Leaders and their blind spots

Der blinde Fleck

Maybe you know this feeling, you are travelling 180 km/h on the German autobahn and you are about to overtake a minivan. You look in the rear and side-view mirror, and just as you are about to shift your car out of the travelling into the passing lane, a Porsche passes you with top speed. In a panic you bring your car back to the traveling lane, you hit the breaks in order to avoid an accident, and you are dripping with sweat. As your heartbeat calms down you are still cursing about the irresponsible drivers on the German autobahn, who overtake you when driving 180 km/h.

How could this happen?

The Porsche was hidden for a split second in your side mirrors blind spot– just long enough to give you the perception of a clear passing lane. An illusion which might have cost you your life and that of your family. Every driver is aware that there is a slight possibility that a car or motorcycle could be hidden in the blind spot when overtaking or making a turn into a narrow street. How often does it happen though that we are totally caught by surprise?

How about people in leadership positions? Do they also develop blind spots in their companies?

Maybe you know a similar situation, you walk well prepared into a meeting and John D., a colleague of yours who frequently annoys you with unconstructive comments, totally throws you off your game with one of his comments. Since you are well prepared, you slow down, take a breath and politely but firmly respond in a manner that allows you to achieve your objective at the meeting and finally bring the ship safely into the harbor. Later  in the evening you are still upset with John D. and even tell your wife about it. At the next meeting where John D. is also present, you are tense before entering the room, because you already know what’s going to happen. And of course a couple of minutes into your presentation there he goes again. This time though, you attack. The situation gets totally out of hand and words are exchanged which don’t belong in a professional setting. You don’t know how, but in the end you are able to pull it together, but it costs you significant energy to get everyone to agree to your project and to achieve your goal. Even days later you are still upset about the situation and you feel embarrassed about making a fool of yourself; which is definitely not what happened, but it sure feels like it. And most of all it is totally below your standard.

How was this possible? You had prepared yourself so well for it? Or not?

If you know situations like these in some different shape or color, then answer for yourself without hesitation the following questions in writing. It is best if you do it on paper:

Which coworker or boss gets on my nerves on a regular basis? 

What is missing for me in these moments?

If I would be a master in improvisation, and would be able to react spontaneously in such situations; what would then be possible?

What can I do differently the next time to be not only prepared, but also present in the moment, capable to react spontaneously? 

Very often we prepare ourselves only for our own role, without acknowledging the constant changing environment that surrounds us. Presence is your key to openness, spontaneity and staying calm in challenging situations.

Stay present, stay curious and live with passion!

Lost in translation – Lukas Perman facing intercultural challenges in Japan

Lukas Perman Flyer

MS: Lukas, you are one of the first European performers who had the pleasure to perform in a Japanese musical theatre production. What were your greatest challenges?

Lukas Perman: As you already mentioned I had the pleasure to be part of an all Japanese production of the “Phantom of the opera”. It was a very exciting experience even though I sometimes felt very much like the characters in “Lost in Translation”. Obviously, prior to the engagement I started preparing myself by learning the language, which was a big challenge, since Japanese is totally different in its structure from all the romance languages. But this approach was very interesting to me and allowed me to get some insight on their mindset already beforehand. I obviously tried to start conversations by initiating small talks and so forth. But learning a language takes time. Our language is anyway only a small part of our communication. I find it more important to take on some specific forms of behavior, which Japanese people use during conversations. As a European you always carry with you some kind of “protection”. The protection of your looks which always set you clearly apart from the locals and justifies some of your odd behavior. But after some time they also expect you, to take on some of their cultural values and habits, like for example some rituals of courtesy. In Japanese culture these are very important. You can find them a lot within the language as well. There are many different layers of courtesy depending on rank, hierarchy and gender. A translator and friend of mine once told me, that he would never be able to speak to the emperor because he doesn’t know all the forms of courtesy which are required when speaking with nobility.

MS: If I understand you correctly, you noticed most of all, that hierarchies in Japan are way more important than in Austrian culture. If you take a look at your own culture, how would you describe it?

