A UK team member is surprised when he offends a US female colleague by holding the door open for her and saying “Ladies first”.

I use critical incidents like this in intercultural training for people to reflect on cultural differences – seemingly short and simple but potentially revealing of their knowledge and attitudes.

I recently put it to two senior managers from a big European bank that wants to raise its international profile. Both men regard themselves as liberal, cultured and cosmopolitan, but both were adamant that in this case, the woman is wrong to take offence; that the man’s intention is chivalrous; that old-fashioned courtesies should be preserved. Their judgement was unambiguous: respect for the views of the woman and for cultural difference did not enter into it.

I’m a beginner at banking, but I can spot an organisation in need of cultural overhaul when I see one. Chauvinism apart, this bank’s organisation is rigidly hierarchical; and communication with someone in another department requires permission from a more senior manager, a serious case of silo-isation.

As for their international ambitions, I checked out the board of directors – 100 per cent home nationality; some women, encouragingly, but not one foreigner. They have a way to go.

A quick internet search told me there are around 360 banks in France, 300 in the UK, 500 in Italy and 1,800 in Germany – I was amazed at how fragmented the European banking sector is. Room for some consolidation, I would guess. Maybe a Chinese bank is planning right now to have this one for breakfast. Even my two managers foresee massive reductions in staff and branch numbers as the winds of competition start to blow. No doubt they will bow politely as they show people the door.

I am becoming increasingly persuaded that business organisations need to turn themselves upside-down. Empowering their younger and their female staff would be one way for this particular bank to start to save itself.

Steve Flinders is a freelance trainer, writer and coach, based in Malta, who helps people develop their communication and leadership skills for working internationally: steveflind@aol.com.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Scan Magazine.

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