Blog

August 13, 2013The goal of Catalyst’s Global Issues Specialty Team (GIST) is to understand culture, nationality, and other dimensions of diversity—and how they can impact business and working relationships.

In the second blog in our three-part series on Catalyst’s GIST, we’ve invited three cross-cultural experts to discuss challenges common to those working across borders. In Part 1, we asked our experts to share how business managers can successfully adapt when working in another culture. Part 2 focuses on managing cross-cultural teams at home.

How can one consider and practice cross-cultural awareness in one’s home country when working with clients and colleagues from other countries?

Andrew MolinskyAndy Molinsky is an Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of the book Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures Without Losing Yourself in the Process (HBR Press, 2013).

This is a great question because when people talk about “crossing cultures,” they often assume that it’s just “national” cultures we’re talking about. But the same challenges people face when adapting across national cultures are true for crossing other cultures as well— including regional cultures (e.g., the American South to the American Northeast), industry cultures (e.g., IT to manufacturing), functional cultures (e.g., marketing to finance), or even gender cultures (e.g., a woman operating in a setting dominated by men).

Whenever you’re trying to succeed in an unfamiliar setting, you can feel anxious and embarrassed about your inability to master unfamiliar behaviors, inauthentic and disingenuous while acting so far outside of your comfort zone, and even angry and resentful about having to adapt in the first place.

How can you overcome these challenges? The key, I find, is to recognize that you actually have more power to adjust your behavior in a foreign culture than you think. Although there obviously are certain rules you need to follow, you have more leeway than it might appear at first to craft a personalized style in a new culture that feels authentic and is appropriate and effective. It sounds hard, but it’s actually easier than you think, and I outline a series of simple steps you can take to become effective in a new culture without losing yourself in the process

Cornelius GroveCornelius N. Grove and Willa Z. Hallowell are the partners of GROVEWELL LLC,

As we mentioned in our first post, the challenge for the manager in this situation is less about the details of the clients and colleagues from other countries, more about the mindset and assumptions that she brings to her interactions with them. Corporate people from various cultures who interact with one another do share some characteristics, which at first seems to validate an assumption of sameness. That assumption also gets validation from Diversity Days—the food-crafts-music kind—which highlight aspects of culture that have little to do with relationship patterns and core values. Like a cake’s frosting, Diversity Days are enjoyable but not substantial.

Willa HallowellIf one intends to practice cross-cultural awareness at home, then our prescription is that one become and remain curious about colleagues and clients from abroad. Don’t just focus on what they do; focus on whenwhere,whywith whom, and especially how they do it. 

Take, for example, close relationships. People everywhere—including people in places of work—need to feel emotionally closer with a few acquaintances than they do with many others (that’s the what, universally shared). But with whom may I become close…and with whom must I not become close? How do I establish a close relationship? Where may our closeness be demonstrated…and where not? These are examples of nuances of daily behavior that are guided by an employee’s cultural background—whether she is from India, China, Sweden, or Brazil. If you have a colleague from another culture, gently inquire about his or her beliefs and behaviors in this respect.

Another example is first-generation Asians working in the United States, who may not be comfortable communicating openly with their superiors in a public forum such as a meeting. While this behavior may appear reticent, elusive, or withholding to their American colleagues, a cross-culturally adept manager will not rush to negatively judge her Asian colleagues’ behavior, but will focus on noticing behavior patterns—when and with whom is this “reticence” apparent—then be curious about what might be behind this behavioral pattern. 

Your curiosity must be persistent enough to take you into the other person’s universe. Visit one another’s homes; get to know relatives and friends. Attend foreign films. Discuss fiction from one another’s cultures as well as nonfictional cultural analyses.

Cultural self-awareness is key: awareness of yourself as a bearer of culturally derived assumptions, values, and expectations. That, together with curiosity about the cultures of clients and colleagues from abroad, will take you far.