military culture; high-context; low-context; language, trust, norms
The context for this case unfolds at the individual and organizational levels between individuals from the United States Navy and individuals from a country in the Middle East. The USS Lastship is deployed to the Persian Gulf and is in port for routine repairs and to load supplies. A foreign contracting company will be conducting the repairs, but all foreign workers must be escorted by a US sailor while on board. John is a sailor on board who comes from a small town in the Midwest. He has been in the Navy for three years and will be escorting a group of foreign workers on board the ship.
John is a sailor aboard the USS Lastship and is known for being a hard worker. He has been on board for a year and gained the trust of his peers and superiors alike. He has earned a reputation for being honest and trustworthy with everyone on board the ship.
John is on his second deployment to the Middle East, but things are different this time. John has been promoted and now has much more responsibility and experience. It has been a long time since John was a “new guy” and he knows the Navy’s rules and regulations well. After a month and a half at sea, the USS Lastship is pulling into port for some routine maintenance.
John’s superiors told him that he would be supervising some foreign workers while they were on board. Because the foreign contractors were accessing a secure space, regulations required that a crew member escort them. John’s superiors told him to ensure that the contractors completed the work correctly and quickly, adding that the repairs must be completed within five hours. John had not supervised foreign workers before and asked what he should expect. His superior informed him that the contractors probably wouldn’t speak English, and if given the opportunity, will be lazy. The supervisor then told John not to be friendly and reiterated that he needed to make sure the foreign contractors completed their work and disembark within five hours.
John was bothered because his supervisor seemed to be demeaning the locals and insinuated that John could not trust the contractors to do their work well because they were not Americans. Although he was uncomfortable with his supervisor’s comments, he was in no position to question what was said.
As John waited for the foreign contractors to arrive, he thought about how he would address them and how he might interact with them. John had been to several countries and knew that cultures can be significantly different, and that it is alright to acknowledge that. He knew that the United States had a fast-paced and direct way of completing work and that many other countries, like the one he was in now, typically worked in a slower, more relaxed manner. Although John disagreed with what his supervisor said, he was still worried about making sure the work got done.
As the contractors arrived, John smiled and happily greeted four Middle Eastern men and their manager. The foreign manager spoke broken English and the contractors did not speak English at all. After the initial greeting, the foreign manager motioned for contractors to go with John, where he led the men to the area to conduct repairs. They immediately started working. As John sat silently watching the contractors, he thought about how wrong his superior had been. At this point, John thought the repairs would get done without a problem.
After about 20 minutes, the contractors had prepared the workspace and unpacked their tools, but then asked John for permission to take a break. John was conflicted because the contractors had only just started working and John did not truly have the authority to authorize them to work or take a break. Technically, John was only there as an escort and to verify that the repairs were completed correctly. John replied that a break would be great and led them to the cafeteria where the contractors could sit.
As soon as the contractors got to the cafeteria, they poured cups of coffee, took out food, and started talking to the other workers who were on a break as well. John began to worry that his superiors were right and feared he would be taken advantage of now because he had so easily led them to the break room. John understood that being straightforward and to the point about getting work done was an American trait and that in this country, things moved at a slower pace. Regardless, John’s superiors told him to ensure that the contractors complete the repairs within five hours. John was unsure how to approach the situation because the contractors had only done a small amount of work since starting. To make things more complicated, John noticed that the manager also seemed to be enjoying the conversation with the contractors.
John seemed to be at a point where he needed to either interrupt the contractors and ask them to continue making repairs or trust that they understood the job well enough to complete it on time without being told to do so. John’s gut told him just to let the contractors complete the job at their own pace because they knew what they were doing. However, he was also worried about being reprimanded by his superiors for allowing the foreign contractors to take such a long break.
As you consider this case, discuss:
Do you feel trust was established between John and the contractors?
If John attempted to communicate with the contractors despite the language barrier, do you think that would have changed the interpersonal dynamics?
What could the potential consequences be if John decided to interrupt the contractors’ break?
Should John confront his superiors about labeling people as lazy?
How do the ideas of power and authority influence your perception of this case?
How culture influence the cadence of work?
Additional recommended resources to explore the central themes, in this case, are available.