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.

The Three A’s: Developing Personality Traits to Manage Successfully Across Cultures

Last week, we discussed that managers who lead successfully across cultures often demonstrate the following qualities: empathy, flexibility, emotional stability, open-mindedness, and social initiative.

Does this describe your personality?

If your answer is ‘yes’, then great! You’ll probably make an exceptional leader, no matter what cultural environment you find yourself managing in.

But if you find you’re lacking in some (or all) of these personality traits, that doesn’t mean you can’t improve upon them and succeed as a leader across cultures.

To do so, consider the Three A’s.

The Three A’s

In this blog, we often discuss accepting, adapting, and adopting culture – the three A’s.

Whether or not you naturally possess personality traits that assist cross-cultural integration, abiding by these three A’s will improve your efforts. In doing so, you will avoid Monkey Moments. You’ll also more successfully manage in a foreign culture and generally improve your cross-cultural skills.

Accepting, adapting, and adopting enable you to methodically face cultural conflicts head-on, rather than just winging it and hoping for the best.

Ask Yourself…

The following statements are binary: you may lean more strongly to one side or the other. The stronger you lean toward either side, the harder it will be for you to integrate into a foreign culture.

If you find both extremes to be acceptable, then you are demonstrating cultural competence.

Finding another’s values/norms acceptable doesn’t mean you must find them “right”; it just means you are willing to override your own cultural ethnocentricity, boundaries, education, and convictions, in order to properly accept, adapt, and maybe even adopt another’s.

As with last week’s self-assessment, note to what degree you agree with the following statements:

  • Everyone is responsible for their own actions.” / “Fate determines the outcome of events.”
  • “Asking direct questions is the best method to attain information.” / “It is rude/intrusive to ask direct questions.”
  • “Being vague in your responses is dishonest.” / “Avoiding answering directly/honestly prevents hurt and embarrassment.”
  • “Punctuality and efficiency are virtues demonstrated by intelligent people.” / “Spending time with the people you love is more important than punctuality.”
  • “Being on a first-name basis shows friendliness and familiarity.” / “Addressing people by their first name is disrespectful.”
  • “It is important to maintain eye contact with people who are speaking.” / “Direct eye contact with those of higher status is impolite.”

After reading through these binary statements, do you find either side completely unacceptable? Or is the opposite extreme something you’d not only be willing to accept but to adapt to?

If you’re leaning toward the latter, tune in next week as we discuss more in depth how to accept and adapt to another culture.

Assessment: Can You Accept, Adapt, and Adopt Across Cultures?

Not all personalities perform well in a cross-cultural environment.

Research finds that managers with the following qualities achieve the best performance:

  • Social initiative
  • Emotional stability
  • Open-mindedness
  • Flexibility
  • Empathy

Transitioning across cultures is not easy, and often managers who are sent to work in a cross-cultural environment are chosen for their business acumen, rather than any inherent cross-cultural skills or adaptability they may possess.

While companies do require managers abroad to know their business, their cross-cultural skills are equally important.

Sometimes successful leadership in one’s home country does not necessarily transfer over to, say, Japan, Germany, or Brazil.

Each of these countries has different cultural values and norms, and if the manager doesn’t have the skills required to accept, adapt, or adopt aspects of the culture, they will fall flat as a foreign manager.

Self-Assessment

Perhaps, you’re not sure if you possess the qualities that are key to cross-cultural leadership.

To self-assess whether your personality is compatible to lead across cultures, read the hypothetical scenario and then answer honestly.

Grief Across Cultures

Grieving processes differ across cultures.

Consider your own culture’s appropriate grieving process.

Do mourners grieve openly and emotionally? Or do they grieve quietly and stoically?

Now, imagine you are from the West, and you’re organizing a relative’s funeral.

The West approaches grief in a somber and communal fashion. Funerals usually involve family and relatives joining either in a congregation or funeral hall, saying prayers, sharing memories, crying. But this is often the extent of the communal grieving process. 

Now, consider that the Middle Eastern partner of your relative invites her family to the funeral.

Middle Easterners show grief by moaning and crying out during communal services.

When they grieve this way at the funeral, do you find their actions disrespectful? As the funeral’s organizer, would you be upset that your own family was perhaps uncomfortable with this demonstrative grieving? Would you attempt to adapt the funeral to accommodate different forms of grief?

