Adapting to Difference: The GIST of It, Part 1

August 12, 2013Diversity in the workplace should not be limited to gender; rather, it should envelop all aspects of a person, including his or her race, culture, and national identity. Understanding these other dimensions of diversity—and how they can impact business and working relationships—is the goal of Catalyst’s Global Issues Specialty Team (GIST).

Catalyst members—and many of our Award winners—are multinational companies with employees in hundreds of countries who often work on cross-cultural teams and across borders. This is why the GIST seeks to engage and include women and men from a diversity of cultures.

Why are we running the GIST series as we take a closer look at “Hot Jobs” this month? Because the people who land a company’s “hot jobs” are those who can work effectively within different cultural and geographic contexts.

In the first blog in our three-part series on Catalyst’s GIST, we’ve invited three cross-cultural experts to discuss challenges common to those who work across borders.

What are the biggest challenges that a business manager faces when working in another culture or country? What characteristics lead to success for those working in other cultures?

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).

You’d think that the biggest challenge managers would face when working in another country would be dealing with differences: in other words, how India is different from China and how China is different from the United States, and so on. And don’t get me wrong: differences are clearly important.  But it’s not just differences themselves that people struggle with; it’s the challenge of adapting their behavior in light of these differences.

Imagine, for example, being in a culture where you have to act much more assertively than you are used to. Simply knowing this is one thing, but being able to adapt and adjust your behavior is a much stiffer challenge—especially in a way that allows you to be effective and stay true to yourself at the same time.

The good news is that global dexterity is something you can definitely learn! I have studied, taught, and worked with hundreds of people who have developed this skill and really benefitted from it.

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

The biggest challenge isn’t within the other culture; it’s within the manager. That challenge is to become conscious of, and to overcome, her assumption that “all people everywhere are similar,” or “people are people,” or “all humans really want the same things.” This “assumption of similarity,” as it is known, was formed in her home community beginning in earliest childhood and became part of the mindset she took into adult life and work. This assumption underlies the common belief that “cross-cultural differences” refers to superficial characteristics of etiquette, taste, and style. While this view isn’t 100 percent wrong, it’s highly misleading.

Willa HallowellFor example, in Latin cultures, work gets done but the key goal of interactions is a relationship that is distinctly harmonious; colleagues strive to be perceived by others as warmly caring or simpático.  In United States culture, the key goal of interactions is getting work done efficiently; if harmony and caring also reign, that’s great, but it’s rarely a “must-have.” With this in mind, imagine the misunderstandings that can arise when Latin and United States colleagues collaborate on a long-term basis.

This example demonstrates that the biggest challenges a business manager faces are not readily observable in the manner of etiquette, taste, and style. The biggest challenges are nuanced cross-cultural differences in core values, types of emotional expression, relationship patterns, what constitutes trust, etc. In the workplace, the key challenges are expectations about decision-making, problem-solving, initiative-taking, hierarchy, time-use, and what it means to be part of a team.

To help managers gain the ability to work abroad, they should overcome the assumption of similarity, then learn to clearly perceive the nuanced differences, strengthening managerial competencies such as increasing awareness of one’s own feelings and becoming more responsive to those of others—feelings that are usually culturally shaped. Taking an inquiring stance towards ambiguity and learning to maintain a non-judgmental attitude while dealing with the differences are core competencies for all global business people.

The views expressed herein are solely those of the guest blogger and do not necessarily reflect those of Catalyst. Catalyst does not endorse any political candidates. The post and the comments are presented only for the purpose of informing the public.