Peter Drucker coined the phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. The reality is that culture and strategy are two sides of the same coin and any organisation or society that disconnects them, does so at its own risk. The point is that no strategy can be executed effectively without understanding the culture.
Communications is the key to maintaining the connection between strategy and culture - it is the golden thread that weaves them together. Communications can help shape culture and culture should also shape the way we communicate - it is a two-way street. Working in Saudi Arabia has reinforced my view that culture always has the right of way.
Saudi Arabia is a fascinating place to live and work, it has a culture that is deeply conservative, traditional, and family oriented but you cannot define or discuss Saudi culture without referencing religion.
The annual calendar and the working week is determined by Islam, business stops for approx 40 mins, 3 to 4 times a day during normal working hours to observe prayer. For decades there has been a ban on cinemas, concerts, mixed restaurants and women driving and religious authorities police citizens’ observance.
The Kingdom has recently introduced radical reform, experiencing its equivalent of an Arab Spring. Unlike other Arab Springs, which were bottom up, this one is led top down by the Kingdom’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). He has been the driving force behind the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.
His strategy will require a fundamental shift in communications to be effective. It demands unprecedented levels of transparency and dialogue in a society that has historical issues with corruption and ethics. This is counter to a culture within an autocratic society that has become accustomed to propaganda.
Although the proposed reforms have been welcomed by many, there is resistance from those in more powerful positions who fear losing control. MBS has to tread a careful line to get everyone on board with the changes.
I was privileged to contribute to part of Vision 2030 and before moving to Saudi, I done my homework by speaking to people who worked there and looking up many resources online. Two pieces of global research I discovered were Hofstede’s cultural dimensions and Myers Briggs Type Indicators both highlight interesting comparisons between cultural preferences of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the United Kingdom (UK).
Hofstede’s analysis is shown on Figure 1. It identifies a culture that has relatively high levels of power distance (PDI) and uncertainty avoidance (UAI), coupled with relatively low levels of individualism (IDV).
High PDI indicates a culture that accepts and expects that power is distributed unequally and a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. This is typical of an undemocratic society.
High UAI indicates a culture that feels uncomfortable with uncertainty and maintains rigid codes of belief and behaviour; intolerant of unorthodox ideas. As the future is uncertain, they adopt a fatalistic approach rather than trying to control it. Inshallah (God willing) is a widely-used expression in the Middle East, normally succeeding every verbal agreement.
Low IDV or collectivism, represents a preference for a tightly-knit social framework in which individuals can expect members of a particular ingroup to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty. This reflects the tribal nature of the society.
Figure 1 - Hofstede insights comparison between KSA and UK
Global Myers Briggs Type Indicators (MBTI) studies show comparisons between the dominant Traits, Strategies, Types and Roles of different countries.
Figure 2 shows that, relative to UK, KSA has a higher percentage of individuals with extravert and observant Traits.
Extraverted individuals prefer group activities and get energized by social interaction. They tend to be more enthusiastic and more easily excited than introverts.
Observant individuals are highly practical, pragmatic and down-to-earth. They tend to have strong habits and focus on what is happening or has already happened.
The corresponding Strategies show a population with higher levels of social engagement and lower levels of constant improvement.
Figure 2 - MBTI Traits and Strategies comparison between KSA and UK
It is always useful to understand your own personality profile when dealing with others. My MBTI profile is ENTP which shows I am relatively Extrovert (E) compared to Introvert (I); relatively Intuitive (N) compared to Sensing (S); relatively Thinking (T) compared to Feeling (F); and relatively Perceptive (P) compared to Judgmental (J).
Analysing personality Types, Figure 3 shows a dominance of ESF(J/P) personalities in KSA.
People with the ESF(J/P) personality types are highly pragmatic and people-focussed. They thrive on social order and harmony, and use their warmth and social intelligence to make sure that each person knows their responsibilities and is able to get done what needs to get done. They are comfortable, even dependent on clear hierarchies and roles, and whether subordinates, colleagues or managers, they expect authority to be respected and backed up by rules and standards.
This corresponds to higher proportion of the population adopting Sentinel roles and lower a proportion adopting Diplomat roles.
Sentinels are cooperative and highly practical, embracing and creating order and stability. Their grounded approach helps them feel comfortable with who they are, defining themselves not by individualism, but by character and competence.They tend to be traditional, and rely on clear hierarchies and rules. They stick to their plans and can be inflexible and reluctant to accept different points of view or people who lack their studious ideals.
Diplomats also promote cooperation and harmony, but tolerate discord as a step towards positive change. Their perceptive abilities go deeper than tradition – their empathy creates deep connections with others.They are often reluctant to make and carry out tough decisions or plans lacking in empathy, and often struggle with carrying out a plan at all. They find greater satisfaction in abstract self-exploration.