If you were to attend a funeral in the Middle East, would you adhere to your own cultural norms when mourning, or would you mirror your hosts and express your grief in a similar fashion?

If you are silent, your hosts might find your solemn behavior as disrespectful. Are you alright with this interpretation?

Do you think you could become accustomed to these behaviors if you lived in the Middle East for a time? If so, would you be open to adopting the behaviors when they became natural to you?

Now, consider other foreign funerary customs. For instance:

  • The Benguet of the Philippines blindfold the departed and seat them on a chair beside their home’s main entrance.
  • The Vaisravana Buddhists of Tibet and Mongolia perform a “sky burial,” ritually dismembering the departed and leaving the body on a mountaintop for vultures to take.
  • The Malagasy of Madagascar exhume their departed every couple of years in an event called “the turning of the bones,” in order to dance with them along to live music.

Would you be able to accept, adapt to, or adopt any of these cultural funerary customs?

The answer to this question will give you an idea about where you draw the line and how you might fair in a foreign environment.

What if the above qualities are not your strengths?

Never fear; next week, we’ll talk about developing the skillset to build these qualities.

Cultural Ambiguity & Uncertainty: Following the Line of Logic to Understanding

One of the most difficult parts of managing across cultures is a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty when it comes to rules.

Those from rule-based cultures, thrust into relationship-based environments, likely find the rules ambiguous, and vice versa.

Unsurprisingly, the rule-based US culture professes a fundamentally rule-based management theory, decidedly offering straightforward advice regarding successful management.

Take “ad res” versus “ad personam,” for example.

Ad Res vs. Ad Personam

hierarchychartAmerican universities teach an “ad res” organizational theory, in which organizations are structured in a chart adapted to the business. The names can be altered in the chart, as the organizations are indifferent to the people who fill the roles.

However, this differs from how relationship-based cultures view organizational structures. In these cultures, organizations consider “ad personam” to be correct, which is quite the opposite of “ad res.”

With “ad personam” organization, the individual people come first.

Vagueness Leads to Misunderstanding

This is just one example of the way a culture’s values shape their management theory and structures. Just one more reason to clarify any cultural ambiguity or uncertainty in order to better manage within another culture.

Uncertainty stems from vague values, norms, and behaviors, which lend themselves to wrong assumptions.

When things are uncertain or ambiguous, the first step is always to seek understanding.

As we talked about early in this blog, finding the rationale behind the values, norms, and behaviors of your cross-cultural counterparts is essential to clarifying uncertainty and ambiguity.

And the first steps in seeking understanding are to:

  1. Identify the conflicting issue – pinpoint whatever it is that’s rubbing your own values and beliefs the wrong way.
  2. Look at the issue from the other culture’s baobab tree – keeping in mind what you’ve learned about the culture, try to see the issue from their perspective, their standpoint, their worldview.
  3. Seek out the advantages in their perspective – when you approach the issue from your own baobab, you’ll probably see the other’s perspective in a negative light; but from their baobab, a spotlight is shone on their train of thought, allowing you to see more clearly.
  4. Find the line of logic – while seeking understanding may not bring you in line with the other’s ideas of personal and social responsibility, finding their line of logic will lead you to a place of clarity. And with clarity comes understanding.

What Are Their Advantages?

When faced with conflicting cultural behaviors, values, norms, and management methods, ask yourself these questions:

What are their baobab’s benefits?

Why and how are their methods successful in their culture?

When you seek understanding instead of discriminating; when you start looking at another culture through their own lens, you may just discover significant advantages to their methods and values.

In doing so, you may also see the disadvantages and limitations of your own culture and ways you can improve your own culture. In fact, you may adopt certain behaviors, values, or norms that you appreciate.

Next week, we’ll take a look at one of the limitations that the individualistic West has started to improve on: corporate social responsibility.

The Do’s & Don’ts of Cross-Cultural Management: Unite

Imagine someone from another country was brought in to manage your office.

This manager, instead of adapting to your culture, tries to impose his own.

He enforces rules in the office that make no sense to you; rules which go against your values and norms.

How would you respond to this management style? Would you conform or rebel against it?

