A majority of current management theories, developed since the start of the 20th century, have been created by researchers in the ‘developed’ countries of the USA and Canada in North America, countries of Western Europe, and Japan in Asia. These theories have been constructed based on data and observations of management practices in these countries and viewed by their researchers and practitioners as the ‘right way to manage’. Companies from these countries which have expanded to developing economies have tried to transfer these practices to these countries, often neglecting the different cultural, institutional and socio-economic context. However, management researchers have recently started paying attention to these differences. This has resulted in a new stream of management research coming from developing countries that examines the business environment by taking into consideration the wider context of a specific country or countries.
In line with this stream of research, my research during the past 7 years has focused on wasta in the Jordanian banking industry as a specific social and organizational phenomenon in Jordan and the countries of the Arab Middle East. The literal translation of wasta is mediation, or also intermediary, and in daily usage wasta refers to the use of connections in order to get something done. Someone who ’has wasta’ either has a degree of influence, or has access to those who do, which can help to ‘get things done’. An individual person in Arab countries might seek out someone with influence, who is then also called ‘a wasta’ in spoken dialect Arabic, or ‘waseet’ in classic Arabic, and utilised in order to find a job, secure a place at a university, or navigate the bureaucratic red tape that is so common in these countries. Wasta refers thus both to the action and those facilitating it. It has been suggested that wasta impacts nearly every facet of organisational life, and it is also a common source of discussion, and complaints, among Jordanians. Yet, how wasta is practiced in this context, and how it is experienced, remains a largely unknown phenomenon.
The etymology of wasta as an action and a person, is generally associated with the notion of occupying a middle place in a network. When one looks further into the linguistic roots of the word, one can simply understand it as the ability ‘to get things done through the use of social connections’. As a cultural phenomenon, it is not remote from other practices and ideas of reciprocal social relations, such as guanxi in China, blat in Russia or pulling strings in the United Kingdom or the general idea of a relational give and take in the business world. The degree to which each of these phenomena prevail is a reflection of how networked the society is and how members of these societies prefer to socialise and do business.
In Jordan, similar to other Arab countries, wasta impacts upon different business issues ranging from applying for trade licenses and government services to securing governmental bids. In particular, it influences recruitment and selection: job seekers use wasta as a medium to secure employment, and organisations use it to secure qualified employees. From a Westocentric perspective, wasta tends to be perceived as favouritism or nepotism which contrasts with the idea of a ‘modern’ (implicitly ‘Western’) workplace. Also, within Jordan, there is a widespread debate on whether wasta should be abolished for the sake of Western-style ‘modernization’ and in order to ensure equal employment opportunities for all.
On the other hand, my research, as with some others who study wasta and similar network-based phenomena, highlights the benefits of using it, as it can have positive outcomes on the micro-level for individuals when mediating between parties helps a qualified individual secure a job though the mediation process. It is also beneficial to the organisation which can secure a qualified and loyal employee in a country where certain skills and qualifications are scarce, for example, due to the brain drain of Jordanian employees to the Arab Gulf countries. However, it can have some severe negative outcomes on the macro-level as it reduces organisational diversity and leads to reinforcing power pockets in particular groups. Another negative impact of this use of wasta is that it weakens formal institutions as it reduces trust in the political and legal processes.
While my research highlights some positive aspects of wasta on the micro level, such as enabling qualified individuals to attain a chance of employment and securing trustworthy and qualified employees for the organisation, it is also important to consider the negative impact of using this practice. There are, for instance, diversity and exclusion issues, and this suggests also that an emic approach to culture-specific concepts can never be free of power-implications. As such, wasta itself is not purely ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but it is a way of doing things that can have positive or negative outcomes depending on how it is practiced and on what level it is viewed (micro or macro). Organisations seeking to do business in Arab countries need to acknowledge the wide spread practice of this phenomenon and try to accommodate its practice without breaking their own ethical principles.
Management practitioners are invited to consider how diversity and merit are not culture-free concepts; in fact, their recent prominence owes much to the post-modern Western need to come to terms with a new understanding that the global world does not map securely onto the largely Western-dominated management literature. This research invites managers to understand that what is considered good practice in different cultures should be balanced by the different cultural perspectives on what is considered ‘good’ and ‘the right way to manage’.
Dr Sa’ad Ali is Lecturer in Human Resource Management, University of Worcester.