You ‘orrible little man

I can’t link to the article, as it’s behind The Times’ paywall, but Patrick Hennessy recently made some interesting points about the difficulties working with Afghan troops.

One key issue is that Afghan troops will not tolerate being ‘bawled out’ – basically shouted at by a superior NCO or officer.

This sort of thing is perfectly standard practice in the British army. You have to expect it at some point – and put up with it. The moment passes and you move on. I remember being bawled out frequently when I was a teenaged Air Cadet, albeit in a gentler way than if I were in the actual armed forces. It wasn’t much fun, but also sort of was – and always had a positive effect in the end. One of my abiding memories is doing an assault course whilst on an Air Cadet camp, with an RAF PT instructor running alongside me screaming at me to ‘jump over the wall, sunshine, jump over it, don’t slow down you ‘oribble little man!’. Quite character building.

Afghan soldiers, however, will have a tendency to take this sort of thing very badly, nurture a deep grudge and possibly retaliate very seriously by shooting coalition soldiers in some kind of revenge act later.

This sort of reaction is baffling for the average Brit. It also shows the difficulty of creating disciplined armed forces in regions where, depending on how you look at it, the men are all sensitive prima donnas or fiercely proud individualists who bow to no man.

This behaviour mirrors something I’ve often seen working in the Middle East – typically people taking affront when being caught out for some reason and refusing to acknowledge their mistake when the evidence is plain for all to see. Another common issue when someone has made a major error is to focus on the irrelevant and get in a huff about some minor point, ignoring the bigger picture.

An example.

I once had a colleague helping me with a project. He’d responded to some customer questions in a way that was pretty lacking. I discussed this with him, pointing out that more detail was needed, not all of the queries had been answered, etc. During our conversation I said something along the lines of ‘you can’t just cut and paste an answer you get from our internal email lists, you have to take that answer and create your own response’.

This is where things began to go south. My colleague insisted that he hadn’t cut and pasted his answer – he’d written it himself. This was plainly completely untrue, as the email he’d written was written in extremely good English. His English was ok, but not that good.

At this point, things got increasingly bizarre. If I’d been in his shoes, I’d simply have said something along the lines of ‘point taken, I was in a hurry so I just pasted what I thought was the right answer, next time I’ll make more of an effort to read it and tailor my response’. Instead my colleague ignored the bigger picture – giving useless answers to questions, something that affects our ability to sell things – and tried to pretend that he’d written the email himself. Insisting he’d written it made him look like a complete idiot, as he clearly hadn’t written it. Also, the whole point of the discussion was that the content of the email was wrong anyway – so why insist he’d written something that was a load of rubbish?

There was some aspect of personal pride I had trodden all over – probably the implication that he’d lied in some way, even though it was obvious he had. Also, once he’d started down that certain road, there was no way he’d back down. This became far more important than anything else.

A friend has a story about a Middle Eastern colleague, an IT consultant, who realised early on in a project that what he’d recommended wasn’t quite right. Rather than admit this, he let things continue, stuck to his guns in the face of questions being raised and eventually lost his job when the project failed. He could have just said, very early on, that some changes needed to be made based on new evidence. Instead he tried to save face and, in doing so, made far more of a fool of himself.

The classic problem Westerners run into here is the old ‘insulting gesture’ situation. The other person may have driven extremely dangerously, nearly killed you and your family with his recklessness, but show him your middle finger and it’s you that’ll be in trouble. Surely the life threatening driving is more important, insulting even? Well, apparently not.

None of these things are strictly limited to this part of the world. I’m sure you’ll meet plenty of Brits with similar characteristics, but there are definitely generalisations that apply and which are useful to be aware of when you’re dealing with colleagues and customers. Experience matters, you ‘orrible little man, sir!

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5 Responses to “You ‘orrible little man”

  1. @rupertbu Says:

    An excellent introduction to one of the more frustrating behavioral patterns prevalent across the Middle East region!

    • @rupertbu Says:

      How could I have forgotten this? The manager who thinks delegation means he no longer has responsibility for the actions of his juniors!

      • Christopher saul Says:

        True! Also, being a manager is the equivalent of retirement. You have the big monthly income, perks and a big office, but don’t need to make decisions or take responsibility – going on holiday for two months and leaving purchase orders and other things unsigned is perfectly acceptable of course.

        Naturally, when things go well, it’s down to you. When things go badly it’s the fault of your team, for whom you can cannot be held responsible.

  2. billhicks42 Says:

    Thanks, Chris – I’ve forwarded this on to quite a few friends, colleagues and fellow MBA bods and seen a lot of virtual nods of agreement.

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