JOHANNES VAN DEN BOSCH SENDS AN EMAIL
JOHANNES VAN DEN BOSCH RECEIVES A REPLY
by Joseph J. DiStefano
Copyright © 2001 by IMD - International Institute for Management Development, Lausanne, Switzerland. Not
to be used or reproduced without written permission directly from IMD.
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Summary of the Cases
The two cases consist of the emails between partners of a Big Five firm, one in
the Netherlands and the other in Mexico. The Dutch partner is in charge of a
global client who is unhappy with the delays in closing accounts. Although the
client’s subsidiary in Mexico appears to be part of the problem, after trying in
vain to get information from his Mexican partner, the Dutch partner-in-charge
sends a follow up “stick to the facts” email. He gets a hostile reply and takes his
original email to two of his Dutch and Belgian partners for their assessment. They
can’t see anything wrong with the original email and are puzzled at the Mexican’s
The two mini-cases (two pages each) are designed to be used sequentially, as part
of a longer class.
• To illustrate cultural differences in relationships and directness in work
situations involving emotions and conflict.
• To illustrate the effects of the medium for messages, especially those
• To encourage the reader to develop more effective processes for checking
cultural sensitivities and for taking action to solve cross-cultural
The cases are written to complement the introduction of conceptual or theoretical
material on cultural dimensions in the workplace (refer to Exhibit 2: Sample
Profile of Cultural Perspectives Questionnaire (CPQ); and Figure 1 below: the
MBI Model of High Performance).
They can be used either before the use of cultural maps to test the participants’
sensitivities to cultural variables, or after the introduction of cultural maps to
illustrate how the abstract ideas manifest themselves in the workplace. With either
approach the cases are short enough to use in class without prior preparation, even
with readers whose mother tongue is not English.
A typical session for both cases would run from between 1¼ hours and 1¾ hours,
broken down as follows:
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Sends an email Read case 5 to 10 minutes
Buzz groups in the classroom 10 minutes
Class discussion 20 to 30 minutes
Receives an Read case 5 to 10 minutes
Discussion (with use of some 30 minutes
cross-cultural measures of
hierarchy, e.g. Trompenaars or
Hofstede or Maznevski and
Summary, relevance to 5 to 15 minutes
DiStefano, Joseph J., and Martha L. Maznevski. “Creating Value with Diverse Teams
in Global Management.” Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2000: 45-63.
Lane, Henry W., Joseph J. DiStefano, and Martha L. Maznevski. “Intercultural
Effectiveness in Global Management.” International Management Behavior: From
Policy to Practice. 4th ed. (paperback). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000: 19-63.
The Work Situation
Johannes van den Bosch is the lead audit/accounting partner serving a British
multinational client, Malcolm Smythe-Jones, CFO. He is based in Holland and
has just received a severe rebuke from Smythe-Jones and the controller, Mr
Parker, for the lack of progress in providing the financial statements of their
Mexican subsidiary. Although Van den Bosch had made multiple requests of
Pablo Menendez, his counterpart in Mexico, no results had been obtained, nor had
any explanation for the delays been forthcoming. The previous week Smythe-
Jones had been upset enough to come to Van den Bosch’s office. That morning he
had called with mounting anger and had been openly abusive.
Van den Bosch followed up the telephone call by writing his Mexican partner an
email equal in emotional intensity to the harangue he had been subjected to by the
client. But he knew it would be inappropriate to send it. So he cooled off for half
an hour and went back to his computer and edited out the venom, condensing the
email to “facts and figures” and being direct and clear about what steps were
necessary to meet the client’s needs.
He sent the email, feeling optimistic that he would finally get Menendez’s
attention and some answers for Smythe-Jones.
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Questions for the “Sends an Email” Case
1) From Van den Bosch’s point of view, what was his intention in sending the
2) What was the effect of his editing the email to “stick to the facts”?
3) How do you think Menendez will react to the email? Why?
4) What cultural assumptions underlie Van den Bosch’s email and your
prediction of Menendez’s response?
The simplest analysis of the cultural underpinnings of the email focuses on the
differences between task and relationship orientations between the Dutch and
Mexican partners. Van den Bosch is first interested in getting the job done and the
problem with the client resolved. Then, if at all, he will deal with Menendez as a
person (he has not met him face to face).
