I sit in a small meeting room of the US-based multinational for which I am currently employed with doors closed, facing a video screen on whichmy current manager summarises the latest appraisal and the changes that it will bring to my financial situation. The summary ends with three reasons on why my performance has been good. Suddenly my mind plays a nasty deja-vu trick projecting a very similar situation three to four years before in a meeting room similar to the one I am sitting right now belonging to a UK-based employer with my then line manager reading a printout on why I am not doing good and need improvement. The deja-vu tinkers with my head because in both cases the rational was exactly the same but with the exact opposite outcome!
The story continues with my current manager staring at the emotional emptiness of my face asking me if I am OK and why I don’t look as happy as I really should be. I told him that I have been so surprised by the news that I am speechless. This was half of the truth the other half had to do with me contemplating on if I should write my opinion down or not processing the mini shock in the process.
My intention was not about producing a set of aphorisms or write a polemic against the current situation in the Greater London - perhaps UK - area. More than anything else it is a reflection on “the bad parts” that I encountered coming as an outsider then trying to integrate and ultimately failing to do so in the country’s business culture.
I do not imply or suggest that things in United Kingdom are inherently bad or wrong. Having though a different perspective which I decided to keep, I think the situation falls short with regards to the following points. The factors interweave and overlap with each other as it usually happens with cultural elements. One might influence or cause another, so there is not an easy to follow linearity, which would make things easier to read. I apologise in advance.
Last although I am not a sociologist, I tend to believe that there are two main underlying factors that are responsible for the reasons below. First the class system because Britain and second a fixed mindset mentality because moving fast London. (note: Fixed mentallity as defined in XXX’s book). Also decided to be brief followi the famous “Why Talented Creatives Are Leaving Your Shitty Agency”: http://www.mobileinc.co.uk/2013/09/why-talented-creatives-are-leaving-your-shitty-agency/, aiming to produce a short read. Might come back and expand later in the future.
Generally it has to do with the following:
Maybe add “appearances over substance”
This has to do with communications among departments that serve different functions such as IT, Marketing, Customer Service etc. What I have observed is that a person might come from a department A and request something to be done from department B, “I want you to do this, please”. The recipient is mostly only allowed to talk about the details of “this”. It is generally not desired or even proper in some cases to ask why “this” should be done, what are the objectives, how does it contribute to the organisation’s targets, if it is going to change in the near future.
I have seen people talking but not interacting, organisational communication looks like a computer systems sending requests and receiving responses, not like people working together. I have found in the past that having an open discussion and exposure to the bigger picture allows to serve clients better, as you know their needs, allows to be proactive, as you can guess what would be required, fill the gaps when the person of the other department is not available, empathise further.
Attempts to do so have been fought back with the following rationale: “Dimitry wants to be in a meeting room and talk all day instead of working”, “There is a problem with his English comprehension as he does not seem to get what I told him to do, that’s why he is asking too many questions”, with my favourite being: “You are questioning me on how to do my job, you are a developer not a Marketing executive”, “We are paying you to do your job, not tell us how to do ours”.
On the complete opposite on the US-based for exactly the same behaviour a completely different response. With non-technical people they received it as at least an expression of flattery: he is not a zeros-and-ones guy, he wants to learn about us and what to do. Similar for more technical people as we would help each other better, with the discussion more formal: “how should as a developer structure my CSS so that it would be easier for you the designer to maintain”.
Very related to the previous one, borrowing a term from systems architecture, the internal external communication paths of communication flow and also hierarchy follow a “master/slave” not a “peer to peer” pattern.
In “master/slave” systems communication is conducted through requests and responses: Master side issues a request which Slave side needs to fulfil it and get back with an answer. Requests are unidirectional. On the contrast in Peer to Peer networks each peer wants to assist in achieving the system’s purpose and the communication is bidirectional, each part of the system can issue requests and receive responses from other ones many times exchanging roles.
There are a few immediate implications of this: The first one is that relationships are too binary (apologies for another computer science term). Either you are the “Master” so what you said must be done with the information you provided or you simply execute. If things are arranged this way, IT’s functions almost always fall on the “Slave” side. When work ends and you go home with a feeling of having been used. It is very sad. What makes it even more sad is that even in heavy IT companies that operate in this way, IT people do not have good representation.
The second implication is that very often things degrade into a game of Chinese whispers / broken telephone, specially when the “Master/Slave” relationship has more than two connected parts (A asks B, B asks C). People reluctant/scared/unaware of challenging and asking for specifics rush into delivering something that they understood was required which can be far from what is actually needed. A friend of mine summarised this very well with the above anecdote: “In the previous company that I worked, I found out that my manager was asking me to do what he thought his manager needed, many times missing the mark. Now his manager was telling him what he understood from discussions with the CEO, whose input he never verified. Essentially I was shooting in the dark with the information I had. My manager was more eager to show something even if we’d have to do it again and again because of the limited amount of feedback”.
