by Del Chinchen
The purpose of this article is to help missionaries realize that organizational methods vary from culture to culture and to encourage care in not insisting on a Western management style in a non-western setting.
A young female missionary arrived in Africa with high, hopes and dreams of fulfilling the job description previously given to her by the U.S. representative in the states. However, her new boss in Africa, an older African man, had his own traditional ways of helping this young missionary know her place within the organization. No one had told her that new people in this African organization are perceived to be babies, very young in institutional age, and are expected to be dependent on others like infants until they have a chance to grow up. The African organization has in place various initiation rites, covertly and instinctively introduced, to help the newcomer with this process. Once initiates mature, by proving themselves to be trustworthy, loyal, and an asset to the community of the organization, incorporation into the organizational family occurs naturally.
The new missionary’s first goal was to get a bathroom key of her own. Unfortunately, she did not realize (because she – was a baby institutionally) that this organization operates as a collective community and people share keys. Consequently, her pleas for her own personal key, based on her U.S. acquired individualistic value, fell on deaf ears. She did not know what others in the organization knew — that the best way to become incorporated into the organizational family, by way of one of their indigenous socialization methods, is to share offices, books, materials, bathroom keys, food, etc. In her unwillingness to try to understand this foreign (to her) method, she began to develop an attitude. It was not long before this missionary gave up and went home.
Mission sending organizations are plagued with the problem of premature return of personnel, such as described above, due to inability to adapt to the culture of the host country. Often the frustration can be attributed to missionaries discovering that the system of the organization where they work does not operate the way they expected – the way it does back home. Some are under the mistaken impression that the best organizational system is the type in America. They enter institutions in other countries expecting to find their system in operation.
The purpose of this article is to help missionaries realize that organizational methods vary from culture to culture and to encourage care in not insisting on a Western management style in a non-western setting. There are other valid organizational structures, different from our own, that deserve our appreciation, respect, cooperation, and implementation. With this understanding, much of the frustration, confusion, anxiety, and disappointment missionaries often experience can be avoided.
The economic success of the U.S.A. has made people believe that U.S. ideas about management must be superior and, therefore, should be exported. Unfortunately, Western management ideas are often exported uncritically without asking about the cultural influence of the society in which the ideas were developed and the type of society in which those ideas are to be applied. After years of organizational research for IBM in 40 different countries, Geert Hofstede concluded, "Management theories… have rarely recognized that… different models exist and that their occurrence is culturally determined."
Entrepreneurs are beginning to realize this as the dream of global capitalism remains on the horizon. An economist suggests the reason for this delay in countries embracing the capitalistic system:
The deeper explanation is that market capitalism is not just an economic system. It is also a set of cultural values…. These values are not universally shared. Other countries have organized economic systems around different values and politics.
Not surprisingly, African managerial styles have generally been ignored in literature. Why this glaring absence of management studies in Africa? One explanation could be because African management is structured along the lines of the extended family; a system with which Westerners have nothing to compare.
Fortunately, there are organizations in Africa that have attempted to reconstruct some of the traditional institutional framework—once thought to have been destroyed during the colonial period (acutally it only went underground)—within a modern context. African organizational ideals are rooted in centuries of tradition which give them dogged staying power. Therefore, traditional management ideas still remain in the minds of even the most "westernized" African leaders, to one degree or another. These traditional leadership styles are rooted in values and history that require time and latitude to resurface naturally within a non-threatening environment.
It is pathetic to watch an African leader attempt to run an organization that is strapped with foreign models and structures. In this strange environment the African leader is out of his/her element, feeling awkward, incompetent, and lacking in dignity.
But when an organization in an African locality is able to operate free from Western domination, influence, and control, the African leader of the autonomous organization is liberated, unrestrained, and able to lead in an environment in which he or she has created and feels comfortable, because it is familiar. African leaders are capable of managing this type of organization when there is not an insistence on a Western model, but one that has been allowed to develop naturally into a culturally appropriate management structure.
