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As any business leader can tell you, it’s not always easy to have a smooth, productive business interaction with people from other cultures – there are invariably different customs and expectations to be aware of. In a tough business environment, then, how can we learn to compete and win on the world stage? The key lies in a topic I’ve been teaching my students at Brandeis International Business School for several years. I call it “global dexterity,” and I assume it applies just as well to the world of sports as it does to business.
Tip 1: Learn the rules of the game.
Just like an athlete learns the playbook, you need to learn the rules for any situation you find yourself in. These rules differ widely across cultures. Take small talk, for example. In many cultures — especially those with more formal rules for communication and a strong emphasis on social hierarchy — it's taboo to make casual conversation with your boss. (If you’re in Japan, and just watched the highlights from last night’s extra-innings Sox victory, keep it to yourself.)
The same goes for performance feedback. In Germany, people are used to direct and concise feedback, without the positive ego-stroking that we Americans find to be a critical part of the process. Think of Patriots coach Bill Belichick telling one of his receivers point-blank that he ran the wrong route during a playoff game. That’s how a German boss might provide feedback – and how employees expect it – but it’s very different from what we Americans are used to in the workplace.
Tip 2: Dig into the details.
It’s important to understand that not everyone from a given culture will necessarily act in the way you expect. Adrian Beltre and Pedro Martinez were both born in the Dominican Republic, but do they have the same personalities? Clearly not, and ultimately, that’s what you’ll find when doing business across cultures.
Regional differences often matter a great deal — look at the differences dividing the Midwest and Northeast of the United States, southern and northern Italy, or the urban and rural areas of China. Corporate and industry cultures can also greatly affect the cultural code for a particular situation you face in your work abroad. In China, state-run enterprises tend to maintain more “classically” Chinese cultural norms that emphasize indirectness and modesty. And, of course, norms within a company vary tremendously and also have a substantial impact on the ways its employees have to customize their behavior.
Lastly, the preferences and backgrounds of the particular people you interact with may change the cultural code in your situation. You may be in a culture that emphasizes assertiveness, but be interacting with people who are quite atypical. As a thought experiment, imagine trying to explain to someone how “directly” you are expected to communicate in the U.S. In very general terms, you might say that communication norms are quite direct compared with many other cultures, but does that hold in all cases? Would there be differences debating your case at a vigorous brainstorming session with investment bankers in downtown Manhattan, as opposed to a similar discussion with more mild-mannered colleagues at a small bank in central Illinois?
Tip 3: Adjust your behavior.
To be effective in a new culture, it's vital to learn to adjust your behavior to the new norms while staying true to yourself. Celtics coach Doc Rivers may ask Kevin Garnett, a natural forward, to play center – in a sense, to adapt his behavior – because that’s what’s required in a particular situation. However, Garnett can and should customize the way that he plays the position so that it’s natural and comfortable for him. Otherwise, if he's trying to adopt someone else's approach (like pretending he's Dwight Howard or Tim Duncan), it's simply not going to work. The same goes when adapting to a foreign environment.
Many of us will come face-to-face with colleagues of different cultural backgrounds, whether we are abroad or in our own offices. Just as basketball players like Garnett must have athletic dexterity, so too must business professionals strive for global dexterity. Learning to master this skill will help you be a stand out player on a global business stage.
Andy Molinsky is an associate professor of organizational behavior at Brandeis International Business School in Waltham. His new book is “Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process” (Harvard Business School Press).
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