Sari van Poelje

personal, expert, consultant, author, Speaker

Leadership In Crisis: Re-entry After Corona — August 3, 2020

Leadership In Crisis: Re-entry After Corona

 

My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the director of Intact Academy and Team Agility. At Team Agility we help businesses innovate more quickly than their products to accelerate their time to market. In Intact Academy we organize accredited training programs for coaches and consultants to themselves and their practice. I’ve been a consultant for 35 years and a leader in multinational businesses for 23 years. This series of blogs is a way for me to transfer my knowledge to a new generation.

One of the things that fascinates me at the moment is how we are going to take care of re-entry after Corona, or even during Corona. Here in Holland, we’ve been through a period of infection and we’re actually expecting a second wave of infection, but in the meantime, we’re slowly reopening businesses, restaurants and theatres in a very controlled manner. For instance, in the theatres, now you can have 30 people there who have had their temperature checked, and are wearing face masks. I can visit my mother now in the care home for half an hour. So slowly, slowly, we’re reopening. And at the same time preparing to close again, because there is an expectation of the second way. 

Why are we expecting a second wave? Because the government has let go of the imposing of guidelines, they’ve given the responsibility to us as citizens to maintain our distancing, to maintain our face masks, to maintain reasonable guidelines, and to prevent infection. 

I find it interesting that because of the guidelines we have less Coronavirus, and we also have fewer deaths because of other causes. I was speaking to a doctor who explained that because of all the measures we’ve taken we have “under death”. Statistically, there should have been more deaths in this time.

One thing we’re really fearful of is how do we reintroduce people after a pandemic? How do we take care of re-entry?

I don’t really have any answers yet, but I have a lot of questions and ponderings. 

 

Managers need to change their leadership style

 

One of the things I notice is that managers really have had to change their leadership styles. Leaders had to change their style because people were working from home, they were forced to trust them. And this forced trust is something that should have happened a long time ago. This paradigm shift from command and control to trust and relationship is one I’ve been advocating for a very long time.

When they come back into the business, the question is, are they going to be able to maintain this trust? What we know from research is that most people leave or derail because of their bad relationship with their leader, because of a relationship with the leader where the leader doesn’t trust them. So will this mean if people actually shift paradigm that people will work harder and longer for one person? And what does that mean in the long run? In the past 20 years, we’ve seen an acceleration of job hopping. Maybe now we’ll see a deceleration. And that means that people will stick to their boss and maintain loyalty, build up more knowledge. Maybe that’s a good thing.

 

Virtual platforms can be fun 

 

During this time of working from home, we’ve all had to work with MS Teams or Zoom or any other virtual platform. A lot of leaders really don’t know how to use the platform. Just yesterday, I had a leader who lamented how boring it was using a virtual platform. What do you do? Just talk to the camera? He said: We have an agenda beforehand, and we work the agenda, but people are missing the relationship. 

I use zoom in a very different way. I do what I usually do, which is connect through the camera, and extend my energy. I do fun things during meetings on zoom. I call in my yoga teacher to give yoga exercises every two hours. Last time I had a DJ on board who played music during every break, and we were dancing in the living room, all of us together. There are many ways you can use zoom. 

With virtual working it’s much easier to call in experts from all over the world. You don’t have to wait anymore. You can just contact someone and say, Hey, could you speak to my team for an hour? It’s much easier than it used to be. I hope people start to be playful in our virtual working that would make our lives much more fun and easier.

 

We have entered into people’s homes

 

The other thing that’s interesting with virtual working is we’ve actually entered into people’s homes. Behind me you can see my home office. This balance between home and work has shifted because this virtual curtain, that there used to be between home life and work life, has dissipated. 

Sometimes I zoom with my clients who are top leaders in organizations and their children suddenly run by and ask for milk and cookies. Or their dog starts barking in the background. Or we have a conversation about the art on the wall. This has meant that I have been able to meet my clients in a much more personal way. People now know their colleagues in a very different way than they did before. And I’m wondering what’s going to happen to that. I’m hoping it’s going to stay because honestly, for five days a week, we work eight, nine, 10 hours with these people. This difference between work and private life is really a construct. It’s not true in real life. So I’m hoping that some of this relational intimacy will stay. We may have had physical distancing, but hopefully we’ll keep the social intimacy.