Last week, we talked about how social control is exercised through relationships in relationship-based cultures and how rule-based cultures believe in individual autonomy.

This week, we’ll discuss how a little understanding about these cultural intricacies goes a long way in business management.

Rules of Engagement

Successful cross-cultural managers know the do’s and don’ts of cross-cultural environments. Below are the basics.

Do:

Don’t:

  • Divide
  • Try to alter cultural values/norms
  • Be inconsiderate about cultural differences
  • Confront colleagues about these differences
  • Press upon touchy subjects

As with the scenario mentioned in the intro, when you are the monkey, you’re entering a culture as an outsider. Your focus shouldn’t be on magnifying your differences, but rather, trying to understand them. 

Uniting, not dividing.

Just as in the intro scenario, place yourself in the shoes of the worker being managed.

When confronted with a culturally insensitive manager, you wouldn’t appreciate some outsider coming in to change things that have been done a certain way for many years.

Maybe even hundreds or thousands of years.

Step 1 of Uniting: Win Over the Leaders

In a relationship-based society, you manage groups, not individuals.

But that does not mean there aren’t important individuals amongst these groups.

To win over the group, you must win over the leader.

So, the first step is to identify the leader(s).

Next, you must build up your relationships with that leader.

By zeroing in on the important person(s), establishing a relationship with him/her, and cultivating that relationship, you’re essentially doing the same with the entire group in a relationship-based culture. The person(s) at the top of the hierarchy is the most respected and influential.

It’s pretty simple: win over the leaders, and you win the followers.

You can do this by:

  1. Winning their trust
  2. Winning their respect
  3. Motivating them
  4. Inspiring them

We’ll talk more about dealing cross-culturally in relationship-based cultures next week.

Stairs Ascending: How Differing Visual Frameworks Lead to Misinformation

How do you view three dimensions?

How do you view snow?

How does an American view a staircase? Is it different from how an Arabic person views it?

As a matter of fact, yes, it is.

stairs

This depiction of a staircase would likely be viewed by an American as stairs ascending.

For an Arabic person, they’re descending.

Why?

Because of our language and the way we read it.

Americans read left to right, while Arabs read right to left.

This is a difference in our visual framework. For the past few weeks, we’ve talked about how this framework is culturally informed.

So, now let’s ask the question whose answer will make you a more insightful and successful cross-cultural manager: how can the differences in these frameworks be an issue in a cross-cultural context?

Organizational Charts

Taking the example of the Arab versus the American further, consider a chart that shows the different levels of departments in a company, based on their importance.

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As is usual in Europe and the US, the most important position is organized at the top center (or sometimes the top left) of the chart.

This is where our cultures have trained us to view it.

Each descending department is of lesser and lesser status.

A chart in Arabic would be organized the opposite way.

Advertisement

Here’s another pretty famous example of misunderstandings that can arise from differing cultural frameworks.

Marketing was launched in Japan by a Western pharmaceutical company.

The product? Medicine for upset stomachs.

The advertisement depicted three pictures.

The first illustration showed the patient feeling sick. The second showed him taking the medicine. And, in the last pic, the sun had come out and the man was smiling and healthy.

That’s how a Westerner would read the advert anyway, left to right.

But like Arabic cultures, Japan reads their Mangas (i.e. comic books) from back to front.

So, when they viewed this comic strip within their visual framework, they saw a healthy man taking medicine and becoming sick.

Not at all the message this company wanted to send out to potential customers.

The Bottom Line

When you live, work, or advertise in a foreign culture, you have to wear their visual framework like virtual reality goggles.

Seeing the world through their eyes is the only way you can relate to your clients and to those you manage.

And, the bottom line is, the ability to relate to others is what makes a manager – or anyone working in a multicultural environment – successful.

Apples & Oranges: Understanding Adverse Reactions to Culture

Last week, we talked about how important it is to successful cross cultural management to accept the culture into which you are integrating.

This isn’t always easy. Sometimes, you’ll dislike or disagree with certain aspects of the culture. But disagreement doesn’t have to mean disdain.

You can disagree and still respect that this society might see or do things differently than you. And that’s okay.

Why Do We React Adversely?

Any initial adverse reactions to a foreign culture can probably be credited to discomfort.