I was trying to get to a striking pictorial to explain this, until luckily I stumbled to a diagram similar to this:
It seems over and over that the modus operandi with products or services has to do with reaching a “minimum acceptable standard”. Once this is reached efforts are made to maintain it. London companies then try to charge as much as possible as if their product or service was of highest quality. There is more emphasis on being polite and make the customer feel important than improving the deliverable.
It seems that upon reaching an acceptable standard for a product or a service is the point where further development stops and all effort goes on optimising it, streamlining it while trying to charge as much as possible. Though for companies that dominate their sectors (say Amazon and retail), the “OK” stage serves as the starting point of the journey.
There also seems to be a preference for predictability and stability on delivering something mediocre against trying to improve the quality of the output. Improving quality needs experimentation which might occasionally affect output’s stability, so no.
It is conceptually more of a case of the previous section but it’s extent makes it need to have a section of it’s own.
It feels sometimes that the “City” engulfs Britain the way the octopus in NSA’s satellite engulfs the world:
If an approach of management/mentality/conviction works for the City, it has to magically apply to anything else. If someone had been exposed to the money laundering/exploitative/work all day/backstabbing/cut-throat/sexist/some say rotten part of the world that it is London’s financial centre, he is perfectly capable to govern any other business or government sector.
Some years before the CEO of the IT company that I had been recently employed gave a welcome speech to the newcomers. In his speech while addressing the company culture he brought up the memories of his days in the finance sector including the “take a cab go home shower and come back” at 7 o’clock in the morning experience. Afterwards he explained to us how he thought that the people in his company deserve to have a life and how proud he was to have created a company where work-life balance exists. While I really liked the person, I could not agree with his mentality, which was not entirely his: there was a board of directors that was checking and approving his decisions. He conveniently did not to mention the fact that his company was exploiting people ruining their careers by sticking them to antiquated technologies and approaches (as in the City), that the only way to achieve a better output was by working more, not by improving the way people worked or by any form of investment (as in the City), that a person high in the hierarchy could hire his son and another promote his girlfriend/receptionist to HR administrator bypassing any policies, meritocracy and other proper governance practices (as it happens often in the …). He was a good CEO because he was not judged as an IT CEO but against the financial sector’s expectations of the role.
Another angle of this approach that could also fit on the previous section has to do with many industries that operate on a charge per hour business model or on areas that involve linear scale of work time and profit. I have in front of me a list on how a property is being surveyed before purchase. I can understand that this is a very specific job that should be regulated, conducted in a certain way, have a very specific output and reporting and it totally makes sense: the output should be something very - very - specific. What I cannot understand is why the same approach should apply to every other industry.
Specifically London as a city and ecosystem projects an international mentality where everyone can come to work and contribute with his experiences and approach. The reality is different, after working here it becomes very early obvious that many companies operate with a strict, traditional approach in a localised cultural context that does not necessary reason with international hires. Immigration and assimilation/integration is a big thing at the moment. Some observations without sliding into political arguments:
People seem to bring the class mentality to the workplace, treating management as the “higher” class whose wishes have to be religiously fulfilled without question. I have not seen in practice any attempts for transparency or justification of decisions according to corporate targets, just orders.
How a person should behave is mostly implied not explained. If someone does something considered wrong there will be no correction or a discussion about it. People will just nod encouragingly at you and from the next day they will treat you differently.
Complaining in the open even for the smallest thing is almost always considered the wrong thing to do. Colleagues and management will respond with a silent treatment. The inertia would be to punish the act of complaining then maybe consider it’s intent or validity.
Preserving the status quo and keeping an appearance of professionalism trumps everything else including efficiency or quality of the output. As an example people are never allowed to discuss anything related to the company or any subject that might cause conflict such as personal views or beliefs.
I used to believe that this was a country/city behaviour until I came across “Bullish: Social Class In The Office” referencing a book that the author read, but giving credit to her for articulation:
“Lubrano writes: Social class counts at the office, even though nobody likes to admit it. Ultimately, corporate norms are based on middle- and upper-class values, business types say. From an early age, middle-class people learn how to get along, using diplomacy, nuance, and politics to grab what they need. It is as though they are following a set of rules laid out in a manual that blue-collar families never have the chance to read. … American corporate culture is based on WASP values, whether or not WASPs are actually running the company. Everything is outwardly calm and quiet. Workers have to be reserved and unemotional, and must never show anger. It’s uptight, maybe even unhealthy, and all that pent-up aggression comes out in long-knife ambushes at the 2 P.M. meeting.”
