By Steve Kelman

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Managing (and working) in a global context

Global Dexterity

Many who work in the federal government, or who are contractors working with it, probably think their jobs are insulated from the globalization that has been hitting big U.S. companies like a tsunami. A moment's reflection, of course, will remind us there are many exceptions to that ability to be insular -- military stationed abroad, the State Department and USAID, contractors selling to foreign governments using American personnel and foreign military sales, not to speak of FDA inspectors stationed in China or Justice Department attorneys gathering evidence abroad. And this trend is certain to expand with each passing year; I have been amazed to see what percentage of my twenty-something American students have had experience working in international settings.

Yet for people in and around government -- for whom globalization is not the kind of existential fact that it is in much of the private sector -- dealing with different cultural traditions about how to behave in organizations is something that is not considered enough. Consider:

  • In Indian and some other Asian cultures where the boss is a much-more authoritarian figure than in U.S. culture, there is no tradition of the boss asking employees for suggestions or ideas; indeed, doing so is considered a sign of weakness in the boss;
  • German culture is more direct than ours. If you run into somebody and they casually invite you on the spot to lunch, Americans would usually look for a polite way to say no, while Germans would be likely to answer something like, "No, I want to go to the gym instead."
  • In Russian culture, it is considered impolite for a subordinate to look a superior in the eye. Russians being interviewed for jobs typically stare down at their shoes.
  • In many cultures outside the United States, there is no tradition of "small talk."

All these examples come from a helpful new book, Global Dexterity, by a Brandeis University professor named Andy Molinsky. It's a book I recommend highly, particularly to people who are put in non-U.S. cultural situations but have not yet put much thought into the implications.

The basic dilemma Molinsky points out is that it is not enough to realize intellectually that these differences across cultures exist. The problem is that often, if we try to "imitate" the foreign culture on the principle of "when in Rome, do as the Romans do," we feel inauthentic and untrue to our own values and personalities. We feel like we are acting, that we are not being ourselves. This produces both psychological distress and also inhibits our ability actually to adapt our behavior.

So, Molinksy argues, the ability to be globally dexterous depends crucially on a negotiation with ourselves about what we feel comfortable doing and what we don't. He suggests dividing the culturally different behaviors into those we feel more and less comfortable adopting, and that we think about how to do things that will help the organization (e.g. get employee ideas and feedback) without offending too much against the other culture's norms. He notes that sometimes people working in other cultures need to make decisions about whether some kinds of behaviors common in those cultures -- the most obvious is corruption, but there are others -- are simply unacceptable and that we therefore should choose not to adopt, even at some personal and organizational cost.

This is a short book, but it's worth reading and pondering.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Apr 18, 2014 at 5:35 AM


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