 

Onboarding people who have been through trauma

 

In some countries we’ve had people who have had the illness, who have had loved ones who have been ill, or people who have died. In Holland most people know someone who’s been ill or who has died. So people have been through traumatic times where they’ve had loved ones being sick, or die in isolation and they’ve not been able to say goodbye. So what does this mean when you try to reintegrate these people into your workforce? 

All of us in some way or other, even people who haven’t been ill or who haven’t had people who’ve died, have been through traumatic times. All of us have had to decide who’s part of our clan. We’ve all had income loss, except the people who were bounty hunters in war. So how do you reintegrate people who have been through trauma? 

We have to pay much more attention as coaches to: teaching leaders to deal with people, deal with working virtually to trust, and to deal with people with trauma.

So I’ve got the questions. I’m going to think about it and I’ll come back with answers in my next blog.

 

Leadership In Crisis: How to Encourage Democratic Leadership — July 28, 2020

Leadership In Crisis: How to Encourage Democratic Leadership

 

My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the director of Intact Academy and Team Agility. At Team Agility we help businesses innovate more quickly than their products to accelerate their time to market. In Intact Academy we organize accredited training programs for coaches and consultants to themselves and their practice. I’ve been a consultant for 35 years and a leader in multinational businesses for 23 years. This series of blogs is a way for me to transfer my knowledge to a new generation.

In these blogs I’ve been talking about my ideas about coaching and consultancy and the development of systems and leadership. I’m really fascinated in this Corona time about the development of autocratic systems. Will we be able to hold on to this change of paradigm from individual responsibility to collective responsibility? Unfortunately you see a split. Either people go back to the normal, or they create something different. You see a re-establishment of democracy or a re-establishment of autocracy.

I’m going to talk more about the establishment of autocratic systems. In the last video we looked at the five stages of their development. In this blog, I’d like to talk about how you can prevent this from happening. How can we encourage democratic systems instead of autocratic systems? 

How to encourage a democratic system:

 

1. Satisfy the unmet needs

 

Followers have unmet needs for structure, but also for recognition. In a sect, unfortunately, the structure is high and the recognition is high. So if you do something to please master you’re set for life. One way to create a more democratic system is to make sure that our people have filled their tanks with enough recognition, so that they don’t need to get it from someone else. 

The basic role of a relationship is you have to find someone who wants you, not someone who needs you. That is one of the rules for creating democratic systems. People want to belong, they don’t need to belong. So if we can find a way to diminish the unmet needs in a population, then we can create more autonomy in a system. 

 

2. Keep boundaries open

 

In an autocratic system the boundaries are closed, so people can come in, but they can’t go out. It’s really important to keep democracy, and that democratic energy flowing by keeping the boundaries permeable. Even in a state of emergency you keep the information going in and out. You keep people going in and out, you keep money flowing in and out. Because if you don’t allow that movement, then a system becomes stagnant and with any stagnant system there’s a danger of autocracy. So keeping the permeability of boundaries even in crisis is a very important rule to keep democracy going.

 

3. Deal with the police force

 

This is a theme at the moment because we have protests because of the murder of George Floyd, by the police in America. What we see in an autocracy is that the police act as the arm of the law as an extension of the master, and they mix moral police with military police. In the United States, they are calling in the military police for an internal struggle, which is a typical sign of autocracy. Very unfortunate. I have compassion for my American friends. 

One of the really important things to keep a democracy going is to keep the police in a humane position where they are the third party in maintaining law and order. So not an extension, but an independent upholder of law. 

 

4. The constitution

 

If you look at the constitution of autocratic systems it reads the same way as a democratic constitution. There is just one difference, and that is that in a democratic constitution, there is always a clause about how you can change the constitution. In an autocratic system that’s the one clause that’s missing. 

 

I lived in Hungary for 27 years, the Iron Curtain had just fallen in ‘92, I saw the establishment of democracy and I saw the re-emergence of modern autocracy with Orban. The first thing president Orban did was to ban the first parliament. In Holland, we have a second and first parliament: the second parliament proposes law and the first parliament can amend it or ratify it. Within a week Orban banned the first parliament so that he could pass laws himself through the second parliament. He also changed the constitution. You see that in Russia as well, they changed the constitution so that they can become leaders forever. Instead of democratic elections every four years, they changed the constitution so  that they extended their leadership. They also made the changing of the constitution almost impossible. For any system to stay democratic you have to make sure that there’s a clause to change the constitution.

