Cultural Difference In Management

June 8, 2010

This morning, the Spanish director of the program where I am teaching International Management this summer in Spain told me that one of the American students studying abroad through the program had been injured over the weekend. The injuries were serious enough that the student is hospitalized here in Spain and had to have a series of operations to repair damage to a broken leg. The director offered no details about how the student was injured, and I did not ask for any more information that what he offered.

The day before, my students told me a different, more complete story. They told me the American student was walking home alone from a bar sometime after 3 am when he was assaulted by three Spanish locals. They also told me the student suffered a fractured leg and was taken to the hospital.

Why didn’t the Spanish program director tell me the entire story? If we were in the US and I were the director of a program where a student was assaulted, I would have organized a series of public communications for all students and faculty so that everyone would know what happened and could take steps to ensure their personal safety. That would just be good management. In the US we “tell it like it is” and place heavy emphasis on direct and open communication.

But we are not in the US. In Spain, they place more value on competence, control, and saving face than we do. I know the program director here, and he is a man of great character and integrity. I know that he must be deeply troubled by the injury to the student, but at the same time, he is the director and this incident cannot reflect well on him and his staff. It is very important for things to appear completely in order, even if they are not.

I’m glad I had enough sense not to challenge him for more details on his story this morning in his office. While I would not have hesitated to do so with my leadership back in the US, it would have been a mistake for me to do so here. Still, it troubles me that not all the students studying here know what happened so that they can decide for themselves if they need to be extra vigilant. But it is also entirely possible that he is having these conversations one-on-one with students to keep it low keyed and I am just not aware of it.

While no one deserves to be a victim of violence, the student made an extremely poor choice. Even in a city that you call home, if you leave a bar in a big city alone at 3 am you could be asking for trouble.

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  1. Steph Cowan says:

    Bret, the first question that occurs to me is: is this an anomaly or a pattern? One would hope that if there was a pattern of assaults by locals on foreign students, saving face would take a back seat to preserving safety. One would hope. But certainly there are examples from our own culture where this was not the case, the Challenger disaster being one of the most prominent. Perhaps his goal is to prevent backlash or panic, which could further degrade the integrity of the system? Thanks for the post!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Good question, Steph. We assume there is no pattern, but you never no. I’m thinking of cases in the US where the assault rate of women on campus is higher than advertised and women show up thinking things are safer than they really are. Either way, it seemed to me that it merited a blanket warning “stay away from this bar”. Thanks! Bret

  2. davidburkus says:

    Crazy example. One of my biggest regrets is not studying abroad, I would probably have been an arrogant American and challenged the director.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I almost did, David. Then I spent the next few hours thinking of the culturally acceptable ways to talk to him about it. Now I am in the listen and learn mode. I won’t get involved unless my concerns escalate. He is a good guy, and I know he is concerned, so I am going to trust him on this one. Thanks! Bret

  3. Great post Bret, troubling to think that lack of safety awareness may be cultural. This one incident, spoken aloud via your blog, affects how your readers will feel about Spain. I recall my trip to Barcelona in 1994 and remember how unsafe I felt in one particular area; if tourism is to be vital to the economy of any given location, safety must be a high priority I would think. Have fun and be safe!

  4. You know, the foundation of martial arts training occurred in a very different culture than ours. The perfection of martial arts was a constant concern because there was a deep rooted belief that the world was extremely dangerous, and somebody could try to hurt you at any time.

    Personally, I’d say that the world hasn’t changed much, that the world is still extremely violent, and isn’t that different from Ancient East Asia. It’s just not a good idea to go out and about assuming your “naturally” safe — especially when traveling.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I agree Glenn that the world is dangerous and getting more so. You can and should never let your guard down, especially in a big and unfamiliar city. Thanks! Bret