LP: We in Austria have a very open society influenced by humanism and the enlightenment. But I also have to say, that Austria is heavily influenced by the Catholic church. The Christian belief system, predominantly among the people living in the country side, brings a very devout behavior and mindset along, to put it in a provocative way. Among the people living in the more urban areas I don’t see this as much. The youth here is very progressive and stands up for their rights and for democracy.

MS: Taking a look at Japan once more, you spent about two years there. What made this experience special for you?

LP: I was able to experience some inner peace in Japan. Not knowing and understanding the language in the beginning; not to understand the body language of the people and everything that came with it; in the microcosm of the theater world for example there can be a lot of gossip. And exactly all of this gossip I wasn’t able to understand, which felt very peaceful in itself. I couldn’t understand the news and so I had a lot of time to focus on myself, lots of energy just for myself and I experienced this as very peaceful. The most important thing regarding social interaction was for me to value and to respect each other. I spent a lot of time with my Japanese colleges after rehearsals and after the shows to do stuff together. It really was this appreciation and respect for each others differences which helped me to build up trusting relationships.

MS: The theater industry obviously has its own subculture and I remember it from when I worked as a performer on stage in different productions, how culturally diverse the teams were. Where can you see the most conflicts among colleagues from different cultural backgrounds when working in musical theater productions in Austria?

LP: The big issue is usually that everyone has their opinion how things should be done. Even if you are very disciplined, you will always enter a new production with some kind of expectations. You are insecure, since you are stepping on new grounds where you are bringing your whole self into the game. The biggest challenge in my eyes is to value
that which everyone brings to the table as creative input and contribution. In the musical theatre production of Romeo and Juliet we had about 30 performers on stage, from 15 different nationalities. Everyone has his own cultural background and on top of that his own personal story, which he carries along. To be able to see this as diversity and positive contribution is a big challenge. And looking at the world right now, this topic is more important than ever.

MS: Do you see this effort of opening up as a challenge or is this something that you practiced enough, so it became second nature to you?

LP: It is still a challenge, because you are getting comfortable. You want to stay safe and in your comfort zone. But I also have to admit that once in a while I got myself into a tricky situation. Once, on a concert tour through Japan, I insulted our guitarist which was totally embarrassing to me and which I didn’t mean and had not seen coming. I was the only European on the tour and I had a very good translator along. The guitarist had something very European about himself. I was convinced that he had spent some time abroad, that he understands my body language and I had a trusting relationship with him. I thought he was an excellent musician and let him know about that on multiple occasions. Once during a rehearsal he made a mistake. With a simple gesture I wanted to make a joke about this, believing he would understand the irony in it. In the very same moment he didn’t seem to register it all. When we went on a break he came towards me and started yelling, which is very strange for Japanese. My translator really had a hard time keeping up with translating. He felt completely insulted, and couldn’t understand how I could have done this to him in front of the whole band. For me this would have been more a sign of trust and confidence, but for him it was totally the opposite. This is for me a classical example of intercultural misunderstanding.

MS: How did you react in the situation?

LP: I was totally shocked, I apologized and tried to tell him how much I value him as a musician. I think this helped him understand that it had to do with a communication problem. At the end of the tour I gave him a nice good bye present. I was really embarrassed by it. I think we both learned something from this situation. And on top of that I also had the feeling that we were able to create again a great feeling within the group and to have a great concert.

MS: Dear Lukas, thank you so much for your time. I wish you much success and many fun projects.

“Sorry Sir, I can only serve you one cup of water.”

Flugzeug Check SAS Airlines bei Nacht

I am on my way home from an exciting conference in Tromso Norway. “How to attract, train and keep global talent” was the topic of the conference organized by Itim International and the local University. #theculturefactor

The last days were filled with interesting talks to leaders in the field of talent management, organisational culture and cultural diversity. Shaking hands, exchanging business cards, too much coffee and not enough sleep. I was tired and I looked forward to get home to my lovely wife and my two children.

It was the first time that I flew with SAS Scandinavias leading airline, a star alliance partner and I was totally excited when I saw that they offered free WIFI on board.