 

5. Your leadership

 

If you want to maintain democracy as a leader, you have to discourage dependency and encourage autonomy. Anytime someone says to you, Oh, you’re the only one, Oh, I came because of you. It’s really important to push people back anyway with kindness and say, it’s your decision. You have a right to decide within this framework. This is your way to do it. That’s not my job as a leader. 

As responsible members of society, we can actually encourage democracy as well. It’s not just the leaders of our state who can do that. I really encourage you to be democratic, to accept differences and to accept diversity in your communities and to encourage autonomy. 

 

Leadership In Crisis: Five steps to autocracy — July 20, 2020

Leadership In Crisis: Five steps to autocracy

 

My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the director of Intact Academy and Team Agility. At Team Agility we help businesses innovate more quickly than their products to accelerate their time to market. In Intact Academy we organize accredited training programs for coaches and consultants to themselves and their practice. I’ve been a consultant for 35 years and a leader in multinational businesses for 23 years. This series of blogs is a way for me to transfer my knowledge to a new generation.

Today I’d like to talk to you about the development of autocratic systems. I’ve been getting a lot of questions about this because in the world today post-Covid-mania we’re seeing that some systems are becoming more democratic and more refocused. They’re embracing this change of paradigm from individual responsibility to collective responsibility. And in other countries we’re seeing that they’re developing more autocratically, they’re enforcing rules and in some cases, military rule. 

What is it that makes a paradigm shift possible in some countries and not in others? 

I wrote an article in the 1990s, where I described the development of autocratic systems. The reason I wrote that article was because I was so shocked with what happened in Waco in Texas. A sect run by David Koresh, the Davidians, was involved in a siege with the FBI. Fifty-one days later the FBI burnt the whole building with women and children inside, with a loss of 76 lives. How is this possible in a country that calls itself democratic? 

Throughout my life, I’ve worked in many different countries, teaching transactional analysis, but also innovating business. I’ve always been fascinated by the rules of government. My fascination was as an organizational consultant, not as “a politician”.. How does an organization develop from a democratic to an autocratic or vice versa? What I found is that there’s very little difference in the development between autocratic and democratic systems. During my research I found that autocratic systems develop through five stages. 

 

Stage 1: Crowd Crystallizer 

 

In the first stage you have a very strong leader who we usually call “charming manipulators” or narcissists. They have the will to become a crowd crystallizer. They create a dependent relationship with the people around them. The followers crystallize around this master because they’re looking for strong leadership in uncertain times. And that’s what makes it really scary in these post-Covid times, because many of us are looking for strong leadership. These followers are over-adapting to the system to belong and to be led.

At this point of development you have a master and some followers, and it’s still a mass, it’s undefined. There are not very strong boundaries around it, but everyone is attached to the leaders.  In actual fact, the same development happens in a democratic system. You have a leader and followers or members. The big difference is the degree of dependency. 

 

Stage 2: Establish Boundaries

 

In stage two we see the establishment of boundaries and roles. This also happens in a democratic system. The difference in an autocratic system is that you have a boundary around the system, which is not permeable. So that means you can come in, but you can’t go out. And once you’re in you have to give up your identity. Most sects and autocratic systems work on the basis that once you’re in, you become a number and you have to give up your name. Often you also have to give up your possessions. 

Within that enclosed space, the master becomes a mythical figure. He becomes Omnipotent within that space. The way that is done is by becoming quite invisible. An autocratic narcissist claims everything and becomes quite mysterious, because as long as there’s mystery, you’re not human. And as long as you’re not human, you’re God-like in that space.

This happens within sects, but also within autocratic governments. The leader becomes a master and becomes quite mythical. Look at Putin or Trump. They act like they’re Godlike within their own domains. 

 

Stage 3: Impose Rules

 

At the third stage the master starts to impose more and more rules on the followers. So they have to give up more of themselves to become part of the system. Now, in a sect that’s quite obvious. This is what happened in Waco. The master establishes legitimacy by symbolically beating down anyone who would challenge his authority.

Right now there are Anti-racism protests in America and sweeping across the world. It’s not just the fact that George Floyd died and the way he died, but that he was actually murdered by a police force, which was supposed to keep the justice. It’s also, I think, a protest against this demand of a master further subjugating his followers. In an autocratic system, when you protest, you get military rule, That’s unheard of in a democratic system. 

