followed by a summary table which lists out where different countries fall on this particular axis and then goes on to suggest some strategies to address potential issues in multicultural teams.

The eight axes are:

  • Communicating – is communication high-context (i.e. implicit) or low-context;
  • Evaluating – is negative feedback provided directly or indirectly;
  • Persuading – principles-first or applications-first? To convince someone do you describe a concrete instance (application) or recommendation or start with a theoretical model (principles)?
  • Leading – hierarchical or egalitarian;
  • Deciding – are decisions made consensually or top-down?
  • Trusting – is trust based on tasks (i.e. work successfully completed) or relationships (sharing meals and drinks);
  • Disagreeing – is disagreement confrontational or non-confrontational;
  • Scheduling – is scheduling linear-time (i.e. on time) or flexible-time?

In most cases the themes are considered in isolation but in a couple of cases there are interactions. For example, between communication styles (high and low context) and negative feedback styles (direct and indirect). The US, and to some degree UK and Canada, are unusual in that they favour low-context, explicit communication but indirect negative feedback. The second case is in the disagreeing style (confrontational or non-confrontational) where a ninth axes is slipped in: emotional expressiveness.

As someone with a background in the physical sciences this type of of book can be a bit challenging. Physical scientists expect theoretical models, such as the one presented here, to represent an underlying physical truth. The model is therefore, crudely, right or wrong. Outside the physical sciences a model can be something else: a framework for exploration and discussion. That’s to say the important thing is not the “correctness” of a model but the opportunity it presents in framing discussions. I suspect this makes us principles-first on the persuading axis.

In this case the physical scientist in my wants to argue about whether there really are 8 axes or should it be fewer (or more) and how well-established is the evidence for each of these axes. For some axes Meyer cites academic work in support. She also provides some rationalisation for where countries fall on an axes on the basis of history or prevalent religion.

The book presents itself as a manual for working between cultures but I wondered from the start whether it was more generally applicable. Individual styles vary within a national culture, if I look at my approach to timekeeping then I fall on the positively Germanic end of the scale, whilst other English people I work with have a much more Italian view of timekeeping. Arguably software developers as a group are on the “low context” end of the communication scale, computers are pretty much the definition of low context communicators – everything is absolutely explicit.

Meyer does touch on this idea briefly at the beginning of the book, talking about how the national scores on a scale represent the average across the distribution of individuals’ scores for a nation but doesn’t really pick it up as an idea.

Some themes arise in these solutions, the first of which is that recognising difference is half the battle. The second is about being explicit about how you will handle areas of potential misunderstanding. Finally, there is a warning about not trying too much to ape characteristics that are not your own. For example, if you come from a culture where criticism is typically indirect, don’t go all out to be direct in your criticism because it really is possible to go too far and you won’t be a good judge of what “too far” is.

I’ve noted when reading books on marketing that the style they use has a distinct marketing air, and I wonder whether the same is true for this book. Are the anecdotes about dinner to appeal to our relationship-trust side, and the summary tables our task-based trust side?

This is really a book which I wish I’d read long ago, in part because I’ve worked in international teams as an academic and commercially in both small and large companies. But also because I see in this book as a guide to working with people more generally, even those in the same culture.

Dec 22 2018

Book review: What’s your type? by Merve Emre

whats_your_type.What’s your type? by Merve Emre is described well by it’s subtitle “The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing”. It is the story of Katherine Cook Myers (1875-1968) and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers (1897-1980) who developed the test based on the foundations her mother laid.

The Myers-Brigg Test presents users with a set of forced choice questions which it then converts into 16 personality types based on four axes: introversion/extraversion (E/I), thinking/feeling (T/F), sensing/intuition (S/N) and judging/perceiving (J/P). Your type is denoted by the four letters one from each axis.

I’m fairly sure I’ve taken a Myers-Briggs test in the past and I’ve completely forgotten the outcome, I’ve taken a related test more recently. For which I came out an “architect” – INTJ. I am proud of my label!

The story starts with Katherine Myers. It is fair to say that she was an unusual mother, writing a column on child-rearing “Diary of an obedience-curiosity mother” which was published for many years in the American Magazine. These were the notes of her highly structured programme of child-rearing, as applied to her daughter. They appear to have picked up a theme of the time, in using knowledge for self-improvement. There was a similar movement in Victorian Britain.

This episode leaves you with the impression of a fiercely intelligent woman channelling all her energy into the only outlet the society of her time gave her: the raising of her daughter. She had two other children who died young. Isabel’s marriage and departure was clearly a wrench for both mother and daughter.

Katherine then “found Jung”, the psychologist Carl Jung – more specifically Jung’s psychological types. This fitted with her desire to classify people, and find a place for each in society. Her mission then became to render Jung’s types into something more useable. She corresponded with Jung, and met him once. There was clearly a degree of hero worship and obsession in her interactions with him.

Katherine’s approach to type was very much an individualised “expert” one, Isabel’s contribution was democratisation – making a questionnaire and answer scheme such that customers could apply the tests themselves. Like her mother, Isabel was clearly very capable – winning a prize for her novel “Murder Yet To Come” in 1929. A second novel, “Give Me Death” sounds profoundly racist, it features a Southern family whose members commit suicide on discovering that their line contains “negro blood”. This reflects racist/eugenicist overtones in some of Katherine’s writings.

During the Second World War Isabel’s test was used at the Office of Strategic Studies (OSS) as part of a battery of tests applied to evaluate the suitability of people as spies. During the war, Katherine, amongst others tried to “diagnose” Adolf Hitler with a view to predicting the possible outcomes for the war. Unsurprisingly there predictions were not particularly useful.

After the war Myers-Briggs became involved in the Berkeley Institute of Personality and Assessment Research. This followed on from the OSS work and saw relatively small numbers of candidates taken on weekend “house-parties” for assessments. The candidates were a wide range of the great and the good, but scarcely any women.

Later the Myers-Brigg test moved to the East coast, to the Princeton Educational Testing Service (ETS) which designed and administered the SAT. For a number of years they tried to give the Myers-Briggs test a solid scientific foundation but were ultimately not satisfied with it. The original Jungian psychological types were somewhat subjective, and the Myers-Briggs test had a habit of providing different types on retesting.

The Myers-Briggs test was ultimately to find a home in the Centre for the Applications of Psychological Type (CAPT) which Isabel founded with Mary McCaulley, a psychologist from the University of Florida. Uptake of the Myers-Briggs Test grew enormously in the years after Isabel’s death in 1980.

The new thing that the Myers-Briggs Test introduced was a degree of dispassion in its outcomes. None of the types are described as “bad”, or really can be construed as such. The tenor of the test is positive. It is about finding ones place in society and the world of work. This may run counter to individualistic ideals but it struck a chord with many organisations and individuals. It is an astrology for our times, it gives us a team to join, and guidance on how to live our lives.

In some ways the strongest impression I got from the book was of the Myers-Briggs testing regime as a modern day cult, this is only addressed directly by the author in the Introduction and Conclusions regarding her travails with the CAPT, the current guardians of the Test.