When I was a trainee in Hong Kong, I used to attend the weekly meetings of branch managers, purely as an observer. These meetings gave me an insight into the Bank’s corporate culture.
Most of the attendees were HK-Chinese branch managers, and the rest were British managers who headed various operating departments, such as finance, treasury, audit, etc.
The ‘discussions’, if one could call it that, were almost fully top-down. The British functional managers would lecture/ instruct/ admonish/ exhort the Chinese branch managers on how to conduct their business, and the Chinese people listened silently, occasionally nodding their heads. AGM-branches presided over the proceedings with the air of an elderly uncle.
The whole affair was very orderly—no cross-talk, no interruptions, no side discussions, and above all – no raised voices. After the meeting, everyone filed out silently, the Brits in one direction and the Chinese in another. I went with the Chinese group because I had to tag along with the manager of the branch where I was undergoing training.
After the Brits were out of hearing, the Chinese broke into loud discussions—in Cantonese, of course. I didn’t understand any of it, but the word ‘gweilo’ meaning ‘foreign devil’, occurred frequently. I was savvy enough to understand what, or rather ‘who’, was being discussed.
Some years later, a visiting Brit from HO happened to attend a monthly ALCO (assets liability committee) meeting at our Mumbai office. He left the meeting visibly shaken, completely aghast, and in dire need of liquid sustenance. Here is why.
Our meetings were free-for-alls. People argued, very loudly of course, because everyone was talking at the same time, and the only way to be heard was to talk louder than the others.
Interruptions were routine and, from time to time, the table was thumped for emphasising a point. People continued side discussions, often across the table, or even left their seats to go and chat with someone else.
The CFO presided over the meeting. He ‘conducted’ it with dexterity, intervening when absolutely necessary, and even flashing an occasional smile. Quite miraculously, he managed to reach some conclusions amidst all this chaos by creating a consensus out of all the contrary views.
Everyone enjoyed themselves immensely and, after the meetings ended, there were smiles and back-slapping, and people went away happy. You could see great bonhomie between people who were engaged in apparently violent strife a little while ago.
The Brit couldn’t make any sense of all this. He may have been convinced that we were all loonies, but hey – India’s profits were growing at more than 30% year-on-year, so evidently things did get done! I wonder, though, what he would have reported back in HO.
In Dubai, the attendees at our weekly mancom (management committee) meetings were UAE nationals, Brits and Indians, about a third each. The MD chaired the meeting, the agenda was routine, everyone around the table made a brief speech about the goings-on in his area, people listened silently, and nobody said anything…..
Yes, there would be occasional disagreements, and even arguments, but voices were never raised and nobody interrupted anyone else. Eventually, the MD would step in and ask the contenders to take the matter ‘off-line’, i.e. discuss it privately after the meeting, and the boring procession of speeches continued.
It was clear that nobody liked attending these meetings, because nothing worthwhile ever came out of them. No matter – the meetings had to be held, minutes prepared and circulated, copies sent to the chairman and the board’s executive committee...Everything duly done, and forgotten!
Then I moved to Oman, where things were, well, different.
I used to chair a weekly meeting of senior branch managers and functional heads. The attendees were mostly Omani (our bank had achieved 91% ‘Omanisation’), one Sri Lankan, two Brits, and one Indian apart from myself.
The cardinal rule in the meetings was – no discord whatsoever.
Let’s say an Omani came up with a ludicrous idea, one so absurd that people around the table hid their smiles or looked somewhere else. But the proponent of the idea would look at me expectantly, as if awaiting applause for his brilliant brainwave.
What was I supposed to do? Could I say, “Abdullah, that will never work, because…..”.
That would be a disaster.
It wouldn’t matter that Abdullah’s idea was preposterous, and that its rejection was totally justified.
Every single Omani around the table would be greatly offended that one of them had been insulted in a public forum, and that too by an expat. They would immediately gang up on me and, henceforth, I would get no support from any Omani manager.
Am I exaggerating?
No, not at all.
I had seen this happening to the erstwhile IT head, a Brit, who had spurned an Omani’s suggestion in the course of a meeting. He was virtually ostracised, and consequently he became ineffective because nobody would cooperate with him. Eventually, he left the bank.
There is a saying in Bengali which means ‘beat the maid to teach the bahu’. I was the bahu here, and I learnt mighty fast.
The right way was to say, “Hey Abdullah, that’s a great idea. I had never thought of it! Well done! Why don’t you and I sit together after the meeting, and go over the details, huh?”
Abdullah would be happy, Omani pride would remain undamaged, and the idea would meet its natural end soon thereafter, in private.
An extension of this culture was: if Abdullah had been failing in his job repeatedly, I couldn’t call him to my office, shut the door, and tell him so. Far from it.
The right way would be – pass on a message.
I had to call Suleiman and tell him, “You know, Suleiman, Abdullah is such a nice chap, he is working so hard, and I really like him. But lately his work is not quite up to the mark, and I am scared that one day he might get into a problem. I know you are his good friend. Why don’t you have a word with him, please?”
The message would reach Abdullah, and the purpose would have been achieved.
Question – which culture is the most effective, performance-wise?
Subservience, chaos, indifference, or pride?
I leave you to be the judge.
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world, playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)