 

Stage 4: Appoint Lieutenants 

 

When the followership becomes too big the master appoints lieutenants. In a democratic system you appoint departmental managers who have a degree of freedom and responsibility. Lieutenants in an autocratic system don’t. They’re a representation of, and the extended arm of the master.

You usually have two types of lieutenants. You have lieutenants who maintain the internal control and the system, and you have lieutenants who recruit externally. I lived in Saudi Arabia where you can really see these two types of lieutenants. There’s a police force to upkeep the moral law who actually patrol to see if Westerners have more than 10 people in a room or are celebrating Christian holidays. And you have military police that are there to upkeep the external control and the boundaries.  It’s very much the same in a sect, you have moral and military. So the moral arm up keeps the law for the master in the system so that he can become invisible. Then you have military police who upkeep the external boundaries and who are the only ones allowed outside to recruit people. 

 

Stage 5: External Enemy

 

To strengthen that external boundaries and to really keep people in the system, the master identifies an external enemy, because as long as you have an external enemy there’s validation to keep the gates closed. In a sect you can very clearly see an “us” and “them”. Sometimes it goes so far that people actually commit mass suicide, as a last stand against being taken over by the Them. 

You see this in countries too, with the enforcement of a power position by closing the external boundaries and then identifying an external enemy. In the States, they’ve had to change their enemy quite a few times. It was Iraq, then it was Russia. And then now it’s China. It’s a strategy to validate the fact that you isolate yourself and that you uphold a mastership within the system. 

 

Diminish the risk of being overthrown

 

Sometimes with the establishment of an autocratic system and with lieutenants you bring in the risk of being overthrown because the lieutenants act on your behalf. You bestowed power on them, so the question becomes, “who’s going to control the lieutenants?” Am I my brother’s keeper? The appointment of lieutenants inherently weakens the position of the master, but he’s got to do it because it’s impossible to keep an autocratic system going when it grows. 

So how can you diminish the risk of being overthrown by your lieutenants? In autocratic systems masters impose laws against treason and rewards for snitching on betrayal.  Any time you have a mastership where you establish autocratic systems, you see these laws for treason such as immediate execution, and people are rewarded for snitching. 

The public execution of lieutenants is quite normal as a strategy to keep the closure of boundaries and mastership. I’m talking about this quite clinically, because I’m looking at it as an organizational consultant, not as a human being. I have quite a different reaction humanely. 

 

Five steps to autocracy

 

If you follow these five steps (which I’m not recommending by the way) you can create an autocratic system. 

An autocratic system is like a closed system. Imagine if you hermetically seal a balloon, but you keep on blowing it up, it pops. And that’s usually what happens in an autocratic system. It implodes or explodes. There’s a coup for example. What happens to a master in a sect? It’s a closed system, he makes himself scarce so less visible, and lieutenants act on his behalf. The master usually becomes quite paranoid and feels like he can’t trust anyone. They move into a constant paranoia, persecutor position, and increasingly become the victim of their own organization because as they become less visible, the lieutenants more visible, they become less needed. The field is ripe for a coup.

Unfortunately for us, when a lieutenant takes over an autocratic system, they continue an autocracy. It’s very rare that it becomes democratic. Sometimes you see foreign powers supporting lieutenants to do a coup in the hope that democracy will be re-established, but it’s really extremely rare.

The paranoia of the master may become so great that he mass destroys the system. Then foreign powers take over, or there’s an implosion like mass suicides in a sect. This is absolutely tragic, but it happens not only because people become delusional, but as a logical consequence of the organizational development of the system. 

So how can we really make sure that this doesn’t happen? I’m going to talk about that in the next video.

Leadership In Crisis – Functions of Cultural Script — July 10, 2020

Leadership In Crisis – Functions of Cultural Script

My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the director of Intact Academy and Team Agility. At Team Agility we help businesses innovate more quickly than their products and become agile in a turbulent environment. In Intact Academy we organize training programs for coaches and consultants to help businesses innovate. I’ve been a consultant for 35 years and a leader in multinational businesses for 23 years, and one thing I’ve learned over time is how to deal with crisis.

One of the things I’m really fascinated by at this time is the response to Covid19, not at an individual level but more at a business level and at a society level. Now we talked about what is a cultural script. We talked about the elements of it and now I want to talk about the functions of cultural scripting. Why do we keep this cultural scripting going? 