Figure 3 - MBTI Types and Roles Comparison between KSA and UK
It is important to note that this macro analysis is both general and relative. Within every organisation there are very strong subcultures and working at a local level gives you a deeper level of understanding.
From a communications perspective, the 4xMs methodology is a simple model for planning your approach, especially when considering the cultural preferences.
1. Market (who are you trying to influence?)
The high level of tribalism and dominant preference for teamwork in KSA highlights the power of influencer networks and the need to conduct thorough stakeholder analysis in your communications planning. They also like to stick to a plan, so practical plans are more important to stakeholders than theoretical concepts.
2. Message (what do you want them to tell them?)
Obviously there is a language barrier between English and Arabic. Arabic is a phonetic language which means as long as it sounds right, it’s right, which is headache for spelling pedants and translators of legal and commercial documents. You can forget the use of acronyms and alliteration which is literally lost in translation. With mainstream media being controlled, people are generally sceptical of well-polished articles. Authentic, human-interest stories are well received.
There is still an abundance of printed media but social media adoption is very high. Whatsapp is the medium of choice for workgroups and it is widely used for anything from meetings to crisis comms. This adoption of social media highlights their preference for intimate channels that work on few-to-few communications.
The lack of focus on constant improvement means that measurement, although still small in UK, is not even on the radar in KSA. However, their pragmatic approach does mean that showing the relationship between effort and outcomes can be extremely powerful.
Other insights into culture differences between KSA and UK can be illustrated by looking at current trends.
One of the key enablers to employee engagement is engaging managers. Management (white collar) positions are predominantly taken up by Saudi nationals who have benefited from further education in European and North American universities. Manual (blue collar) work is predominately undertaken by itinerant workers from the Indian subcontinent and Asia. They are often poorly educated and illiterate and their treatment and working conditions are sub-standard, they are treated as commodities. In this context, engagement is inherently difficult but provides a massive opportunity in terms of productivity and innovation in an economy that has to become less reliant on oil revenue.
Democracy in the workplace is rare and deference to authority is common, however with a culture that is highly respectful and seeks fairness, things are changing. Recent efforts to eradicate corruption has been tackled top-down and the fact that the heir to the throne is a Millennial has given a voice to a younger, more highly educated and discerning workforce. You cannot expect a great result from screwing a suggestion box to the office wall or sending out a satisfaction survey. Face-to-face is always best.
Diversity & Inclusion
For a nation that has just made it legal for women to drive and where homosexuality is still punishable by death, it is unsurprising that D&I isn’t high on the agenda. On a practical level, gender segregation creates issues for an inclusive working environment. That said, the most productive work I done on citizen engagement was with one of the first female councillors elected in 2015. She was grateful for the opportunity to influence and share plans with her local community and became a great ambassador for the changes we were trying to introduce.
In general, Saudi citizens have a high expectation from what they experience at work. They have a low tolerance for workplaces that do not deliver on what was promised, so beware of superficial recruitment campaigns that don’t follow through on the reality of the employee experience. Most constrain their socialising to immediate family and close friends, so workplace social events need to be highly pragmatic or they are treated with suspicion.
The daily breaks for prayers can be disruptive but they also provide a great opportunity for meditation and downtime. People I worked with returned from prayer re-energised and focussed. Unlike our “always-on” culture in the UK, prayer time gives permission to take time out and reflect, not just hanging around the water cooler chatting to colleagues (which can often be negative). In contrast, prayer time is very grounding and provides a safe space to put aside workplace tension and conflict.
KSA is an autocracy where religion, politics and commerce are governed by the Royal Family. It is managed just like a large business and there are many similarities to be drawn between KSA and large corporations who are undergoing major transformation.
MBS is the heir apparent and acts like a fast-tracked COO being groomed for the CEO role, surrounded by consultants to make up for his lack of experience. Some of these advisors are selling old and tired ideas that have been both tried and failed in other organisations.
The strategy for change is a high-level vision that doesn't easily translate into practical plans. Referring back to MTBI research, Saudi have a higher proportion of Sentinel roles and Observant traits, characterised by a high level of pragmatism.
The strategy is designed to to improve quality of life and the economic outlook for the citizens of Saudi, which means a change in culture. This culture change will require a radical shift in communications and the level of engagement with citizens. MBS may be a man with a plan but until the citizens see what’s in it for them and become more actively involved, the jury is still out on whether he will suceed.
Sean Trainor is a strategic communications advisor with a general management background. With a passion for culture change he has led on communication programmes for large organisations going through transformation. He has been based in the Middle East for the past 2 years at a time of unprecedented change.