Granted, there may be modern ideas that have been integrated into this structure, but the pervading and dominant influence is African, not Western.
DESCRIPTION OF AN AFRICAN ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE
U.S. firms are usually structured like the military- in a pyramid form containing a chain of command from the top down. An African structure looks more like the rings that form the roof seen on the inside of a hut. The older chief and related elders are in the center, at the very peak of the hut. The more distantly related one is, the farther away from the center of the roof of the hut one is positioned. Each ring (age-group cluster) is made up of age-mates, equal in status, but the structure is hierarchical from group to group. The collective, clan style of organization motivates teams (fictive age-sets) of participants to accomplish organizational objectives. This contrasts sharply with the Western management individualistic style.
A visit to the tombs of the Baganda kings in Kampala, Uganda illustrates this postulate. The ceiling of the king’s hut is made up of 39 rings, each ring representing a clan. The three innermost rings, at the top of the inside of the hut, represent the clan of the king. The farther the rings are from the center, the lower the clan is ranked in seniority.
The indigenous African management style is vertically authoritarian, based on the hierarchical structure of the extended family concept, but also horizontally egalitarian within each age-set grouping.
The organizational structure, as depicted, is made up of several tiers. It is a traditional authority model which can be contextualized to fit a modern setting: a vertical structure derived from the extended family and a horizontal structure derived from the age-set system. First we will consider the vertical structure of the management model and then the horizontal.
The extended family.Management techniques have been developed in individualistic countries, the U.S. being ranked #1 in individualism, based on cultural assumptions which do not always hold in collectivist cultures. Management in Western societies is management of individuals. Management in collective societies is management of groups.
Collectivists have ways of creating fictive family ties with people who are not biological relatives but who are together in one socially integrated group providing security within the extended family. African identity is conceived as participation in a community and only secondarily as an individual. John S. Mbiti says, "In traditional life, the individual does not exist except corporately…as part of the whole."
The father of the extended family. The ideal head of the organization is a "good father" looking after his many children within the organization. He is perceived to be the "King of the hill" with a vision because he is in a strategic position, on top of the mountain, able to see the big picture best. He is also difficult to approach due to the respect required and the effort necessary to "climb the mountain." A staff member of this organization would expect to wait several days to climb the hill before having an audience with the organizational head. The Liberian proverb: "Big Man is like a mountain, hard to climb" gives credence to this idea.
All leaders, including African leaders, are culture bound. They are culturally biased toward a system with which they are familiar. The preference of inequality within the organization is deeply rooted in the mindset of the African. Children learn very early at home to respect those who are older. This value continues at school and is extended later in life into the workplace.
Every father has children. In an African organization, the youngest children are those hired most recently. All staff are considered to be under the father’s care. One of the important responsibilities of a good father is to nurture his "children" by providing training and security. Training opportunities for staff (to improve or learn new skills) indicates that the administration cares about the members of this family and encourages employees to be dependent upon the organization for development.
Providing security and motivation for an employee by giving a raise in salary or by writing out contractual terms formally on paper may not be be the most effective method. Money and written contracts are impersonal-they do not communicate that the institution really cares about the employee. An even greater motivation for working at this institution is the sense of security found within the family network made up of fictional kin. As they say in the Democratic Republic of Congo: "Money cannot care for you, money cannot bury you, only people can." Security within an extended family system is one of the few defenses an individual in African society has against the hardships of life. An African employee may be motivated, therefore, by an increasingly harmonious organization that provides a greater sense of belonging as the employee is absorbed into the family network and develops deeper relationships with others.
Relationships within the extended family. In collective cultures the personal relationship prevails over the task. In an individualistic society the task prevails over any personal relationship. Africans have great practical and emotional problems understanding the impersonal, machine-like bureaucracies of Western countries as was seen by the American Marines’ response to the bomb blast of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. The armed Marines quickly cordoned off the premises to protect others from a possible second blast, thus keeping the Kenyan crowds at bay. Kenyans, who immediately went to rescue any survivors in the building next to the embassy that was damaged, perceived the Marines’ response to be cold and uncaring.