This new world into which you are entering isn’t familiar and may not offer all the amenities of home (and if they do, they’re likely not packaged the same, so may be hard to find).

Home is easy. It’s familiar. It’s unsurprising.

You might start feeling nostalgic for home, which is part of the natural stages of culture shock.

It’s understandable. You likely know no one in this new world. All your friends are back home. It’s disconcerting to transition into a completely different life without anyone to lean on. Especially when that life and the culture’s norms and values are so different than your own.

When moving to Spain, a Japanese person might dislike the loud restaurants and the encroachment on their personal space when greeting, and in Japan, a Spanish person might dislike the culture’s formal behavior and traditions.

But to move forward and conquer that initial adverse reaction, the foreigner must understand that just because something is different than what he or she knows does not mean it’s bad.

Apples & Oranges

I grew up in Africa. My dad worked there. As a child, the thing I missed most from back home in Switzerland was apples. The fruit on hand was monkey-bread from the baobab.

blog24-3

Despite missing apples, monkey-bread was still appetizing.

My point is that accepting another culture as it is does not mean you must disavow the things you like back home. But it does mean you shouldn’t categorize things in your host culture as “good” or “bad”; you should make an effort not to compare it with what you know.

Accepting means to refrain from judging the differences and look at them with a clear and open mind. They may be unfamiliar and strange to you, but the sun sets beautifully over the African savannah, just as it does back home.

Adapting

Accepting encompasses all aspects of a foreign culture. But accepting is just the first step of cross cultural integration.

As a manager in a foreign culture, you must also adapt to some of the culture’s behaviors and social norms if you want to integrate successfully. Adapting is specific to the visible parts of culture, the behavioral aspects.

I’m talking the dress code, the way the culture greets each other, what and when they eat. These are just a few examples of how you must adapt, which we’ll talk more about next week.

Open Hearts, Open Minds: How Much Should a Foreign Manager Expect to Accept & Adapt to the Culture?

Say, you’re a store manager at a retail company, and you’ve been sent abroad to work out the kinks at your sister store in Tokyo. You’re a fish out of water, a monkey out of his home tree, and your managerial style isn’t gelling too well with that of Japanese culture.

The big question: Do you expect your employees to adapt to you and your culture? Or do you expect to adapt to them?

The Cultural Baobab

If you work at an international company, the company culture is usually fairly uniform the world over…but not entirely.

When you’re sent to manage abroad, you’re still working and living in a foreign culture. Just because these employees work for your company doesn’t mean they’ve fully accepted, adapted, and adopted your culture’s practices or behaviors.

We’ve talked a lot about the cultural baobab and how, by identifying and understand its roots (values) and limbs (social norms), you’ll better understand the culture, as a whole.

The point is that living and working successfully in a foreign culture always starts with one thing:

Accept

Accept your host culture as it is.

Don’t fight it.

Don’t condemn it.

Don’t judge it.

This will make managing in the culture a whole lot easier.

Think about it: as the monkey in their baobab, instead of complaining about the branches as you swing from limb to limb, instead of criticizing the roots that grew this tree and spitting out the seeds from its fruits, you should be curious about it, you should admire it, and you should find a home in it.

Accept that your culture’s tree isn’t the only tree in the world. It’s not the superior baobab. It’s not the center of the universe. Accept that there is more than one type of beauty.

There’s a myriad of ways to live life, to organize a society, and to run a business.

Once you recognize this, you’ll see the beauty in this foreign baobab, from the roots to the canopy.

Integrate

In order to successfully manage in a foreign culture, you must integrate into that culture. If you don’t appreciate the beauty of your host nation’s baobab, your employees and colleagues will know it and integration will be null and void.

Accepting doesn’t mean you have to adapt or adopt everything in your host culture, nor must you idolize it.

Accepting does mean that you must make an effort to seek the good in everything with which you are unfamiliar, instead of immediately condemning it as “bad,” because it is foreign to your own values and way of life.

Now, that’s not to say everything about a foreign culture is easy to accept. We’ll talk about how to deal with adverse reactions to your host culture next week.

The Roots of the Baobab: The Invisible Part of Culture

The upper baobab – the above-ground part of culture – is what cultural books and guides often cover.

Pick up any book on the business culture of any single European nation, and you’ll find greatly detailed lists of behaviors, dress, etc. – you know, the visible parts of culture we talked about last week.