One of my mentors used to say: “Freedom is not the absence of responsibility. It’s the ability to choose what you’re responsible for.” And I think that’s a beautiful definition of autonomy. And one of the things I’d like to explore is why do we maintain cultural scripting and how can we go more towards autonomy, especially in these times of crisis?

Why we maintain cultural scripts

Survival: In extreme times a cultural script helps us define who belongs to the tribe and who gets scarce resources. So from toilet paper to gasoline, to who’s allowed freedom of movement. 

Meaning: If you know the etiquette, the techniques and the character of a culture, you understand what feelings, thoughts, and behaviours are accepted and significant in a group. So you can place the behaviour and the thinking and feeling within the context that gives meaning and truth to you personally, but it only also has meaning within a certain cultural context. 

Sometimes we forget, and we see a behaviour and we think, Oh, I know what that means. But actually you don’t. You don’t know that shaking your head means no. In some countries shaking your head actually means yes. You have to check within this time of Covid19 especially because these cultural scripts about survival and meaning are really coming up. 

For instance, some people ask me, how is it possible that in Sweden we didn’t have a lock-down? How is that possible? I lived in Sweden for four years and just started to scratch the surface to understand them. What I understand is that in Sweden, in Scandinavia, people are extremely rule bound and focused on “we”. 

I remember conversations where we were talking about taxes and people in Sweden said, “We like paying taxes because it’s good for society.” Now you would never hear a Dutch person say that. 

When the Swedish government said, “Look, we’re sick, you have to keep distance, it’s better to do this,” and gave guidelines not rules, the people naturally followed because people in Sweden are “we” focused or focused on the well-being of society when push comes to shove. 

This cultural scripting that gives meaning, and surviving, is really important. And this measure that Sweden introduced would never work in Holland because it only has meaning within that context. So that’s the frame I want to introduce – cultural scripting has different meanings for majority members of a society and for minority members. 

Cultural Scripting – Good or Bad?

There’s a great book by the Levin brothers, written in 1982, called The Functions of Discrimination and Prejudice. I really recommend it. They were talking at that time about racism and sexism. They said one of the major functions of cultural scripting for the majority members of the society is the displacement of frustration and aggression. If you have someone who is seen as “less than” in a society, it is a way to displace frustration within that society. Now in a very strange way, for instance, in the United States, what you can see and at a societal level is that even though the government is bankrupt, as long as they have an external enemy, people are not focusing on the internal problems. Cultural scripting is a way to displace frustration and aggression.

The other individual function of a cultural script is that it protects self-esteem because you compare yourself with a negative reference group. You can always say, I’m better than that person. So if you say unhealthy cultural scripting is based on feelings of supremacy, then if you feel better than the other person, you also feel better about yourself. 

I remember when I was a child and I wouldn’t eat all the food on my plate, my mother would say, “Oh, there are people in India who have it worse than you.” And there was always a mixture of guilt and shame, and also a bit of, “I’m supposed to be grateful here for my cultural context.” 

The other reason that cultural scripting is maintained at the individual level is that it reduces uncertainty because we use stereotypes. For instance, my mother who said, Indian people have it worse than you do, so you better eat your food. Well, to be honest, I’ve travelled through much of India and yes some people might have it much worse than me, but some people certainly have it much better than me. But reduction of uncertainty is also a function of the brain. As long as we use stereotypes, as long as we can categorize, then cultural scripting has a place. 

Why do we keep cultural scripting going at a societal level?

I’m interested in why we keep cultural scripting going at the societal level because that’s really interesting especially in this context of Covid19. 

We know that a cultural script, an unhealthy cultural script certainly, gives economic advantages to the majority. So if you are a majority group member, you get an economic advantage. We already know that scarce resources go to members of your tribe. So in Covid19, for instance, one of the interesting things was the discussions about face masks. In some countries individuals have to wear them too. And then other countries, like in Holland, we knew that face masks were better because obviously you don’t spread your fluids, your germs as much. We all know that people in healthcare need masks more than normal people. So, in a sense, membership of that group of healthcare workers gave an advantage and perhaps even an economic advantage. 

In some types of business, you’ve got more subsidies than in others. When we look back later on Covid19 and we track who got subsidy and who didn’t, you can actually see which subgroups in the culture are more privileged than others.  

