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.

Published On: July 3rd, 2020By
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