How to Adapt Business Behaviour Across Cultures and Still Remain Yourself

by Anders Fogelstrom on May 18, 2013

Andy Molinsky on Global Dexterity

Foreign and Frustrated in France

European culturesWorking in the midst of another national culture is often frustrating. You get angry with yourself for not succeeding to do in Rome as the Romans do. But you also get upset with others around you who are so different and who never seem to make enough effort to adapt to you.

I vividly remember a day when I was responsible in a drab Parisian suburb for an industrial company. I had a trusted secretary, who always helped me, serving as a cultural interpreter explaining the Swede to the French and the French behaviour to the Swede.

One day, exasperated by some aspect of my managerial behaviour, she told me: « you do not understand this at all! ». I replied most upset that I did perfectly understand this French way of behaving but that in no way was I going to adhere to these absurd rules nor ever approve of them.

Global Dexterity – New Book

Andy Molinsky, professor at the Brandeis University’s International business school in Boston has recently published a interesting and useful book that deals with how you can handle the dilemma between adjusting to another culture and still be faithful to your own personal values and identity.

His book is called: Global Dexterity – How to Adapt Your Behaviour across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process. (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013)

Andy Molinsky has during more than ten years been teaching intercultural subjects to international MBA students and executives.

How to Adapt Without Loosing Yourself

Andy Molinsky summarizes what made him write this book: “The purpose of the book is to develop the ability to smoothly and successfully adapt how you act in a foreign setting without feeling that you are loosing yourself in the process.

On the public stage, we are acting according to that new culture’s rules. But on the inside, we still have our cultural logic.”

The intercultural pioneer Geerd Hofstede has written that culture assimilation deals with what hurts.

Eyes and Ears Open

Intercultural worldTo work in a different culture is a challenge. How to cope? For a start you have to observe what is different. That takes an artist’s open eye for details and an ear tuned to nuances. The very obvious characteristics are rather easy to see and to adapt to.

But many of the rules are implicit and cannot be summarized in clear-cut rules. To take in how others behave and think you must also start by knowing yourself. That is perhaps the most complicated part.

I See no Problem

In an unfamiliar setting you are thrown back to the mental state of a child who vaguely perceives that most of what is happening goes far above his or her mental head.

The ex-US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld talked about the challenge of “the unknown unknown”. This sums up the situation where you perceive no problem – as your ignorance is too big.

Implicit Rules

Andy Molinsky gives some frightening examples from an American manager in the Japanese culture trying to cope with the very subtle rules of where to place senior executives around the table during a meeting. Many complex do’s and don’ts interact and a foreigner cannot understand without a Japanese guide.

Molinsky concludes that the American girl “never got any feedback – or perhaps she did and wasn’t able to decipher it correctly.

Fons Trompenaars the Dutch intercultural specialist – himself half French half Dutch – states that Japan and France have the two cultures where foreigners never get all of what happens and thus cannot get fully integrated.

imageThree Core Challenges

Andy Molinsky writes that you get three core challenges when you try to adapt to a foreign culture:

You feel you are not competent to adapt, you don’t feel authentic when you adapt your behaviour – and you get angry at the foreign culture for putting the burden on you.

Not just Explaining but Adapting

Andy Molinsky wants not just to explain cultural differences but rather give help how to handle them. He writes:

The key to successful cultural adaption is not merely learning about cultural differences…the reality is that global professionals don’t just struggle with differences. Rather, they struggle with adapting their behaviours in order to account for – and overcome – these cultural differences…The central purpose of this book has been to give you a set of tools to enable you to successfully switch your cultural behaviour.”

It is true that explaining cultures might be intellectually interesting but in real life settings it is necessary to make conclusions from this material and find adaptation strategies. I remember having worked in seminars with a team of Frenchmen who after my program said « thank you very much, now we know exactly why the Swedes are so difficult to work with ».

That is not enough!

The Predecessors and their Theories

Andy Molinsky is in my opinion a bit unfair against his predecessors. People like Hofstede and Trompenaars with their enormous databases and ingenious statistic analysis have established the scientific basis for the intercultural science. But I believe they also arrived at recommendations for modifying behaviour.

Molinsky’s Models

Andy Molinsky has managed to construct some very practical models that can be used to analyse behaviour and discover potential problem areas. And as a conclusion give concrete rules for how to arrive at a productive behaviour. And this without ever falling into the trap of oversimplification, where so many how-to-adapt books fall.

Andy Molinsky’s Six Intercultural Variables

imageAndy Molinsky defines six areas where culturally defined attitudes might create problems. It is in the respective degree of:

  • Directness
  • Enthusiasm
  • Assertiveness
  • Self-promotion
  • Formality
  • Personal disclosure

All theories about human behaviour need to simplify and create analytical tools, which attempt to capture a complex and ever changing reality.

The apple can be sliced in many different ways. Andy Molinsky is focusing on some rather easy to handle aspects which are very useful in intercultural encounters. They are meant to be operational tools.

Personal Comfort Zone and Foreign Norms

Andy Molinsky deals a lot with how the personal comfort zone for an individual relates to the accepted norm in the culture with which you have interaction.

He wants us to grade how far from each other the personal limits of comfort and the accepted norms are and see if there is not some area where they can meet and overlap.

If such is the case you can try by different methods to stretch your personal acceptance and thus reach a soft spot where distinctive norms can if not fully meet, anyhow coexist.

Andy Molinsky gives the seemingly simple but oh so difficult recommendation:

“Embrace the new culture’s logic. Don’t just change how you behave: change how you think.”

Hit by bikeSometimes this is just not possible – compare my initial reaction saying I understood what was acceptable management style in France but that I did not want to adapt.