"As Westerners admire technical intelligence, Africans take pride in social intelligence-the ability to remember a person’s name, background and family ties." Relationships within an organization are based on personal friendship. "This process of relationship building needs time to grow." Though committee meetings are for the purpose of addressing issues in a collective manner, they are also used for relationship building and status reinforcement.
There is a moral obligation and a priority given to relating to others within the organization. There seems to be nearly as much effort towards the communion of relationships within this organization as to achieving visible, measurable results related to stated goals. This emphasis on the organismic life, when found in an African Christian institution, is the Biblical principle of the communion of saints and is a sign of a healthy, kingdom-oriented organization.
Networking among extended family members. This complex web of binding relationships within an organization must be maintained in order to have harmony within the system. Each member of the community should intermittently visit others, if not at home, at least in their offices or over the phone, nurturing the relationship in the process. If one fulfills this ancient social tradition, harmony within the organization is enjoyed. To neglect this responsibility creates anxiety. It is a custom in the lunch room, for example, to remain with your colleague until he or she has finished eating. To leave your friend eating alone violates community values and creates tension. The goal is to weld people together into a permanent unit, not isolate them as individuals, unless for disciplinary purposes.
Even over the telephone, a short visit is expected before business is initiated. When I called the organization’s switchboard on a day I was very sick at home, the switchboard operator asked me how I was doing. When I told her I was very sick she prayed: "In the power of the blood of Jesus may your body be healed!" This illustrates the privilege of being part of a caring community. After adequate personal interchange over the phone, but before launching into business, a Swahili word in Kenya, Sasa (now), is often used as a bridge to move the dialogue from personal conversation to work related topics.
Westerners view work as a place where labor is exchanged for wages. Personal lives are separated from work. Relationships are kept on a professional level at the workplace. There is little desire to know about all the personal problems of another work mate. Listening to a colleagues’ burdens takes precious time that could be used achieving the job at hand.
In Africa, the circumstances and the context within which work occurs is as important as the work itself. The office one shares with others must be convivial. Interaction within the office may actually enhance productivity due to the energy drawn from others. Two, three, or four employees assigned to one office only contributes towards this end. Sometimes three or four desks in one office are positioned next to each other in the center of the room so as to enhance cohesion, synergy, and harmony.
Extensive informational networks and close personal relationships naturally develop in high-context cultures. The healthy oral networking system in an African organization is often used by the administration and staff to communicate new information. Important news spreads like wild fire through the collective, "talking grass" or "talking drum" system.
We have seen this vertical authoritarian system that operates as an extended family within African organizations, but there is also a horizontal, egalitarian system within each departmental group.
The age-grade system was quite common in African traditional societies, and still is in some places. All those initiated within the same time period of about seven years entered the same age-grade which permanently fixed their status. Among the Nandi in the Rift Valley of Kenya, for example, there were seven age-sets respected according to seniority- listed here from elders to children: Kipkoi-met, Kaplelach, Kimnyige, Nyongi, Maina, Chuma and Sawe.
Membership within an age-set grouping in an African organization is determined by tenure (length of time employed by the organization-including work experience elsewhere) which usually corresponds with biological age. Everyone knows who came first to the organization, the chronological order in which each was hired, and each other’s approximate age. In fact, one of the ways in which one is introduced is according to the length of time one has been employed in the organization. It has been heard: "I am just a baby. I have only been here one year." To advance within this structure is according to in-house seniority (institutional age- including work experience elsewhere) which almost always corresponds with one’s biological age because advancement to a higher position requires a certain number of years of experience or a minimum age requirement. Administrators are almost always in the 45 and above age bracket. This organizational distinction corresponds directly with the age requirement for joining the traditional council of elders among the Nandi of 40-45 years of age.