The Mexican partner starts with establishing a relationship through which the
work gets addressed. There has been no relationship building by Van den Bosch;
prior “requests” for completion of the work were worded as directly as the email
in the case--and were as devoid of personal exchange, too.
Within the relationship dimension itself, the Dutch value orientations would be
most likely to have Individualism>Collectivism>Hierarchy in terms of the CPQ
(high individualism and low power distance in terms of Hofstede’s dimensions),
with the Mexican values likely to reflect stronger values for Hierarchy (high
power distance) and Collectivism and weaker values for Individualism.
In terms of expression of conflict, Van den Bosch seems aware that to be as blunt
as his unedited email would be inappropriate, but his notion of “cleaning up” the
email is to focus on the facts and figures, not on establishing an empathetic
appreciation of the difficulties the Mexican partner is probably facing, nor in
asking any questions to understand the situation from his partner’s point of view
(decentering in terms of the MBI model shown below).
Figure 1: MBI Model of High Performance
Map Bridge Integrate High
Understand the Communicate Manage the
Differences Across the Differences
! Cultural ! Approaching ! Building Value the
values with motivation participation differences
! Leadership and confidence ! Resolving
style ! Decentering conflicts
! Personality without blame ! Building on
! Thinking style ! Recentering with each other’s
! Gender, etc.
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His insistence on having information on five items “today” and his requirement
for a weekly progress report “as of today” is likely to be perceived as totally
inappropriate by the Mexican partner, who will feel that he is being treated like a
subordinate by his Dutch equal.
Van den Bosch has made no attempt to decenter or to establish any common
ground (recentering); instead he moves directly to what he wants and needs
(“facts and figures”) which, in his cultural orientation, is perfectly acceptable.
(Refer to Exhibit 1 for the MBI model in a “checklist” format.)
The class process successfully employed several times with executives and mature
MBAs involves getting participants to profile their own cultural values using the
Cultural Perspectives Questionnaire (Maznevski & DiStefano see www.mms-
as.com). (Refer to Exhibit 2 for a sample profile.)
In response to the question “What is going on?” participants usually discuss both
the client issue and potential cultural differences. Although most can explain why
they think that the client needs to be satisfied, they often have difficulty in
articulating what the cultural differences are and why they might cause problems.
It is especially important in tracking the class discussion at this point to note
the cultural background of each person who comments. For example, in a
recent group of very senior executives from around the world on an in-company
program, one group of Anglo-Americans expressed indignation at the delay and
made snickering comments about “Mañana.” (Before intervening with comments
of my own about how inappropriate it was to be stereotyping in a cross-cultural
class, I waited to see what would happen.) Immediately after these comments, an
Italian and Spaniard in the group objected to this interpretation and noted with
indignation that the Dutch partner had treated his Mexican partner shabbily. I then
intervened with an observation that they had just demonstrated the relative
priorities of task and relationship orientations and that it was probably not by
chance that they had expressed the differences inherent in the cultures they
represented. I asked them to check their profiles on Mastery and Collective
orientations. It is important to get other perspectives from the class into the
discussion to reinforce that the cultural issues are embedded in business issues.
After a general discussion I then ask the participants to predict how Menendez
will react and what he will do. These, too, often reflect the participants’ own
cultural preferences, with mastery/task-oriented people frequently suggesting that
Menendez will finally provide the information, albeit with some resentment.
Those with stronger relationship values often express doubts about whether
Menendez will cooperate, even suggesting that Van den Bosch may have done
irreparable damage to the relationship.
Note: If people ask why he didn’t call, I say, “I don’t know. But he didn’t.” (I then
make a note to return to the issue of using appropriate technology for the level of
complexity of the subject. In general, the greater the complexity or sensitivity of
the subject or relationship, the richer the technology should be: from fax or email
to telephone to video-conferencing to face to face).
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The “Receives an Email” Case
Once these discussions have been exhausted (usually 20 to 30 minutes), I
distribute the B case and ask the participants to read it through and note if they
were accurate in their predictions, or not, and why. Then I ask them if they were
surprised and why or why not.
This usually generates discussion around the surprise of some in the class. At this
point it is advisable to go back to conceptual material to help the participants
generalize from this situation. The profile example in Exhibit 2 provides a way to
talk about Mastery, Doing and Individualism and how they affect Van den
Bosch’s assumptions and behaviors (including his “editing” of his first draft
email, which indicates a low “Being” orientation). I often use the pyramid
illustrations from Riding the Waves of Culture.1 It is also useful to show a slide of
one of the power distance charts from “Motivation, Leadership and Organization:
Do American Theories Apply Abroad?”2
Even then it is important to remind the class that Menendez experiences any
deviation from partners who are equals with much greater sensitivity because of
his stronger hierarchical values.
