A Tale of Two German CEOs: The Simple Step that Can Make or Break Cross-Cultural Management

Although the saying, “opposites attract,” may be true in some cases, most of the friends you have probably have similar traits or interests to yourself.

A similar background.

Similar values.

The same language.

The same culture.

Because we like “sameness” in our friendships, expats and international managers might find it difficult to forge hearty relationships with those of other cultures.

In fact, they may fall into one of the three categories of expats who stick to themselves.

Our preference for sameness is due to our favoring the familiar over the unfamiliar, the known over the unknown, and comfort over discomfort.

We tend toward sameness because it reduces potential friction or conflict.

Initiating a friendship with someone from a different cultural background, therefore, can seem like a hurdle. And maintaining one looks more like an obstacle course. 

However, in a cross-cultural environment, as an expat or foreign manager, one must be able to bridge the divide, overriding these initial levels of discomfort in order to build and maintain friendships with people of other cultures.

CEO Hans

Let’s revisit our favorite German CEO, Hans.

Hans relocated to Switzerland to become the CEO of a major Swiss company that belonged to a German group.

Only, Hans fell short: he had no interest in integration.

Not only did he not wish to culturally integrate, but he had no desire to become part of the local business community either.

His goal was to build his career in Germany.

His disinterest in getting to know people and detachment from the culture was blindingly apparent to his Swiss employees.

Instead of coming together cohesively, the company unraveled.

Cut to a few years later. It became apparent that Hans was floundering in Switzerland. So the German group acted accordingly.

Enter, Karl.

CEO Karl

Karl was sent to take Hans’ place.

This German CEO immediately set out to make local friends in Zurich. He demonstrated a true interest in Swiss culture and cultivated a local network of business contacts and personal friends.

As a result, the environment of the company shifted dramatically. The atmosphere was no longer terse or tense, and the employees felt more engaged with each other, their boss, and their work.

Karl understood that in order for businesses to succeed, a common business culture must be built.

And that started with him.

He had to lay the foundation upon which to build, and he did this by taking action, encouraging demonstrations of respect and understanding across cultures – and throughout the company.

Mid-level and senior management worked together much more fluidly – all because Karl chose to take this fairly simple step of showing his openness to the new culture and to new friendships.

While not everyone is a people-person like Karl, fortunately, there are strategies to help you build and maintain cross-cultural friendships, no matter your personality type.

We’ll discuss these strategies in the coming weeks.

Expats Abroad: What Category Do You Fall Into?

In your experiences as a foreigner abroad, you’ve probably noticed that not all expats are alike.

Some keep to themselves, some mingle with other expats on the weekends, some are entrenched in local culture.

In fact, you might see that expats fall into three general categories.

Can you identify your fellow foreigners abroad in these descriptions?

Diplomats

Diplomats country-hop, spending short stints in each country – enough time to do business and make friends, but solely with their own compatriots for the most part.

In fact, official diplomats are often this type, as most countries dissuade their diplomats from getting involved in local economics and politics.

Because of this, diplomats are moved to new countries every couple years, never truly setting down roots.

Another reason for a diplomat’s narrow circle is that their main job is to take care of their nationals in foreign countries.

Although you may not be an official diplomat, you may still fall into the diplomat category in your approach to integration if you tend not to fraternize much with the locals.

Internationals

Internationals flock together.

They’re those expats who don’t stray much from the expat community.

French, English, German (often those of Western cultures) – they are a tight-knit group, developing an international circle within whatever host country they might call home. 

If they have kids, their kids go to international private schools.

If they go to church, they attend service at their international church.

Although these mixed international expat communities are interesting and, often, welcoming, they’re not locals.

They can offer you valuable advice about the local community, practical details about settling in, and examples of cultural barriers you may face, but their views are often tainted, particularly if they’ve lived in this host culture for a long time.

With time, they’ve dealt with a myriad of cross-cultural conflicts that you might not necessarily confront, so any cautionary tales and cynicism about the culture should be taken with a grain of salt.

Don’t take anyone’s subjective experience as fact, as it often comes with their own personal baggage. 

Do not discredit their experience, but refrain from holding fast to opinions before building your own.

Expat cynicism is real, so do your best to start the painting of your own cross-cultural experience with a blank canvas.

Localizers

Localizers are the category that you’ll ideally try to fit into as an expat or foreign manager.

Localizers seek out local friendships.

They intend to integrate into the local culture and build a home away from home.

