Us, them and the others: changing paradigms

I have just finished reading Justin Webb’s new book, Notes on Them and Us: From the Mayflower to Obama the British, the Americans and the essential relationship: A Plan for the Amicable Separation of America and Britain, in which he explores the relationship that we have as Brits with our American cousins, drawing on his experience of 8 years in Washington as a BBC reporter. “Why?”, I hear you ask? Well, as a politics graduate who studied US politics and a massive fan of Alistair Cooke’s ‘Letter from America’ (something I have in common with Justin), I was just interested. (I also had an Amazon voucher for my birthday.)

It’s a great and easy read that I would recommend, with lots of wise insights that I recognise from holidays and working in the US. But there was a completely unexpected by-product of reading it – triggered by a particular point he made that illuminated my work in helping organisations shift their cultures and more particularly in confronting the unwritten paradigms at the heart of such cultures.

And then I had a really scary thought – how does this affect the models and approaches that we use in our consultancy work?

So, let’s start at the beginning. Justin suggests in his book that the USA (Them) is struggling to come to terms with its own decline, or even to admit that it is in decline. Of course, there is loads of evidence available, but let’s take a very current example. In 1945 under the Marshall Plan, the US ploughed $50bn – just think how large that number would be today! – into rebuilding war torn Europe. Last week, the Eurozone countries (the Others) announced the latest rescue plan – which involved asking the Chinese for a loan! There was no mention of the USA, as they just don’t have any money to lend.

His point was that, in the context of the special relationship (which many would say is no longer special), Britain (Us) has a role in helping Them to adjust to a world where they are no longer Top Dog, mainly because we have been on that path ourselves for at least the last 90 years. Clearly, the culture of ‘can do’ and ‘second place is for losers’ needs to shift somewhat for this to happen, something he doubts they are capable of in the short term. Hence the current vicious and divisive nature of their politics and media: denial is leading to a lot of anger in the face of the facts!

But let’s also consider The Others: they are not immune to these problems. They cling to the dreams of a single currency without the need for greater integration of fiscal policy and the associated need for most of Europe to take its medicine (as the UK did in the 1980s). Medicine to re-align their economies to compete in productivity terms with Germany and the Asian countries. The paradigm of collective agreements but country sovereignty got blown out of the water, perhaps terminally, by the Greek PM’s call for a referendum. A turbulent situation changes almost by the hour: any final paragraph I write here will be outdated before you can read it.

But before we smugly pat ourselves on the back for looking out at Them and Others and laughing at their inability to change in the face of overwhelming evidence, we should ask ourselves a question or two:

  • What is the larger picture here for western economies and businesses?
  • What are the paradigms held in our corporate cultures? Do these need to shift?
  • What implications will this have for those of us working with culture change, leadership development, organisation development, coaching etc?

I don’t know the answers to these questions – although Doug Rushkoff’s recent CNN article, Are jobs obsolete?, is another example of a voice asking pertinent questions in public – but I am pretty sure that the business world will be quite a different place in 10 years’ time (do we have that long?). Most of our current thinking comes from the USA. But where will it come from in the future? What new models and approaches will we need to develop to adapt to these changes? How far will many of our paradigms have to shift, and how clearly will we know where they’re heading? One thing’s for certain: the future’s not what it used to be.

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