Monday, May 04, 2009

The Question of Respect

I am reading Howard Gardner - Five Minds For The Future - where he talks about the essential abilities that will be required in the coming years. Somewhat similar in theme with Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind, this book does not relate to Professor Gardner's celebrated theory of multiple intelligences, and deals with human abilities and approaches. To sum up the argument, Professor Gardner lists five essential abilities - (a) to have a discipline, which implies a disciplined way of thinking and looking at the world; (b) to be able to synthesize, which indicates an ability to integrate disparate information and operate at an aggregate level; (c) to be creative, which is about the ability to see new possibilities and pursue it with a discipline; (d) to respect, as the world becomes diverse and our ability to respect and accept differences become critical; and (e) to conduct ethically, to set a moral standard of behaviour and adhere to it.

Indeed, one can see the need for a specialism in this increasingly competitive world. Also, in a time when abundance of information is the issue, and not the scarcity of it, synthesizing is indeed critical. So is creativity, which is well acknowledged, though professor Gardner makes a very valid point about our bias towards the loan creator, a new age Edison or Bill Joy, though most of the creative process today are carried out by teams, often disparate and together in a process just for once. We seem to have this idea that the creativity is essentially solo, while the project teams are structured around disciplined roles and limitations. Nothing can be further from reality, indeed, where massive creative projects, like a Hollywood movie, depends critically on the creative contribution of almost every member of the team. So, yes, a new approach to creativity is indeed needed, and Professor Gardner's work will indeed inspire other contributions. Ethics, which I shall talk about in a later post, is firmly in the agenda post-Enron and Worldcomm, and any employer or investor will demand proof of ethical conduct before investing on them.

However, the unexpected one is indeed Respect, which is well outside the domain of Western business thinking. Respect - for others, for differences - is as alien a thing as you can find in corporate boardrooms and management classes. This is one of the touchy-feely things which most people will rather keep outside.

I am not saying good manners are in short supply. One can argue that rudeness is spreading and that may be true, but that's not the point. One can lack respect despite having exquisite manner - one can easily be uncaring and completely insensitive without missing a beat - and the manners are often seen to be applicable to one's own kind rather than to those who are different.

The problem is that our hunter-gatherer business culture, where everything must be negotiated and every penny must be earned, leaves very little space for respect and consideration for the less able and the different. I am of course aware of the legislative attempts to create equal opportunity, but this is a lame duck without the respect that must come from inside. And, on the other side, I would guess, the legislation almost undermine the need for respect - one would think sticking to the legal plot suffices what one needs to do and executives often forget to internalize the spirit of the equal opportunity.

I live in fault lines of global culture and I know how significant is respect for others. I have worked with people who would not take the trouble of learning about a different culture and would want to judge these by their own benchmark. Which is essentially a mark of lack of respect and undermine the acceptance of difference critical to international business. This taught me that respect needs to start with acceptance of differences and taking the effort to learn about it. I am not sure that our schools, and our business education teaches this anywhere; in fact, it is often considered a clear waste of time. Besides, the business education usually works the opposite way, in breeding arrogance and undermining respect, and one can witness this in everyday life in abundance.

In fact, I now see an opportunity in this scarcity of respect and trying to start an enterprise focused on cross-cultural communication. I have been studying about cross cultural issues for a while, starting primarily from a mechanistic point of view, where a culture is viewed as a collection of symbols and rituals, and gradually progressing to the key issues of values and mindsets. Gardner's work gives me a new dimension - respect - that must get into this effort. However, I know it is more difficult to work on than a set of symbols - but then it is worth the effort.

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