Finally an airline that knows how to treat their customers. I believe that free internet should be made available for everyone everywhere at all time. Being super excited that I would be able to watch my favorite TV show on this flight I sat down, and couldn’t have cared less about the crappy seat I was sitting in.

As soon as we had reached travelling height, I opened my macbook, tried to connect with the onboard WIFI system, when I realized, that the free WIFI was only for passengers traveling in business class. Every one else can get WIFI access by paying 6 Euro extra. Oh well…

While I was debating with myself whether to pay for the internet access or not,  the flight  attendant came by and asked me very politely what I would like to drink. As usual I ordered my two cups of water. I get very thirsty when I travel and so I always ask for two cups of water. The attnedant turned back at me, and to my surprise he passed me only one cup of water and wanted to carry on. In my very polite way I insisted and asked again for a second cup of water. What I heard than was an answer I definitely did not see coming.

He said: “Sorry Sir, I can only serve you one cup of water”.

I was shocked. I was amazed, I didn’t know what to say. Yes he totally through me off.

I replied to him, that so far it has never been an issue to be served two cups of water on an airplane. Hold on a second; was I really negotiating to get a second cup of water, or was it a second glass of Don Perignon? No, it was water!!!

Well, I guess I got lucky- my persistence payed off. He reached for another cup and served me half a cup of water.

Wohoo! Half a cup. This was a first. Never in my entire life had I been served half a cup of water.

Being a consultant for organisational culture change I thought: how interesting!

What an interesting perception of customer service. And I started to wonder where it might come from. Does it have to do with Scandinavian Culture, which is maybe not particularly service oriented, being very individualistic? Or does it have to do with the corporate culture of SAS?

Flight attendants are the people who should be trained to make you feel safe and cared for on an aircraft. Right?

In a case of an emergency, my life is dependent on the service they provide.

The experience I have while traveling on this aircraft depends 100% on the trust that they are able to build during my stay on this plane. Can it really be that this is the message they want to send to their customers?

This incident made me curious.

Was it my bad karma that I got one and a half cups of water from this gentleman or have other people experienced similar situations with this airline before me?

I found two different websites with reviews for airlines: www.airlinequality.com and www.airlineratings.com. And all of a sudden I considered myself lucky.

The headlines to the reviews sound mostly like this: “completely disgusting”, “horrible experience”, “bad service” or “sad experience”.

You can read from Asa flying from Copenhagen via Newark to Las Vegas “getting served only two complimentary drinks”.

Jennifer from Sweden writing about “only one non alcoholic drink on a long haul flight is not ok…”. You can read about not functioning facilities, safety measures not being explained before take off and so forth.

Now it is always more likely that really unhappy people, having really bad experiences are writing these reviews. But there I was having a similar experience by being served only one and half cup of water.

On the airlines website afterwards I can read about the revenue of the last quarter, their strategy and also about customers and customer offerings.

But actually they don’t write anything about their customer service.

“The primary target group for SAS is frequent travelers in Scandinavia, regardless whether the trip is for business or leasure. The objective is to continue to be the target group’s natural choice by providing easy, clear and time-saving products and services, all linked to an unsurpassed network and schedule with frequent departures.” http://www.sasgroup.net/en/customers-and-customer-offering/

If the companies strategy is to increase customer liability with enhanced offerings, services and memberships but the company culture does not support it, how should this work?

Of course you can say, most people book their flights according to who offers the cheapest option. So yes, maybe it is possible to keep attracting enough customer by providing a big network of flights and some gadgets, tools and apps, by ignoring customer service.

But how about the people working for the company. How would you feel working for a company that doesn’t allow you to serve more than one cup of water to a passenger. A company that apparently doesn’t answer to complains. What do you think would that do to your work motivation. Could you identify yourself with a company like that?

Maybe Lufthansa can tell them a thing or two about how expensive it can get once your employees go on strike and stop working for you.

But I guess that is a different story. And who am I to judge anyway?

In the meantime I kept pressing the button on top of me in the aircraft, calling for the flight attendant and asking every single time for one more cup of water. And to my surprise, I was lucky.