Their goals are to appreciate, understand, and respect differences in culture – so much so as to adopt some of its values, attitudes, and behaviors.

Those who fall into this category tend to learn the culture more quickly than do those in the other two categories.

This is because they get their hands dirty. They rely on their own experiences and their relationships with local people to truly see and understand the culture. 

Localizers take to heart what it really means to adapt and adopt as a person of the world.

Next week, we’ll talk about strategies to becoming a localizer.

Sharing Culture: Why Local Friends Are Important to Foreign Managers

You work for an international company that relocates you to Beijing, China.

Having never been to China and knowing little about the culture, you feel like a fish out of water.

Nothing is familiar to you; the lay of the land, the crowds, the language on street signs.

You think of home – your family/friends, your favorite haunts, your favorite foods – and you immediately feel homesick.

But you know your success in this foreign country depends on building your own home here, even if it’s temporary. 

It depends on your ability to integrate.

And to aid that integration, you begin your friend-finding mission.

Expat Community

The first people you meet are, of course, your colleagues, some of whom are expats from your own country.

You join them for trivia night at a bar that caters to foreigners, and they introduce you to the broader expat community.

This community makes you feel immediately comfortable. 

They laugh at your jokes, understand your references – they understand YOU.

The group is familiar. It’s home. 

It’s easy to choose comfort and familiarity over differences that may generate potential conflict.

With people of your own culture, you’re not navigating a cross-cultural minefield; you generally know where the mines are and you avoid them.

But if you want to truly integrate into a foreign culture, you cannot self-segregate, sticking to your own flock.

You must migrate into unknown territories.

Cross-cultural Friendships Over Comfort

This is not to say you shouldn’t make expat friends.

In fact, these friendships often evolve into lifelong friendships and are also helpful to your cultural integration.

But when you avoid making local friends altogether, you’re losing out on an important part of living in a foreign culture: sharing.

Sharing culture not only allows you to better understand your employees and direct reports, as you better understand the culture you’re managing in; it also shows them that you care.

Without respect and a genuine interest in the culture and its people, you won’t connect with your local colleagues and employees. 

They will note that you haven’t sought out any significant cultural experiences in your new home.

They will note that you don’t bother with the language, the customs, or anything else.

They will note that you stick to your own flock and don’t show interest in making friends or sharing culture with the locals.

As with anything, you’ll only get out of your experience abroad what you make of it.

You can choose to stay in your bubble and never expand your comfort zone.

Or you can choose to share in a new culture, meet new people, appreciate new ideas and traditions, and ultimately broaden your horizons.

Next week, we’ll talk about the three types of expatriates, and you can decide which category you want to fall into.

Taking Action: Learning to Admire Other Cultures

Let’s take a trip around the world.

First up, Italy, where you enjoy long leisurely meals full of wine and laughter. Dining is viewed as an active pleasure in Italian culture. Italians spend double the time eating each day on average when compared to Americans. In experiencing this, you soak it in, socialize, and feel more relaxed.

Next, you hop south of the Mediterranean to Morocco, where you navigate through a market known as a souk. There, you haggle with shopkeepers over bits and bobs. You enjoy the “game” and the strategy involved.

A flight takes you to Rio de Janeiro, where you enroll in a samba class. It’s exhilarating to dance in this warm new style, taught to you by a pro.

You next travel to Japan, where you take part in a tea ceremony. You find the tradition fascinating and the emphasis on politeness admirable.

During this trip around the world, you were open to appreciating the customs and attributes of each culture – a trait that will greatly aid your cross-cultural integration

Admiration

We discussed the Colonial Superiority Complex and how it may be difficult for those from Western cultures to shed their ethnocentricity in order to see the value in other cultures.

But if you don’t try, you’re at a net loss.

Throughout history, the West has not always been economically superior to other cultures.

Muslim cultures, for centuries, were more scientifically advanced and economically powerful than European cultures.

In fact, Emperor Mansa Musa of Mali is considered by many historians to be the richest man in world history.

Neither Warren Buffet, nor Bill Gates could compete.

Mansa Musa lived during the 13th and 14th centuries and was so wealthy that he is said to have done his Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca flanked by a caravan of tens of thousands, some of whom hauled hundreds of pounds of gold for Musa to splash out on extravagances. He also spread his wealth across Africa in the form of educational centers and mosques.

In today’s money, his fortune is estimated to be around $400 billion. Comparatively, Jeff Bezo’s net worth is currently half that.