On the contrary on both US based companies that I have been employed there was training on how to behave, how to raise a complaint and to whom, when to discuss work related issues and with which person, how to treat people independent of bias, and so forth. Adherence to these well written and understood rules should have you covered and safe. Small diversions are accepted within limits as well as adjustments to the local culture. Occasional misbehaviours are being corrected from management as soon as possible, there is no silent treatment giving that eerie feeling that things are not OK - but why? The feeling is that of safety and there is breathing space.
Whenever I did something wrong - to err is human - in the US based companies, I got notified as soon as possible which allowed me to apologise and correct my behaviour. When a person acted rude against me, he was asked to write an apology email. When someone acted in a similar way against me in a UK position, he was NOT asked to apologise, because he was a local or a crony of the boss. This can be used as a bridge for the last argument…
This is sensitive subject trying to be toned down, it seems that there is an uneven representation at least concerning nationalities/countries of origin in among companies. While in the lower levels of organisational pyramids the workforce reflects more or less the existing demographics, when observing higher levels there are less and less people of non-local origin.
A place where this is evident is the startup space where traditionally the ratio of first generation immigrants over everybody as founders is traditionally higher. If we take into account this (note: the data are skewed including at least one of its often multiple founders who was born abroad or who had at least one parent born abroad - not all founders/founder immigrant):
Top U.S. companies founded by 1st/2nd gen immigrants:— Vala Afshar (@ValaAfshar) May 31, 2015
and then think about what we see here there is an ouch moment. What’s going on? Why these topics are not discussed in the public, is there some sort of omertà?
Checking the census data as of 2011: http://data.london.gov.uk/census/reports/ then “Country of Birth Snapshot” or https://londondatastore-upload.s3.amazonaws.com/hRg%3D2011-census-snapshot-country-of-birth.pdf, found the following image regarding country of birth of Londoners:
Based on these data one could assume that in various companies there would be an equal distribution of the figures above on different levels. Although I do not know of any related statistics the empirical observation differs. I have seen many low level positions dominated by foreign born workers. This is usually followed to senior positions (such as senior developers). While we approach the C-positions we have the opposite trend. I have observed more than once the promotion of a local against more competent foreign born employees.
When the above happens, which happens more often than many people would like to admit, all the above reasons come into effect: There is usually no rulebook on who gets promoted or specially rewarded and with which criteria, so the decision cannot be examined and the upper echelons of management can always produce another BS excuse (section B). Similarly if someone complains then she will also be on the spotlight for complaining, ending up to a far worse position than just not being promoted (section E). The companies do not want to improve or fix themselves, the machine cannot stop because a person got upset (section D), people are just asked to move on.
Maybe the most important observation of all. A very entrenched culture of wealth and talent appreciation/utilisation not creation or expansion. People are being hired for specific jobs without career progression, there are no investments on expanding those capabilities or adding value to the employees. I was surprised to see that one-on-ones are non-existent, performance valuations or other improvements.
I really do not understand, and maybe I am magnifying things here, why people should choose to be employed at most companies I have come across: If there is only the salary, no investment/training or other opportunities or bonuses (say health insurance), then why not be a contractor and get paid 50% or something like that more?
Quote: “Do not expect software corporations to offer any kind of career path. They might do this in the US, but I have never seen any of that in Europe. This means that you are solely responsible for the success of your career. Nobody will tell you ‘oh, well, next year you can grow to be team leader, then manager, then CTO…’” from: “Being A Developer After 40” - Adrian Kosmaczewski, https://medium.freecodecamp.com/being-a-developer-after-40-3c5dd112210c#.ib8wqde6k
I do not know if it is a European trait, or local and honestly I do not care. I have only one question: In a market where the supply (developers/IT) is far less than the demand, you offer us just a salary and expect not to jump ship to the next one that offers us more? Jesus!
The whole post is very opinionated in any case. From now on it is 100% opinionated and personal. Maybe some of the arguments cannot be applied generally or could be based too much on personal experiences.
Three closing points: (1) I am very happy to live here because I know that expressing not-so popular opinions or criticising the status quo will not get me into trouble. If some people do not like what I write, they will move on or even offer some criticism. In other places I would end up having some sort of trouble. (2) In every point the situation gets better year after year, maybe not so fast as I would like nor benefit, but I am very optimistic for the future. I think that this what makes Great Britain … great (3) I did not write for all the good things and aspects of living here, “this is another story” but the “good things” are far more than the “bad ones”… moreover if you are Greek :-).
Initial title was about “British” companies, but after some research it seems that some of the stuff mentioned are more specific to the London zone. Then I read some articles/posts mentioning that this is a European thing. Having never worked outside Greater London within UK, I settled on the current title. If you think this is applies to other places please get in touch.