It is noteworthy that in paragraph two of Menendez’s email reply, he expresses his
own indignation in the form of a series of questions. (See the example in the
suggested reading from International Management Behavior, p. 54.) When I
pointed this out in the session during which the Anglo-American/Spanish-Italian
split occurred, another Spaniard in the group approached me during the break. He
said that he had never thought he exhibited the same pattern but that he had
recently been severely criticized by two members of the top executive team of
which he is a member. They had made a big capital expenditure five to six months
earlier and it had proved to be an ill-considered decision. When it became obvious
that things were turning out badly, he had reminded them that he had objected
when the original discussion had taken place. They insisted that he had not
objected. He had only realized in class that he, too, had followed the pattern of
many Latins of raising objections in the form of questions. He thought that his
repeated series of questions had clearly been strong statements of objection to the
decision. They, however, had not even remembered that he had asked questions.
The “they” in his team were both British. His own cultural pattern had been
hidden from him.
It is also worth raising the point of the way Menendez signs his email “Best
regards and season’s greetings” (if no one else does). Usually, those with
relationship orientations don’t think too much about it. But the task/mastery
Trompenaars, Fons. Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business.
London: The Economist Books, 1993: 144.
Hofstede, Geert H. “Motivation, Leadership and Organization: Do American Theories Apply
Abroad?” Organizational Dynamics, Summer, 1980: 42-63.
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people often cite it as sarcastic or ironic. They do not think it is possible for anger
and caring to occur simultaneously. Yet in my experience people with strong
relationship and task orientations can separate anger about the task from anger
related to the person, and can be authentic in signing off as Menendez did. (In his
case, of course, we cannot know what his inner feelings/thoughts were.)
What Really Happened
After the discussion, I tell the class what happened (and how I came to write the
case). Van den Bosch, still puzzled by the apparent anger in the email (and
reinforced by his equally puzzled colleagues in Holland), called Menendez.
Eventually he did get the information, but felt that their relationship had been
severely strained. He continued to feel this way and still had not understood the
reasons for the problems until he attended an IMD program, read the background
information and worked out his own profile of values. It was a massive “Aha!”
(He gave an audible exclamation in class during the discussion of hierarchy when
I showed the pyramid illustration…note the relative positions of Mexico and the
Netherlands.) Van den Bosch then asked me to sit with him at lunch. He described
the situation he had been in and later that evening sent me both emails, which he
had on his laptop. I rewrote the opening of his email in a form apologizing for the
intrusion to Menendez, noting that he must be very busy and must have tried to
get the information from the client and that I sympathized, but was asking him as
a special favor to help me. (Note personalizing the request--and first apologizing
for the request.)
Then it is useful to get examples of similar occurrences from the participants. If
they are slow to come forward, I tell them about another example, given to me by
a Hong Kong Chinese participant who is responsible for quality and safety in all
the Asian manufacturing plants of a US-based multinational firm. They were
rolling out a new quality improvement program across the region that had been
piloted in Australia. One morning the plant manager from Malaysia showed up
unannounced in the Hong Kong office and proceeded to rant in an
uncharacteristically harsh, loud and lengthy manner, threatening to withdraw from
the program etc. It turned out that the Australian head of the change program had
posted on the company intranet a Van den Bosch-like “factual” statement of the
delays at the Malaysian plant and had publicly decried the slow pace of adoption
in Malaysia. The Malaysian manager was so angry that he flew immediately to
Hong Kong--bypassing the task force head--to complain directly to the Hong
This was related to me just after the discussion of Van den Bosch’s emails.
I usually broaden the discussion by putting up a transparency of Exhibit 3 and
giving other examples of problems reported to me by participants. The most
recent example of email problems (not a cross-cultural example, but still
noteworthy) is included as Exhibit 4.
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Checklist for Getting High Performance from Team Differences1
1) Do we have a clear understanding of the important dimensions of
differences relative to the tasks facing our team?
2) Do we know the relative strengths and differences of individuals in our team
on these dimensions?
