Ethiopia is a country in which many foreigners live and work. Many of them work in embassies, multilateral organizations and international development organizations. However, more and more, we see an influx of foreigners in the private sector as foreign companies come to invest or carry out tenders they have won. As a result, management of companies is affected by the global dimensions that foreigners bring along, as well as by the Ethiopian way of doing things. And while the foreigners are often surprised and frustrated because things work differently here, the Ethiopians have their own opinions about the way the expatriate goes about managing the business. Let us look at some of the dimensions that affect international management in Ethiopia.
The first obvious dimension is communication. It is widely recognised that English is the global language of business. Although many Ethiopians speak English, relatively few English-speaking foreigners learn Amharic or any of the other Ethiopian languages. In business dealings therefore we will thus typically depend on each other to communicate in English as a second or even third language. This dependency can have important disadvantages and cause problems like:

  • Learning only what the other party wants you to know and tells you in English.
  • Getting into misunderstandings, because the other party’s English is not as good as you think.
  • Losing opportunities by being limited to dealing only with people who speak English.

By the way, these problems are reciprocal as the English of Ethiopian business partners is sometimes better than that of the foreigner. Now, when dealing with somebody who speaks an unfamiliar language, translation becomes necessary. Here, too, problems can easily occur. Translation is difficult and often imprecise, especially in fast-paced conversations and discussions. I accompanied an evaluation mission recently to some projects in the countryside. The evaluation team was of mixed foreign origin and they wanted to discuss the project achievements with the beneficiaries. Three languages were used and I am still not sure whether the evaluators got objective information or they heard what the translators wanted them to hear or they heard what they wanted to hear themselves. Even in writing, translation may fail to deal accurately with local idioms and other features of language.
There is also the silent language of body postures and gestures that can vary across cultures. It is quite easy to move or behave in a familiar way, only to insult someone without meaning to. The “thumbs up” sign is a clear example of this as it means “jolly good” to westerners, while it may have a political meaning here or considered vulgar or insulting somewhere else.
Another interesting dimension is the motivation of employees. All managers want their employees to do their best, be effective and it is thus important to know what works and what does not work to motivate them. It is a mistake to assume that all people will be motivated by the same things and in the same way. In fact, most of the popular theories of work motivation have been developed in the west and cannot be generalised to work in other parts of the world, let alone Ethiopia. I have worked and lived here for a number of years now and I have yet to figure out how best to motivate workers here. I have found out though that it helps to recognise workers, respect them and develop personal relationships with them. No guarantees though. Individual values and attitudes are important aspects of motivation that have strong cultural ties. Managers must be careful in applying motivation theories developed in one culture to a different one. When designing reward systems, for example, it must be recognised that what proves motivational in one cultural setting may not work in another. Westerners may value individual rewards – a reflection of their high individualism – while others may prefer group rewards instead – a reflection of high collectivism. It would be helpful to the entire business community here if research was done in this area to provide some answers to the question ‘what works and what doesn’t’ to motivate workers in Ethiopia.
Important cross cultural differences also affect leadership and supervision. I guess that Ethiopian employees expect their boss to be the expert as well as to be decisive and authoritarian. I have experienced that workers here struggle with a fair amount of delegation of authority. Making decisions, even when given the delegated authority to do so, is very difficult. The matter is preferably discussed with the boss and so we wait until he is back. Meanwhile, nothing is happening. Expatriates on the other hand may come from parts of the world where employees want them to emphasise a participative, problem-solving approach. The expat manager may thus find it difficult to be more authoritarian while getting frustrated by the lack of initiative by the workers.
Finally, planning and decision making are important aspects of the manager’s role. As we have seen a number of times before, we differ in our attitude towards and perception of time, a crucial component of planning. In order to plan effectively, the planner must be able to visualise the future and believe that the future can be influenced. It is here where cultures differ and determine how much time is spent on planning, the degree and detail of the planning and the timeframe of the planning. In Ethiopia, I believe, we prefer to adjust to the changing circumstances and environment as they come our way rather than planning for a future with many uncertainties.