But the baobab’s canopy is only part of the magnificent tree of life. Buried below the African soil, the roots branch out into an enormous structure that you cannot see; one that is even more important to cross-cultural integration.

Invisible to the Naked Eye

Just as the roots of the baobab are hidden extensions of the tree of life, the roots of a culture are often hidden too.

But it’s worth digging up the soil to examine these roots in order to understand why certain cultural behaviors exist and how they developed.

If you’re working in a cross-cultural environment and/or immigrating to a foreign land, it’s pretty clear why this understanding is important. It’s only when you understand a culture’s underlying values that you will be able to accept and adapt enough to integrate into the culture.

baobab

The Swiss

For instance, the Swiss are punctual. This is demonstrated in their behavior. This “always on time” mentality is the above-ground baobab – the visible part of culture.

What are the roots – the invisible part?

The Swiss’ values are. The culture’s concept of time is the invisible part. Time is valued in Switzerland, and that valuation is made manifest in the general behaviors of society.

The American

Another example: Americans are self-promoting. They are not often modest about their success, and some often display it or announce it, so that others know just how successful they are.

“Part of the beauty of me is that I am very rich.” – Donald Trump, March 2011, in an interview with Good Morning America

Self-promotion is one branch of their above-ground baobab, the visible part of their culture.

And the invisible part?

Individuality is deeply ingrained in American values. It extends in the roots beneath the earth which grow into the branch of self-promotion. Being able to “stand out” in some way – be it with wealth, accomplishment, or success of any kind – is an integral part of American culture.

The Roots Grow

In any cultural baobab, the wispy branches (folkways), the sturdier branches (mores), and the trunk (taboos, laws) all grow from these well-watered roots of a culture’s values.

Values create a culture’s behaviors, norms, and traditions in a way that is not always obvious. But if you look closely enough at a culture, you can better understand how its norms and values are tied. Arriving at this understanding will greatly aid you in cross-cultural integration.

Social Power Structures & Business Culture: Where are You in the Pecking Order?

Can you question authority in your company? Are you allowed to talk to your boss…look at him/her directly? If you’re on the low end of the pecking order, is your voice heard?

If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, you’re probably working in a Western company culture.

If you answered ‘no,’ you’re probably in the East.

We’ve been talking about the differences between individualist cultures and collectivist cultures for the past two weeks. Now, let’s take a peek at what happens in a business, East vs. West.

Social Power Structures

Social power structures are one of the most obvious contrasts between the East and the West.

The East centers around a hierarchical structure. Think of it as a building with no stairs. Only floors. Those in a higher position of power socialize at the top level, and those in a lower position of power socialize at the bottom. There is no crossing between the floors. There are social barriers. And, in fact, one might lose face if they mingled with a lower class.

The West, on the other hand, has an egalitarian structure. There are stairs and elevators in the building, and everyone from CEOs to janitors is welcome to cross between. Conversation is much looser and less formal. Inclusiveness is important. And you could argue that those who are able to talk to everyone on their level with grace, treating all with dignity and respect, would gain face doing so.

Social power structures are deeply ingrained in a culture. In the West, the homeless may be invisible to most, but they have a voice to others. In the East, they are invisible and voiceless to all.

Innovation & Business Culture

Ambition and initiative are also Western values which, if imitated in the East, would not go over so well.

For instance, say you’re a newbie at a company. You’ve got a brilliant new idea that will speed productivity sevenfold. You present it to upper management, without prompt, during a morning meeting.

Would you a) be rewarded, or b) be shunned?

In Western companies, this free-thinking initiative would be viewed positively. Ambition is, more often than not, a valued trait in the West.

In Eastern companies, a newbie trying to crack through the hierarchy would be seen as disobedient and, perhaps, a bit dangerous to upper management. This is due to the top-heavy concentration of power. Those in the lower ranks who try to “prove” themselves are putting a toe out of line, breaking the harmony. And they’d lose face because of it.

Cross-Cultural Environment

If you intend to work in a cross-cultural environment, knowing the values of the culture in which you’ll be working – especially the social power structures and business culture – will improve your chances of success.

Knowing these intricacies of culture will help you not to lose face before you even gain one.