1) Are we motivated to communicate truthfully about our important
2) Are we confident in our ability to use our differences to improve our
performance of the task?
3) Do we have a common definition of our situation? (Do we agree on the task,
our goals, roles, etc.?)
4) Do we have common ways of engaging each other and our task? (Do we
agree on team norms for our behavior in the team? For how to work, for
settling disagreements, for making decisions, etc.?)
5) Do we explain our behavior without blaming, taking into account our
6) Do we “decenter” when we communicate, taking into account our important
differences when we listen and talk to each other?
1) Are we aware of the differences in our participation in our team and do we
encourage contributions from all?
2) Are we aware of conflicts and do we seek to resolve functional
disagreements effectively and to avoid dysfunctional conflicts?
3) Do we build on each other’s ideas? (Encourage divergent and innovative
thinking, extend others’ ideas, suppress ridicule, etc.?)
1) Are we achieving synergy? (Getting results that provide better solutions to
problems than we could achieve if our team were homogeneous or if we
were working alone?)
For application with the “MBI Model of High Performance” developed by Martha L. Maznevski
(McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia) and Joseph J. DiStefano (IMD,
International Institute for Management Development, Lausanne, Switzerland).
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Cultural Perspectives Questionnaire Results
Sample Profile May 1, 2001
You Mean High Low
Relation to Nature
Subjugation: Our purpose and natural role is to 4.4 2.9 4.8 1.0
understand and subjugate ourselves to the plan
determined by a larger natural or supernatural
Mastery: Our purpose and natural role is to 5.3 4.9 6.0 3.6
control nature and the environment around us.
Harmony: Our purpose and natural role is to 5.9 5.5 6.9 4.3
maintain a balance among the elements of the
environment, including ourselves.
Individual: Our main responsibility is to and for 5.0 4.5 7.0 2.7
ourselves and immediate family.
Collective: Our main responsibility is to and for 4.5 4.7 5.9 3.5
a larger extended group of people.
Hierarchical: It is normal and good that power 4.6 3.5 6.0 1.6
and responsibility are unequally distributed
Nature of Humans
Good/Evil: The basic nature of people (not 4.3 3.3 5.0 1.3
necessarily their behavior) is essentially good
(low score) or bad (high score).
Changeable: The basic nature of people is 5.8 4.3 5.8 2.4
changeable (high score) or not (low score).
Doing: Our natural and preferred mode of 4.4 4.4 5.9 2.7
activity is to be continually engaged in
accomplishing tangible tasks.
Thinking: Our natural and preferred mode of 5.0 5.0 6.9 2.5
activity is to consider all things carefully and
rationally before taking action.
Being: Our natural and preferred mode of 5.6 4.4 5.6 2.7
activity is to do everything in its own time.
Note: Means, highs and lows are based on all respondents in the group.
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Date: April 7, 1999
Place: The White House, Washington, D.C.
The Players: Zhu Rongji & Bill Clinton
The Context: Negotiations re China’s joining the World Trade Organization
China had made a number of concessions, which led Zhu Rongji to expect Bill
Clinton to welcome Beijing into the WTO.
Clinton, distracted by the war in Kosovo and worried about a surge of anti-Chinese
sentiment in Congress, had decided to put off a final decision, despite a flurry of
concessions offered by the Chinese.
On the day Zhu landed in Washington, the Chinese sensed that their hopes might be
dashed. They sought one last opportunity for the prime minister to speak directly to
As they discussed the issue, Clinton stood up and put his arm around the shorter Zhu
and told him:
If you really need this now, we can do it. It’s a bad time for me politically, but if you really
need it, we can do it. Do you really need it now?
• What did Bill Clinton intend in his message?
• What did Zhu Rongji hear? And why would he have only one possible reply?
• Zhu, dismayed, but unwilling to be a supplicant, said he didn’t “really need it
now.” The Chinese official who witnessed this exchange and reported it to the
reporter from the New York Times noted, “How I wish I could have had a
cultural translator in the room at that moment!”
Source: International Herald Tribune, November 11, 1999: 2
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The E-Mail Read ’Round the World: Executive’s Cautionary Tale
The only things missing from the office memo were expletives. It had everything else. There
were lines berating employees for not caring about the company. There were words in all
capital letters such as “SICK” and “NO LONGER.” There were threats of layoffs and hiring
freezes and a shutdown of the employee gym.