Each department within the organization becomes an age-set grouping. Departments will make an "age" group visit to the home of the one within the department who has recently had a baby, for example, eating and celebrating together. If one member of the department is in the hospital, the department as a group, will visit and pray with the one who is ill. When the organization has a fund raising program, each department (rather than each individual) will give a donation as a collective group. When one department member receives an award it is a step ahead for the department. Attendance at marriages and especially funerals of those within the department are very important.
Westerners prefer clearly defined roles and specific tasks in order to be as effective as possible. The African institution, on the other hand, is made up of an ambiguous duster of groups. One’s identity within the organization is determined by belonging to one of the groups within the cluster. A visit to a Maasai tribe during a right of passage ceremony enables one to visualize this concept. From a distance one will see several separate groups of red on the side of a grassy green hill slope. Upon closer observation one discovers that each group, huddled together and wrapped in their red shukas, makes up a different warrior age-set.
WISDOM OF OLDER AGE-SETS
These groups (or rings as they are seen in Figure 1) within an organization are made up of age-mates (who are near the same age biologically and in tenure). The innermost circle is comprised of older people who have known each other through much of life and have shared many experiences that have provided them with much wisdom. They are able to consult one another easily because they feel comfortable with each other socially.
The next outer group is made up of those who are younger and have acquired modern expertise but still remain subordinate to the wisdom of the elders. "Wisdom is with aged men, with long life is understanding" (Job 12:13).
Wisdom, obtained through years of experience, provides an intuitive sense to decision-making. Age cools the blood permitting elders to consider problems more rationally. Youth are generally considered too impulsive in making decisions. A Kenyan proverb slates: "Show me a people where calves teach the bulls and I will show you a nation of madmen."
Most within the organization know the age of everyone else because those in authority will often remind others of the number of years they have been in the organization or of the age of their children or grandchildren. If younger members become a threat to the older boss, the older will refer to the younger as his or her "sons" or "daughters" to keep them in their place. A more blunt technique used by the older is rebuking the younger ones: "How could you possibly know! You just came yesterday!"
Superiors are entitled to privileges (parking, tea and food brought to the office, personal secretary, larger office, vehicle) and contacts between superiors and subordinates are usually initiated by superiors only. A person young in age or position dare not directly confront an older person but he or she must use a mediator when making a complaint.
This African type of structure dictates who talks first, who talks to whom, who makes decisions, who sits where, etc. Americans chafe at such manifestations of rank and status. American meetings are participative. In Africa, meetings are led by the chairman who seeks thoughts from the group. However, those in the group who have a contribution to make must first be recognized by the chairman and given permission to speak.
Americans prefer expeditious decision making for the sake of efficiency, a method which excludes feelings and emotions. They like to make quick decisions even if all the information is not available, and even when others in the group have not yet reached a consensus. They attempt to quantify even intangible data so as to filter out subjectivity, sometimes reducing it to a hard and fast statistic.
Africans, on the other hand, are skilled in intuitive group decision making. This may take longer as one reflects on behavioral cues observed and opinions solicited from other wise elders. One must build towards, and wait for, group consensus. A carefully calculated decision, based on wise counsel and consideration, may prove to be more effective in the long run because all are committed to a mutually agreed upon goal.
Africans have much to offer in the area of Christian leadership because of their insistence on preserving this traditional and Biblical value of wisdom. "There are many who feel the spiritual sickness of the West, which reveals itself in the divorce of the sacred from the secular, of the cerebral from the instinctive, and in the loneliness and homelessness of individualism, may be healed through a recovery of the wisdom which Africa has not yet thrown away. The world Church awaits something new out of Africa."
A few final suggestions for missionaries working in African organizations may be helpful:
1. As a newcomer in an African operated organization, be patient. Perceive yourself as an outsider and an infant. Give yourself time to be adopted into the family and accepted into the trusted inner circles. Prove yourself to be trustworthy and loyal by fitting into the accepted norms of the organization. Avoid the temptation to criticize. It only undermines trust. It is important to understand that a collectivist’s identity and security is tied into the organization much more than an individualist’s. The adoption of a new member into the organization, therefore, concerns and affects everyone within the organization. Thus a newcomer must be carefully introduced and indoctrinated into the system to assure that he or she fits into the family and is accepted by the family.
