Trinidadian Boards Misunderstand Jamaicans


newsday-trinidad-boards-misunderstand-jamaicansI recently wrote an article that was printed (in part) in the Trinidad Newsday.

Here is the original text:

Ways in Which Trinidadian Boards Misunderstand Jamaicans

One of the primary findings in two studies completed by my firm, Framework Consulting, is one that still appears to be true today.  Between the countries, Jamaica and Trinidad, there appear to be wildly different points of view about leadership.

Jamaicans are often shocked at the way Trinidadians freely make fun of their country’s and company’s leaders.  In both organized calypso tents and in formal conversations, there is scant regard granted to those that Jamaicans would deem to be worthy of respect, if not reverence or awe.  In the mind of Jamaicans, this “ole talk” goes too far and threatens the unspoken hierarchy that invisibly keeps things in place.

We Jamaicans have a cultural habit that Trinidadians sometimes find annoying — we like to “big up” others by granting them a privilege and tone of deference that outsiders find puzzling.  They ask, why say “Good morning, Mr. Security Guard” when a simple “Hello” would suffice?

If there is such a thing as a Jamaican tendency to unnecessarily elevate, then there certainly is a Trinidadian habit of making sure that everyone operates at the same level.  Hence the of-told stories of Prime Minister’s and CEO’s wives wining with vagrants in the streets during Carnival time.  To Jamaicans, such behaviour is unthinkable.  To Trinidadians, it’s an example of what makes Trinidad… well…  “Trinidad.”

These two opposing cultural forces sometimes work well together, but more often they lead to miscues.

One very public example recently occurred with the resignation of the top two Jamaican executives from Lascelles de Mercado, Jamaica’s second largest company that is currently owned by the Trinidadian Government.  At this moment, the public is aware of their departure but little else.  To those inside and outside the firm, there is a profound vacuum.

This isn’t unusual in Jamaican companies that have been managed by Trinidadians.  Our research shows that Trinidadian companies that have taken over Jamaican companies since the late 1990’s have been slow to make critical decisions about the joint corporate culture to be established and the newly acquired firm’s leadership.  Months and even years have passed before a clear choice is made about the nationality of the new top leader, and whether or not he/she should be an insider or outsider.

Trinidadians who have worked in Jamaica know that this is a big mistake to make, and have tried over the years to convince their owners back home that such gaps are dangerous.  The one that apparently exists at Lascelles de Mercado is no exception.

With thousands of employees, the company spans industries such as rum production, insurance, pharmaceutical distribution and motor sales.  When the company was acquired by the now disgraced CL Financial, it was clearly stated that the Managing Director would be asked to resign immediately.  Instead, he was asked to stay, and his resignation last week comes after guiding the group under three sets  of different owners.  Insiders say he was frustrated, and had actually resigned once before, only to be asked to stay for a few more months.

This he did, and when he eventually left, no successor was announced.  Indeed, it appears that none had been sought.

In Jamaican corporate life there is a code-word used to describe hurt feelings that arise from ill-treatment by those in power:  “disrespect.”  That word is applied liberally in a way that confounds outsiders, and once again it’s being used to describe a Trinidadian style of corporate governance that irritates Jamaicans.  By not appointing new leadership, Jamaicans inside and outside Lascelles feel disrespected.

It’s not surprising that Trinidadians board members don’t see things this way.  To them, I gather, people get along well even (and especially) when there is no clear leader, and the best leaders take care not to stand out too much.  Trinis know how to get along when the “Big Man” (or Woman) is not around.  I have participated in Carnival bands of thousands that have no clear leadership structure, but function superbly.  This pays homage to a certain kind of egalitarianism that we Jamaicans clearly don’t appreciate.

By contrast, our own Carnival is shrinking into insignificance, now that its spiritual leader, Byron Lee, is no longer around.  It’s evidence that in Jamaica, leaders get things done in ways that are unique, and especially satisfying to their followers.

There’s a broader lesson to be learned:  corporate strengths in one country can show up as weaknesses when applied in another, and it’s easy to commit gross errors when one’s understanding of a new culture is limited.  These errors can ultimately impact the bottom line, and it’s easy to go chasing the wrong cause when a company is missing executives who can transit between cultures, and understand how to reconcile different ways of seeing the world.  We need more leaders who have the right kind of experience and insight into how both cultures work, and are willing to keep learning.

2 thoughts on “Trinidadian Boards Misunderstand Jamaicans

  1. Much has been said about Trini carnival as the great equalizer, but the reality on the ground is that you don’t find the extremes of vagrant and CEO wives winin’ in any band that I have ever seen. In fact Trini women are very peculiar about who they wine with and if you are not well known to them, or don’t have some serious Brad Pitt or Denzel assets they will call security for you.

    As a Trini I can recognize a reluctance to take swift action, as in the examples you give, but for me this is often a reluctance to take ANY action and this is rooted in a fear of being blamed for when things go wrong.

    I think Trinis don’t relate well to the word responsibility as we don’t listen to that word as genesis, as an opportunity to cause something to happen, or to create something, we hear it as apocalypse, as destruction has occurred and “Who is responsible?” In other word taking responsibility in Trinidad means having your name called when things go wrong. And there is pre-supposition that it will.

    Responsibility = blame

    As a result we are a risk averse people, preferring to keep our heads down rather than risk having it chopped off. We often get angry at those of us who do dare to take risks, especially when they succeed, and the common Trini reaction is to bring down those who are up to big things, taking big risks and reaping big rewards.

    We will go out of our way to treat Brian Lara and our Govt ministers as if they owe us money, and spread any rumour we hear about them (while secretly feeling very proud to have them acknowledge us in public).

    So I don’t see it as some carefully cultivated cultural strategy that works to achieve greatness in Trinidad. Not assigning leaders, not taking leadership, not stepping up to the challenge is part of our culture and it doesn’t work here or anywhere else.

    Given this culture of crabs in a barre,l the people who do take risks here and achieve deserve special commendation, because they achieved greatness in a culture that is geared towards killing it.

    A friend of mine described it this way. She said ” In America people are stabbing you in your back so that they can get ahead, here people just stabbing you in your back so that you stay back with the rest of them.”

    Trinidad is not alone in this cultural dysfunction, but as you have observed we certainly have perfected it to an art, and we are only able to get by because of the bounty of oil and gas. I hope we can get our act together before it runs out.

    And btw, the word ‘disrespect” is thrown about here quite a lot also.

  2. I have found Trinidadian executives to have a very good strategic view of markets. They are always looking to see how they can leverage opportunities in other Caribbean territories and they have a sharp global perspective.

    I have always found them easy to work with, however I would equate them with Americans in the way in which they have an egalitarian disposition in the workplace, punctuated by easy banter.

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