The memo was sent by e-mail on March 13 by the chief executive of Cerner Corp., which
develops software for the health-care industry and is based in Kansas City, Missouri. The
company has 3,100 employees worldwide.
Originally intended only for 400 or so company managers, it quickly took on a life of its
The e-mail message was leaked and posted on Yahoo. Its belligerent tone surprised
thousands of readers, including analysts and investors.
In the stock market, the valuation of the company, which was $1.5 billion on March 20,
plummeted 22% in three days.
Now, Neal Patterson, the 51-year-old chief executive, a man variously described by
people who know him as “arrogant,” “candid” and “passionate,” says he wishes he had never
hit the “send” button.
“I was trying to start a fire,” Mr. Patterson said. “I lit a match, and I started a firestorm.”
That is not hard to do in the Internet age, when all kinds of messages in cyberspace are
capable of stirring reactions and moving markets. Late last year, for example, a young
California investor pleaded guilty to criminal charges that he made $240,000 by sending out a
fake news release that resulted in a sharp drop in the stock of Emulex Corp., a communications
But in this case, Mr. Patterson was certainly not trying to manipulate the market; he was
simply looking to crack the whip on his troops. That sometimes requires sharp language, he
said, and his employees know how to take it with a grain of salt.
Business professors and market analysts apparently need more convincing. They have
criticized not only Mr. Patterson’s angry tone but also his mode of communication.
Mr. Patterson ran afoul of two cardinal rules for modern managers, they say: Never try to
hold large-scale discussions over e-mail; and never, ever, use the company e-mail system to
convey sensitive information or controversial ideas to more than a handful of trusted
lieutenants--unless you want the whole world looking over your shoulder, that is.
In Mr Patterson’s case, this is what the world saw:
“We are getting less than 40 hours of work from a large number of our K.C.-based
EMPLOYEES. The parking lot is sparsely used at 8 a.m.; likewise at 5 p.m. As managers--you
either do not know what your EMPLOYEES are doing; or you do not CARE. You have
created expectations on the work effort which allowed this to happen inside Cerner, creating a
very unhealthy environment. In either case, you have a problem and you will fix it or I will
“NEVER in my career have I allowed a team which worked for me to think they had a
40-hour job. I have allowed YOU to create a culture which is permitting this. NO LONGER.”
Mr. Patterson went on to list six potential punishments, including laying off 5% of the
staff in Kansas City. “Hell will freeze over,” he vowed, before he would dole out more
employee benefits. The parking lot would be his yardstick of success, he said: It should be
“substantially full” at 07:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. on weekdays and half full on Saturdays.
“You have two weeks,” he said. “Tick, tock.”
That message, management experts say, created an atmosphere of fear without specifying
what, if anything, was actually going wrong at the company. Moreover, it established a
simplistic gauge of success--measuring worker productivity by the number of cars in a parking
lot is like judging a book by its word count.
But the more costly error was releasing such an inflammatory memo to a wide audience.
Whenever a company does that these days, it is practically inviting a recipient to relay it to
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friends or even corporate rivals. At that point, a message of even the mildest interest to others
will start churning through the farthest corners of the Internet.
For Cerner, a rapidly growing company that had $404.5 million in revenue last year, the
e-mail promoted a market upheaval. On March 22, the day after the memo was posted on the
Cerner message board on Yahoo, trading in Cerner’s stock, which typically runs at about
650,000 shares a day, shot up to 1.2 million shares.
The following day, volume surged to 4 million. In three days, the stock price fell to $34
from almost $44. It closed in New York at $30.94 on Wednesday.
Mr. Patterson said that the memo was taken out of context and that most employees at
Cerner understood that he was exaggerating to make a point. He said he was not carrying out
any of the punishments he listed. Instead, he said, he wanted to promote discussion. He
apparently succeeded, receiving more than 300 e-mail responses from employees.
As the stock began to fall after the posting of his e-mail, Mr. Patterson sent out another e-
mail message to his troops. It was both an apology to those he offended and a confirmation of
the work-ethic problem within the company.
It began: “Please treat this memo with the utmost confidentiality. It is for internal
dissemination only. Do not Copy or E-mail to anyone else.”
Source: Wong, Edward. “The E-Mail Read ’Round the World: Executive’s Cautionary Tale.”
International Herald Tribune, April 6, 2001: 1 & 15.