Examples where no peaceful coexistence can be created could be for a female executive to fit in cultures where women are discriminated against.

In culture with a very hierarchical structure some managers will not tolerate any bad treatment of subordinates. This is for moral reasons, but also because in many cultures empowerment of teams is seen as the best ways of arriving at success.

What do you do if exposed to such a situation? That is one of the core subjects that Andy Molinsky treats.

I think than Fons Trompenaars thesis that you need to reconcile cultural dilemmas by creating innovative new solutions that are not just compromises between black and white digital alternatives certainly applies here.

Revealing Mini Cases

During his ten years as an intercultural professor Molinsky has been able to collect many personal stories giving him a lot of concrete examples from challenging situations.

Some of these mini cases are so well presented and so close to real life problems that it almost feels painful to read them.

Some very good examples relate to job interviews. How do you avoid the pitfalls of self-confident loud bragging or as a contrast too low-key modesty?

Not Loosing Face in Asia

Molinsky treats the encounter between US style management and Asian cultures. Questions of how direct you can be in criticism and the necessity to adhere to the rules of hierarchy are crucial in this context.

Andy Molinsky comments on an American managing in China:

“This Western style of involvement – treating a subordinate as almost an equal in the decision-making process – runs counter to the more assertive, hierarchical expectations for the boss in the Chinese cultural code.”

The Case of Volvo and Geely

These intercultural difficulties East-West have been complicating the Chinese car manufacturer Geely’s take-over of the Volvo car company.

A completely silent Chinese representative in Gothenburg creates Swedish suspicion. Is he a spy from the Communist party?

What they perceive as a Swedish slow and conservative management tradition in Volvo, frustrate the Chinese.

German Directness

In the other corner from Asian indirect ways of expressing unpleasant things is the German attitude with a very straight forwards criticism not enveloped with any sugar coating.

The German modelMolinsky writes:

“The German-born colleagues knew about the importance of small talk in the United States, but felt uncomfortable doing it…from a German perspective, it can feel superficial, irrelevant and inefficient.”

Useful Methods

I think Molinsky’s book can be very useful for managers working in a foreign environment. The method is clear and operational. The examples are vivid and revealing. I certainly recommend it.

About Anders Fogelstrom :

Anders Fogelström is a Bearing Consulting Director. Anders has for more than ten years worked as a consultant in the areas of business development, change management and intercultural management – often as a part of post merger integration.
Anders has been teaching intercultural skills at the HEC / CEMS business school in Paris.
Previous to this Anders worked as a Managing Director for small and medium sized high-technology industrial companies in areas such as packaging, hand tool production, measuring techniques, access control and telecommunication. Anders worked with industrial turn-around and integration of merged business units.
Clients include: Renault Trucks, Orange, Volvo Trucks, IKEA, EADS Eurocopter, Crédit Agricole, Perstorp Galderma, SEB, Thales and Atlas Copco.
Anders has an MBA from INSEAD and has lived and worked in Sweden, the Netherlands and in France, where he now lives in Paris.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Simona Pascariu May 19, 2013 at 10:50

That’s a great approach related to businesses behavior and it equally is related to acting in public spaces or living your personal life. Working mostly in urban /territorial participatory processes involving a large diversity of actors coming from various sectors, areas with ethnic mix (or segregation!) feelings and different cultures, perceptions and prejudices, I understood the benefits of building around the common stakes meanwhile preserving each-one and each-other identity. This is a continuous negotiation process of “enlarging the pie” of opportunities, where learning, understanding cultural differences and listening are of paramount importance. Only it takes time, lots of time and the actors should play their real-life roles. And of course I’m speaking about principled negotiation and not the competitive one!

Lee-in Chen May 19, 2013 at 11:18

Economists measure the success or failure of culture adaptation via hedonic regression models or total factor productivity regressions. Business management has little to do with cross culture adaptation because efficiency and effectiveness are the iron rules for successful multinational cooperations. However any company do need culture sensitive experts on designing local-specific R&D products as well as on local marketing strategies. If the company encourages managers to begin their local culture sensitivity from those profitable subjects, you will feel much easier to promote culture adaptation.
There are many successful cases on how Taiwanese business successfully adapted Chinese culture (eating habit, dress habit and geographic difference…) in designing R&D products and marketing strategy. I believe huge countries such as India and Brazil can be explored in similar experiences. I can provide successful case studies which I conducted via in-depth interview survey during 1990s. However the reports were mostly in Chinese. You need have Chinese or Taiwanese graduate students to translate them. Cheers.

Paddy Kamatkar May 20, 2013 at 13:53

Yet another treat from professor Fogelstrom! Thank you for your nice critique/analysis of what seems to be an interesting and a useful book on ever daunting task of navigating through the vast oceans of inter-culture co-existence.

As a migrant professional from India to the U.S., I could resonate with almost everything said here but as a 30 year resident and a traveler of India and almost 20 year resident and a traveler of the U.S., I can certainly say from my own experience that a significant part (though to varying degrees) of the writings on the global cultures is invariably stereo-typical and can’t be taken as a prescription for sure.

Though having said that, every bit of a guidance helps in enriching our understanding of another culture – while keeping very well in mind what we consider as our own also is shifting constantly because of our own maturity and growing understanding as the time passes….

Anders Fogelstrom Aders Fogelstrom May 20, 2013 at 14:24

Dear Mr Kamatkar,

Thank you for your comment and kind words.
I agree that stereotypes are traps that we easily fall into when looking at other cultures. I think the best way is to show respect and to bring differences in the open and not letting them grow into dangerous frustrations. Bringing the challenges into daylight must be done with tact in order not to aggravate the situation. I am of course very interested in your experiences from the encounters between one very old but also extremely dynamic civilization and one still quite young but also very energetic.

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