2. The socialization method used by African organizations to "initiate" a new member into the group could be considered cruel, possibly even unChristian, by the standards of some. Try to refrain from judging. Expect to experience some humiliation as you are reminded of your young age (tenure) within the institution. A new set of appropriate role behaviors needs to be acquired and an adjustment to the group’s norms and values are necessary. This takes time. Be realistic about your role at the beginning, by lowering your expectations, and concentrate on learning interpersonal relationship values and techniques within the organization. Besides, the organizational members do not expect much from an infant. You may not feel as if you are accomplishing much in the beginning, as far as productivity is concerned, but relationship and trust building within the family are a priority for the purpose of working harmoniously and productively within the system later.
3. Older members can use the age-set classification as a discipleship strategy. One can take advantage of the gray hair by providing wise counsel freely and modeling Christian maturity. Younger personnel would do well to remember their place in the system. It is seldom, if ever, appropriate for younger people to instruct or correct those who are older. There are appropriate ways, however, to channel complaints or suggestions. Criticism by the younger is couched in enormous generalities and metaphors or passed through a mediator among the age-set of the older. Usually the criticism of someone in higher places is shared confidentially with a trusted peer within the same age-set solely for psychological air. Those at the bottom of the totem pole have very little, if any, room to criticize those above.
4. Cooperate with and respect the age-grade system rather than expect, or attempt to impose, an egalitarian structure. To illustrate, a young American in an African organization was promoted from a staff position to an administrative "age-set." She began to apply her egalitarian values, siding with the younger people in the organization on various issues and failing to maintain the professional distance assumed in African culture between older and younger. She crossed over that invisible age-set barrier one too many times, being more loyal to the young than to her administrative peers, and was quickly demoted back to her original position.
One should not expect to find Western leadership styles in a non-western setting. Avoid tactless correction of mistakes, insistence on a Western model, and interference with management goals. Gratification, from the Christian servant’s point of view, comes by cooperating with Christian African leaders-helping them achieve success in an organizational system they designed and in an environment of indigenous values, commensurate with Biblical principles they introduced.
1. Geert H. Hofstede. Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. (England: McGraw-Hill, 1991), p. 37.
2. Robert J. Samuelson. "Loss of Confidence n Capitalism?" Newsweek, Sept. 14, 1998, p. 22.
3. Geert H. Hofstede, p. 53.
4. John S. Mbiti. African Religions and Philosphy. (Nairobi: EAEP, 1992), p. 108.
5. Jeffrey Fadiman, "’Your Son is My Son’—Black African Management Principles: An Overseas Marketers Guide," 1994, p. 19.
6. Pete Ondeng. "West Misunderstands Africa," Daily Nation, Oct. 26, 1997, p. 7.
7. G.S. Snell. Nandi Customary Law. (London: Macmillan & Co., 1954), p. 13.
8. John V. Taylor. The Primal Vision: Christian Presence Amid African Religion (London: SCM Press, 1963), p. 108.
Fadiman, J. "Your Son Is My Son"—Black African Management Principles: An Overseas Marketers Guide." Paper presented at the EMU Conference on Language and Communication for World Business and the Professions, Ypsilanti, Michigan, pp. 1-39, 1994.
Hofstede, G. 1991. Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. England: McGraw-Hill.
Mbiti, J. 1992. African Religions and Philosophy. Nairobi: EAEP.
Ondeng, P. "West Misunderstands Africa," Daily Nation, Nairobi, Kenya, Oct. 26, 1997.
Samuelson, R. "Loss of Confidence in Capitalism?" Newsweek 132, 1998.
Snell, G. 1954. Nandi Customary Law. London: Macmillan & Co.
Taylor, J. 1963. The Primal Vision: Christian Presence Amid African Religion. London: SCM Press.
Delbert Chinchen has been a missionary in Africa for more than 22 years. He is chairman of the Bible Department at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya.
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