the lectern banner

By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

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

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

Reader comments

Tue, Apr 22, 2014 Steve Kelman

Actually, the book (and I) was talking about Americans working in foreign countries or interacting with non-US cultures.

Mon, Apr 21, 2014

Seriously, a book on how American's need to avoid upsetting non-Americans who come to America, work for the American government? Completely backward -- we don't adjust to them -- they come into our melting pot and adjust to us.

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group