Asia’s Economic Growth

More recently, Japan’s economic growth in the ‘80s, with brands like Sony and Toyota booming, made America check their superiority complex at the door.

They faced competition on the global stage, prompting cross-cultural research on a scale never before seen.

Moreover, China’s rise over the last three decades shows that the West does not hold a monopoly over the global economy.

This is all to say that while you appreciate your own culture’s achievements and history, you should also recognize the achievements of other cultures.

Humanity’s heritage is woven with threads of the accomplishments, discoveries, and inventions of people from different backgrounds. All the world is an invaluable part of this tapestry.

Making an active effort to recognize this will put things in sharper relief for you – in a context more objective  – and will ultimately aid your cross-cultural integration.

Learning Another Culture: A Conscious Process

Do not minimize the importance of cultural integration when expatriating abroad – or sending employees abroad. 

The value of learning how to adapt to another culture not only eases the transition for you and/or your employees, it also impacts your bottom line.

Last week, we talked about the difficulties of cross-cultural integration particularly for Westerners.

Overcoming our own cultural conditioning and ethnocentricity in order to accept another culture’s ways is challenging for those from the West. 

That’s why it’s incredibly important for senior managers and employees who are expatriates abroad to learn how to learn another culture.

This actionable step should be incorporated into an employee cultural integration plan. 

In fact, cultural integration should be a top objective when expatriating employees.

If you’re sending employees who don’t have any understanding of the culture or the finesse of diplomacy, then your business venture is likely to fall flat.

A Conscious Process

Think of the conscious process of cultural integration as similar to learning a new language.

First and foremost, you need to study.

Whether it’s through books or a teacher, you should be seeking knowledge about your foreign host country.

This is Cultural Integration 101. 

And like language training, there’s only so far you can get with books; fluency also requires immersive practice with native speakers

Only then can you strengthen your vocabulary, master pronunciation, learn colloquial phrases, and really delve into the nuances of the language.

The same goes with fluency in a culture.

Books and notes make up the theoretical learning process. This can be done at home.

The immersive process is done through active sharing.

Whether you’re sharing a meal with your foreign colleagues, joining in a sport with your friends, or getting involved with your local community, sharing in the foreign culture hands-on is the way to the heart of its nuances.

Learn to Admire

As we talked about last week, the Colonial Superiority Complex may still be an inherent default for those from Western cultures.

But true integration is only achieved when expats view their host culture as equal to their own, despite any differences in economic, scientific, social, or military advancements, etc., between the two countries.

You can be proud of your own culture, while simultaneously showing curiosity and admiration in another’s.

The bottom line is, you must be able to adopt an objective perspective regarding values and norms in order to manage successfully in another culture.

Next week, we’ll talk more about learning about and admiring the achievements of other cultures.

Seeking the “Why”: How Curiosity Can Assist Cross-Cultural Integration

When working across cultures, stress develops from inconsistencies in values, behaviors, and norms.

Anxiety accompanies culture shock and the changes in behavior required.

Do you handle stress and anxiety well? Then the transition of adapting to your new culture will happen faster and smoother than otherwise.

If you don’t, the next couple posts will show you how to ease the process.

Why Asking “Why?” is Important

A lack of understanding leads to a lack of acceptance.

Without understanding and acceptance, adapting to things you find random or illogical is next to impossible.

That’s why learning the “why” of behavior clears the way for adaption.

Consider you’re the monkey in the zoo. People are chucking peanuts at you, and you have no idea why.

Your handler feeds you often enough, and you’re not hungry. And yet, these humans are surrounding your home and lobbing peanuts at your feet.

“Seems irrational,” you think. “I have all the food I need. Why are these humans throwing more?”

Then again, you might try to see it from the human perspective by asking, “Why?”

Taking a seat to observe the humans, you – the monkey – try to work out the reasoning behind their behavior.

“Hmmm…” you think, “maybe they aren’t throwing peanuts to feed me; maybe they’re throwing them to observe me. I must be boring them by sleeping. They’re trying to encourage me to engage with them.”

As the monkey, through curiosity, you start to understand the rationale of the human; you understand that not all that is unfamiliar is irrational.

Survival Requires Rational Action

Humans are conditioned to act rationally within their environment and time period in order to survive.

Physicist D. Hillis writes in Cause and Effect:

“We like to organize events into chains of cause and effects that explain the consequences of our actions. […] This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. The ultimate job of our nervous system is to make actionable decisions, and predicting the consequences of those decisions is important to our survival.”