Maintain Power: 

The social function of cultural scripting is so that you can maintain power. So for instance, if you see the reaction to Covid19 in Hungary, where they’ve re-established an autocratic system, you see that people use scapegoating to maintain power. They target specific groups for not keeping to the rules to say, “See, we have to do this because if we don’t, we lose control.” And this is something that’s really subtle and very important to watch for also as a member of a society – who is being scapegoated and who benefits from that.

Cheap Labour Reserves:

The other reason that we maintain unhealthy cultural scripting is to create a feeling of supremacy and to create cheap labour reserves. If we think that some people are better than others, they get more money and as long as some people are discriminated against, whatever job they’ll do, they’ll get less money. 

Even in these times, women get paid less and there’s no reason for it because in terms of volume we are the majority, but in terms of cultural scripting we are the minority. It’s interesting that we accept that position given that we are the statistical majority. In actual fact it has an economic basis. As long as you have people you can scapegoat within your cultural script, they get less of the resources. Going back we can even argue that women are statistically smaller than men because they have endured centuries of getting the leftover food.

I’m a revolutionary at heart, so you must excuse this way of thinking. I still believe we can change the world. I think we should be more awake to these things. 

Sometimes cultural scripting gives secondary advantages to the minority, but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Of course it’s true that if you are seen as a minority or in the cultural script of a country it creates more solidarity. So we think we women, we have to fight, we have to go on the streets. We can blame the system sometimes for personal failure. I don’t think a lot of women do that because they feel too ashamed for that, but sometimes it happens. There’s a secondary labour market created where there are women’s professions, and there’s a reduction of competition in that space. But I would never recommend this – it’s unhealthy cultural scripting.

Old-fashioned Cultural Scripting

It used to be quite simple to see because old fashioned cultural scripting was quite blatant. So we knew it was there. It was like women are more emotional than men for instance. But modern cultural scripting is very subtle and it’s rationalized. For instance, saying things like: “It’s a proven fact that migrants are more capable of crime than non-migrants.” A very inflammatory thing to say, however, factually it’s true that there are more people of colour in prison than not, but is it the chicken and the egg? 

Cultural scripting used to be very blatant and much easier to handle. Now it’s much more subtle. But in times of Covid19 you see old fashioned cultural scripting coming back up. We see more victim blaming: “You shouldn’t have gone out without a face mask!” More avoidance of contact. More denial of the political significance of differences between us. 

I think it’s much more dangerous nowadays and much more difficult to look at cultural scripting. One of the exercises I propose to you is to visualize your last uncomfortable meeting with someone from a different group. It can be any group and to track what you were thinking, feeling or doing when you met this person from another cultural script. And then to think, what would your father have or mother have thought or felt or done if they met this person from another culture. Think about how you may have been hurt by these messages and how these messages may impact your view of yourself. 

Now look at the end of your life and think, what have you done during your life to value difference and what have you done to promote the valuing of difference in your life? 

Because for us, cultural scripting is important to give meaning and for survival. But unhealthy cultural scripting based on supremacy is actually a limitation for growth and innovation.

 

Leadership In Crisis – Cultural Script Matrix —

Leadership In Crisis – Cultural Script Matrix

 

My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the director of Intact Academy and Team Agility. At Team Agility we help businesses innovate more quickly than their products and become agile in a turbulent environment. In Intact Academy we organize training programs for coaches and consultants to help businesses innovate. I’ve been a consultant for 35 years and a leader in multinational businesses for 23 years, and one thing I’ve learned over time is how to deal with crisis.

Now times are rough because in this generation we haven’t experienced such a pandemic before. If we look historically, of course, many more people died during the first world war, during the Spanish flu, during the Second World War. But for this generation, we have never experienced a situation where the government actually took control over our personal freedom to go out, to stay in, how to work, how to shop, etc.

One of the reasons that I’m really fascinated is because I’m looking at the resurgence of cultural scripting. A cultural script is the pattern that cultures repeat when times are rough. All of us have in us not only a personal script, which is based on our personal history, but also a cultural script, which is based on the societal norms and ways of doing things. Sometimes here at home we joke, this isn’t the way my clan would do it. Just to stress the fact that there is no right and wrong, but that all of us grow up in a tribal situation, in a culture where we learn unconsciously to value things.

Within transactional analysis, we described that as a cultural script matrix. There are three elements to this. 

