Don't get clubbed by culture, James warns HR

By Rebecca R. Hastings Jun 29, 2006

The final Masters Series of the SHRM Annual Conference began with a disclaimer: “It’s not my objective to be offensive,” said Jennifer James, Ph.D., cultural anthropologist, lecturer and commentator from Seattle, though she admitted she probably would be. However, despite the fact that a number of controversial subjects were touched upon, it was her central message about the future that had the greatest shock value.

“This is the deepest, broadest, most incredible period of change in history,” James said, “We have never seen a learning curve like this.” Certainly the audience roared when she pointed out the challenges many face juggling technology and competing demands: “Short-term memory loss is no longer a sign of Alzheimer’s; it’s a sign you are working very hard and are on the cutting edge.”

But her central message was anything but humorous. During times of great change, tribalism occurs, James said. “If the whole world is destabilized, we go back to what we know—our culture. Tribalism is a normal response to tremendous fear and anxiety.”

James suggested that attendees think of culture as an interior road map—the belief system you have in your gut about the way things ought to be. But, in addition, she said, culture is as complex as a tapestry, so when you pull pieces out it starts to unravel. When the tapestry of culture is unraveled at the speed of light, people don’t handle it very well, she said. “You’re going to have to pay the price for tearing the tapestry—respect is the price.”

James likened the current state of culture shock to that of the Civil War, stating that it was ultimately a battle over culture: “I believe we’re in a similar kind of time now.”

According to James, times of great change make seeing the future difficult: “It feels like a void; like we are falling apart,” she said. “The only way we can come back is if the value structure moves forward.”

As a result, during times of extraordinary change leaders must be adaptive, and this requires influence that is conveyed, in James’s words, with the ability to tell a compelling story. Such a story involves a set of ideas that fit the marketplace, a set of values that fit the community and a person who is believable. But you cannot change leaders without changing awareness, she added.

In addition, adaptation requires organizations to adjust to changes in technology, economics, demographics and culture. “We’re good at handling the technological shift,” James said; that is the easy part. “Your job [as HR professionals] is to find the balance—what technology really helps productivity and what is unnecessary.”

James said organizations usually adapt well to economics, which she described as nothing more than the use of technology to harness energy. And despite many civil rights challenges, which continue today, she believes that ultimately we can handle the demographic changes with sufficient trust and communication. “When it comes to demography, we are shaking it up,” she added, noting that new groups keep appearing to request civil rights.

The sticking point for the future, however, is culture. Cultural intelligence involves the ability to know your own cultural stories and the cultural stories of others, said James: “If you are tone-deaf to culture, it’s going to be extremely dangerous. Civilization throughout time is the long process of learning to be kind.”

According to James, the job of the HR person is to hold a group of disparate people together using cultural intelligence: “It’s very different what you do—it’s the soft science of productivity.”

Cultural intelligence and adaptability will be critical skills as workplaces make way for the many differences in outlook that the “net generation” will bring to the workplace, James said.

“They will drive you crazy; they are very high maintenance, and they will leave.” But there is another key skill, in James’s opinion: “You’re not going to get through the next 20 years without a sense of humor.”

As a result, James concluded with a bit of advice: “Take good care of yourselves, because in a lot of ways you are taking care of the rest of us.”

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online writer/editor for SHRM.

An online wrapup of events at SHRM’s Annual Conference can be found at


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