Since the dawn of time, human beings have been rationalizing.

Society, etiquette, war.

All of these things developed out of some form of rationale or logic.

They were learned.

The question we’ll be asking is how does cultural rationale develop?

And answering that question – and those that follow – starts with curiosity and observation. We’ll talk about that more next week.

Adapting: The Second Step in Cross-Cultural Management

Over the last few weeks, we’ve laid out the first step of cross-cultural management: acceptance.

Accepting another’s culture, values, and norms as different than your own, while foregoing judgment, accepting ambiguity, tolerating actively, and explaining yourself is the best way to get your toes wet in a new culture.

But we have yet to talk about wading into the shallows of the culture in the form of adapting.

If you dig in your heels at acceptance, then your degree of cross-cultural integration is limited. 

Doing so will certainly help you blend into your host culture, particularly as a manager;  however, at some point, you will find that you must adapt to some aspects of the new culture, or you’ll be forever an outsider.

As the German manager did in his Swiss company, taking your integration a step further by altering your behavior will make the culture accept you.

This is called adapting.

Adapting

First of all, how is adapting different than adopting?

Adapting involves changing your behavior but not your values.

For instance, you are being hosted by a country that bows in greeting as opposed to shaking hands.

As a courtesy, you adapt to this behavior. You bow.

But no doubt, your values haven’t changed; shaking hands is still your preferred greeting based upon your values.

Working across cultures, you might choose to accept and adapt those behaviors whose values are valid and do not impose on your own.

After all, a change in values involves a significant life-altering transformation. More often than not, that takes time.

While such a transformation may come, depending upon how long you remain in your host country and how impacted you are by their culture, until that impact happens, small adaptions will show your hosts that you respect their culture and are making an attempt to integrate where you can.

Cost/Value

The bottom line when deciding what to adapt to and what to simply accept is drawn by the personal cost to you versus the value behavioral changes may add to your life in this new culture and your success as a manager.

Does adhering to the culture’s dress code come at a significant cost to you? Does the value of “fitting in” outweigh whatever cost that may be?

Those values and norms which are not in direct contradiction to your own culture’s should be easy enough to adapt and should be what you actively implement first.

Although the behavior may feel unfamiliar (greeting your French colleague by a kiss on both cheeks, for instance), after normal processing, such behaviors will feel more or less natural.

In fact, give it time, and you may not even notice you’ve adapted to another culture.

Next week, we’ll discuss the type of adaptions that you will notice and how to get over that discomfort. Stay tuned.

Culture & “The Bubble”: Closing the Gap of Personal Space

A tennis ball.

A volleyball.

A beach ball.

An ocean.

Whatever size our bubble is, we each walk around inside our own yardstick of personal space.

Last week, we talked about how culture and the climate, along with the level of intimacy in relationships, can all affect the degree of our bubble.

This week, we’ll talk about how to close that gap – or at least become more comfortable with it – when living in a foreign culture.

The American Bubble

Americans value personal space. 

International student guides to the US even highlight this preference:

“If you try to get too close to an American during your conversation, he or she will feel that you are ‘in their face’ and will try to back away. Try to be aware of this, so if the person to whom you are speaking backs away a little, don’t try to close the gap.”

More advice given to international students to the US includes:

  • Shake hands upon meeting
  • Avoid all other physical contact while speaking with casual acquaintances (no arm over the shoulder, arm touching, hand holding, etc.)

Americans clearly have a preference for physical distance and no body contact…at least when it comes to strangers and casual acquaintances.

So, how do American managers deal with more touchy-feely cultures abroad?

Insert Desk Here

Latin America is a physically close culture, as was illustrated in the study discussed in last week’s post.

Imagine an American manager entering into this tennis ball-sized bubble culture.

When speaking with an employee, said employee stands too close for comfort, forcing the manager to step backwards to regain his bubble. But in doing so, the employee steps closer again, because he is uncomfortable with the wide gap.

While savvy American managers who work in Latin America want to adapt cross-culturally, those who can’t bear the physical closeness often use a small trick to avoid it with their colleagues and employees.

Instead of taking a step back, they close the gap with an object – like a table or desk – thereby creating the gap for them. This way, the employee is at a comfortable distance, while not feeling uncomfortable, himself, with the object-made gap.

Sometimes, closing the gap is not easy (see: the Japanese woman who forced herself to adapt to the Spanish greeting of kisses); other times, it’s as easy as a desk.