1. Etiquette – Must, have to…

The first element is etiquette. For instance, eating with a knife and fork may be true in one clan. And that’s etiquette. (For the technical TA nerds we call that Parental Introjection.) In another tribe, perhaps eating with your hands is the norm and eating with a knife and fork would be the wrong thing to do. So etiquette is culturally bound. We have to remember that. 

2. Technique – Supposed to…

The second element is technique, which embraces all the concepts, technology methods we learn how to be successful in a tribe. For instance, in one tribe it might be a technicality or a technique to become academically brilliant. Because for instance, here in Holland, knowledge workers are the norm. They earn the most. In other countries, perhaps working with your hands is much more respected and is much more respected as a technique as well. So if you’re a great fisherman in Greece, it will be much more respected as a technique than being an IT person. 

3. Character – I’d like to…

The third element of cultural scripting is what we call character. The formal definition is the degrees of freedom you have to be yourself within the context of the culture. So some cultures are very determining, they give very little room for your personal character. And some cultures give a lot of freedom. 

For instance I lived in Saudi Arabia in the eighties and nineties. In that culture, at that time, the degrees of freedom were minimal. I was a girl in puberty, blonde hair, blue eyes. I wore full abaja and I wasn’t allowed to go out with anyone except for my father. The degrees of freedom in that culture at that time were very small. Here in Holland, we are very used to having a lot of degrees of freedom. We consider it a right to be ourselves in a group. 

In actual fact, this is never possible. Anyone who becomes a member of a group always has to give up part of their character. So the payoff is you get belonging in return for adaptation and there’s no way around it. But the measure of adaptation, belonging is balanced depending on your culture. 

Cultural script comes up more in times where there are dramatic events, like Covid19.

Unhealthy Cultural Scripting 

Pearl Drego is a teacher and supervisor in transactional analysis in India. She worked a lot in the slums and she did a lot to empower women in the slums in India. She always talked about unhealthy cultural scripting because she had a dilemma. Some of the rules in India are very clear about women, divorce and what happens if a husband dies. She didn’t know if she should respect the culture or should empower the women. So she created a model to distinguish unhealthy cultural scripting. 

Drego said that unhealthy cultural scripting is always based on the concept of supremacy. So that means I’m better than you are or I’m more okay than you are. It’s based on a plus minus (+/-) position we would say in TA. 

You can recognize unhealthy cultural scripting by the fact that history repeats itself over and over again. You can see patterns in the history of a culture. People keep things the way they are because they’re familiar, not because they’re helpful. You see unhealthy cultural scripting in the nation when the government assumes responsibility for others that they can assume for themselves and they punish new behaviour even though it’s healthy. And you can also recognize an unhealthy cultural script if a nation creates control for the sake of control and not for the sake of safety. 

If we look at the differences in the reaction to Covid19, I really admire the way Dutch government has reacted. I’ve grown up as an expat child. We moved countries every three years. For the past two years I’ve been back in Holland. There are very few times I feel Dutch, and sometimes I feel very Dutch and very proud of being Dutch. Covid19 is one of those times that I feel really proud. 

Why? Because our government has set up as a way of dealing with this while respecting the autonomy of the people. The government has set guidelines and if people follow them they won’t impose any more. If people cross the boundaries of the guidelines, they’ve upped the ante and created rules. If people follow the rules, they allow for autonomy. If people didn’t follow the rules for safety then they upped the ante and enforced them. 

In Holland they kept stressing that the only way we will get out of Coved19 is by doing it together. They have a big focus on belonging, doing it together and doing things for each other. This interplay between setting guidelines, setting rules and enforcing as people were following or not following the rules is a very interesting way of doing it. 

It has been very different in other countries. I have clients in Serbia and Hungary where we actually see a resurgence of almost military rule, with curfews, unexpected communication or incoherent policy. A resurgence of control for control’s sake, not control for safety. Some governments are assuming responsibility for others instead of enforcing people to assume responsibility for themselves. There’s a resurgence of old ways of doing things instead of new thinking of how we can maintain autonomy of the people, while keeping safe. In the end what you want to create is an interdependent state. And the moment that you see unhealthy cultural scripting, what you get is a state of dependency. A state of dependency means some people are going to be in control and others are going to adapt. And as soon as you create that, you diminish the potential for people to be agile and to be innovative in the culture.