Importing corporate training modules is fraught with danger. It’s time to recognise the uniqueness and strengths of Bangladeshi corporate culture, and for training providers to tailor sessions accordingly.
For a while, the honey hunters of the Sundarbans took to wearing masks on the backs of their heads. They sought to fool tigers, which usually attack from behind. While the trick of the two-headed human didn’t fool the tigers for long, it was such a mask I wished to be wearing at the latest corporate training session. Like the tiger, neo-colonialism hunts with stealth.
We begin with a video, random people walking around a hospital, each accompanied by a caption explaining their particular circumstances. One guy has cancer. Another is worried about hospital expenses. A Middle Eastern looking chap is apparently thousands of miles from home. It’s a lesson in empathy, we are instructed. Given most of the captions are negative, the video is sad.
And yet more than sadness, I feel relief. “This video illustrates one reason I’m pleased not to live in the west,” I think.
You see, in the video nobody actually speaks to each other. While it’s good to consider that we don’t know other people’s circumstances, without communication there can be no empathy. Empathy is about putting oneself in somebody else’s shoes; it’s hardly possible if we don’t know what shoes they wear. The video itself demonstrates that in mainstream western corporate culture, empathy has become a bit of a dinosaur.
A typical Bangladeshi hospital, especially a public one, is an altogether different scene. In the lifts, strangers chat. They share ailment stories, and stories of a husband’s brother’s cousin’s wife’s remarkable recovery. Bedside they share food because it’s impolite to eat in front of someone. Medical charts are produced for consultation from just about anybody nearby. It’s hardly unusual for a ward visitor to be asked their opinion about a page of indecipherable test results. Bangladesh is about nothing if not communication. Even in a hospital ward, the guy in the next bed will soon be a kind of treatment batch-mate, in a shared hospital experience.
Thus before the corporate guy following his western-normal script should be instructing Bangladeshi staff about empathy, perhaps the staff could instruct him about community spirit, to be found not only in hospitals but also in villages, in Dhaka’s little nooks, at the grocery store and in the better local workplaces. Not only will most of the staff of a Bangladeshi company know that so-and-so is about to be married, for example, they’ll possibly be invited to the reception. In the west, wedding invitations are unlikely to include colleagues in general.
The saddest part is that the trainer is also Bangladeshi. He must know how culturally divorced the training session is. And yet he piously ploughs on. Because it’s western? Because it’s “developed”?
Through the four hours of lecture on time management and teamwork, Bangladesh isn’t mentioned much. But on every occasion it is mentioned, it’s to say something negative.
A case in point is adda. Our trainer tells us what we all know, that Bangladeshi-style adda is not common overseas. Workplace adda is a time waster, we are told.
But of course if we look at “out-of-the-box” companies in the west, like some of those in Silicon Valley, they go the extra mile to provide office environments that promote inter-colleague communication. They have to. They know that communication cements team spirit, that it can help minimise staff turnover and sick leave. When it’s a joy to arrive at work because colleagues are morphed into friends, productivity is a likely winner.
Bangladeshi companies are at an advantage here. They don’t need gimmicks to promote colleague relations. The local culture does it for them. Adda is not a liability. It is a corporate asset of which wiser western companies would be envious.
Having worked in several good Bangladeshi companies, and I note that not all are equal, this western-born human had adjustments to make. Perhaps foremost among them was to learn trust. Back in an Australian office, if I wanted a colleague to do something I’d send them an e-mail as proof that I’d asked on such-and-such a date, in case whatever it was didn’t get done. In the Bangladeshi offices where I have worked, many requests are made face to face, in the lift, at the staff canteen, or by visiting a colleague’s cubicle. It’s been really difficult to let my guard down, to accept that actually people tend to do what they say they will, and that they won’t be deliberately making problems for you by saying yes and then not doing the task on purpose. When colleagues in Bangladesh have made mistakes, they tend to apologise, a revelation to me, even in cases where it isn’t necessary. Most of all, they tend to focus on collective problem-solving. It’s really not Australia.
Thus, any Bangladeshi company seeking to implement western corporate culture unfiltered is, I believe, set to experience loss. What is needed is corporate training that is culturally specific, that doesn’t try to mimic western norms and “solve” western corporate culture problems, but rather recognises the strengths of Bangladeshi society and tries to build upon them in the context of a corporate environment. Such an approach would represent truly constructive corporate development. For me, sadder than a silent western hospital is when Bangladeshis underestimate their home-grown strengths.
Andrew Eagle is an Australian-born writer and English teacher.