Cultural Must-Adapts: When Is It Mandatory to Adapt to Cultural Norms?

Do you remember our four groupings of social norms – folkways, mores, taboos, and laws?

If not, then here’s our handy chart to recall how each of these norms applies to culture:

norms

As you can imagine, failing to queue up in Britain would not be looked upon as severely as, say, going topless at a beach in America. And this is due to the severity of the norm groupings to which each of these actions belong.

Folkways<Mores<Taboos<Laws

How strict is each cultural norm group?

Folkways are the softest social norms. While you have a choice whether or not to adapt to folkways, failing to adapt won’t lead to ostracism; it will simply lead some in your new cultural environment to consider you a bit rude.

One example: wearing formal attire in a business environment is a European folkway. A suit and tie in Europe is the uniform of choice for men.

So, when an American male manager walks into a business meeting with his European counterparts wearing a casual polo shirt and wrinkled slacks, while this casual attire is, of course, not forbidden, it may result in a negative perception of said businessman as a cross-cultural business leader.

This is one example of a folkway that you can choose to adapt or not, but in making that choice, consider how it’s perceived.

Mores define right versus wrong within a culture, so there is more pressure to adapt to this type of social norm.

For instance, if a female manager travels to a conservative country, and she comes from one where feminine business attire is much more liberal, she may feel pressured – or even be asked – to alter her attire, as it may be considered inappropriate or revealing, based on the culture’s mores.

This is the difference between “right vs rude” and “right vs wrong”. Again, you can choose to adapt or not, but in the process, you may be considered “rude” or “wrong” by the cultural standards of your new colleagues.

Mandatory Adaptions

When it comes to the last two social norm groups – taboos and laws -, you must adapt.

Remember, taboos define what’s forbidden, while laws define what’s illegal. If these norms don’t align with your own, and you believe there’ll be some “wiggle-room”, simply because you’re a foreigner, then you’re very much mistaken.

“Sorry, I didn’t know; I’m foreign,” might work when breaking a queue, but it certainly won’t work when breaking a law.

You must accept that other cultures have values that you must observe if you choose to live there. And if you can’t accept these deeply entrenched values and norms, then stand by your principles and don’t move there.

Because one thing is certain in building cross-cultural relationships: you should not expect an entire culture to bend to your will.

When Cultures Collide: A Profound Conflict of Values

We’ve talked about what can happen when physical or time limitations prevent full cross cultural integration. We’ve talked about what can happen when your own discomfort with another culture’s norms gets in the way of adapting.

But what happens when there are certain behaviors and norms you don’t want to adapt to due to your own deep-seated cultural values?

This is where cross cultural issues can cause some real friction.

The Headscarf

One example is, of course, the cultural norm of wearing a headscarf.

In some Muslim countries, it is not government mandated for women to wear a headscarf (hijab). Unless you’re visiting a mosque, it’s an optional behavior, for native people and for tourists.

However, if you visit or work in a Muslim country where women must wear a headscarf by law, like Saudi Arabia, then you are faced with a norm rooted in cultural values that directly contradict your own.

While wearing a headscarf is easy enough to do, it’s the values that the headscarf symbolize that many Westerners reject. Freedom of choice is the foundation of Western culture.

If you refuse to adapt to the practice in a country for which it is law to wear the headscarf, or in a country which, more or less, abides by the religious practice, you may not ever fully integrate into the culture, and you may face legal punishment.

What do you do in this case?

To Adapt or Not to Adapt

To adapt or not to adapt, that is the question.

If you are someone who is living and working abroad, and you’re interested in fully integrating into the culture (and I’m guessing you are, if you’re reading this blog), then when facing conflicts like this one, where you feel you will betray your own values by adapting to another’s, you have two choices:

  1. Avoid the situation, altogether; or,
  2. Explain your rationale

In choosing #1, you would refrain from travel to countries where hijabs or burkas are required.

The latter choice is more of a gamble. You must explain your rationale in a way that does not diminish your foreign counterparts’ cultural norm or tradition.

And no matter how diplomatic you are about it, you’re assuming that your foreign counterpart will respect your rationale…which won’t always be the case. 

Not Optional

Some adaptions may not be optional. Awareness and acceptance won’t be enough in situations where cultural values and norms run deep.

So, when living and working in a foreign culture, do your homework beforehand and come prepared to adapt your behavior regarding strict norms and values, whether they fall in line with yours or not.