Doing business across the cultural divide

A new book focuses on the difficulties faced by managers who are working in cross-cultural environments


In an increasingly global economy, managers are tasked with dealing with employees and customers from a diverse range of backgrounds, a subject academic and author Andy Molinsky addresses in his new book Global Dexterity .

Molinsky, associate professor at Brandeis University’s International Business School says that he wrote the book because he believed that there is a serious gap in what has been written and communicated about cross-cultural management and what people actually struggle with on the ground. The tools and frameworks comes from an MBA elective course that he created to help people overcome the challenges

“To be effective, you need to adapt and act outside your comfort zone. It’s about fitting in without giving in. Not only is this difficult, it’s a frightening prospect for most people and something completely outside their comfort zone,” he says.

His interest in the subject was piqued by helping immigrant Russian professionals in the US. He noted that they had huge difficulty around the practice of small talk, something that was hampering them in job interviews.

Crucially, he observed that they could understand the idea conceptually – they just felt it was ridiculous – and they struggled with the notion of practicing it. This was a pattern he observed later with other nationalities too.

The psychological challenges here, which can include anxiety, shame and lack of authenticity, should not be underestimated, he says. His book suggests a compromise approach, where a point of intersection is found between seemingly opposing cultural norms. This starts with learning the cultural mores and then travelling to the edge of your comfort zone.

The book is laced with case study examples of cultural misfit. There’s Eric, for example, the US-born CEO who arrives in Mumbai with ideas for developing a flatter more empowered organisation. He eschews the corner office and sits with his subordinates, asking them for their ideas.

Within weeks, he’s overhearing that the workers think he’s lacking confidence and “not up to the job” unlike his more distant predecessor.

Knowing what works is important. On national cultural difference to consider is directness of speech. In certain cultures, people tend to communicate with what Westerners might refer to as a very indirect style of communication.

“For example, in a meeting in Japan, a Japanese executive would rarely if ever directly say ‘no’ to a proposal, instead communicating his displeasure through much subtler means. Cultures like Japan, China, and Korea are often referred to as high-context cultures because listeners in these cultures depend on a detailed understanding of subtle verbal and nonverbal cues,” he notes.

In contrast, the United States, Australia, and Israel are low-context cultures, where communication is more explicit and less dependent on these subtle nonverbal cues, he explains. Although not every person from a high- or low-context culture will necessarily operate with the culture’s characteristic style, knowing whether you are in a high- or low-context culture will let you make an educated guess about the likely cultural code for the situation you’re in, he observes.

“In Germany, a manager will generally have no problem saying that something that you have said or done is wrong. In their view, that’s just being honest. In the US, the same message might be communicated interspersed with doses of positivity – like the meat in a sandwich.”

A hybrid approach that might be considered here would be an open sandwich, he suggests.

There is an obvious danger in cultural stereotyping, but Molinsky is careful to weave a delicate path through this minefield. He notes that Germans tend to schedule, arrange and manage time precisely, whereas Mexicans and Indians are, as it deftly puts it, “more apt to treat time more fluidly”.

Moreover, the reality of cultures differences is more nuanced, he notes. It can depend on a whole host of variables such as industry sector, geographic region or age.

“When considering China for example, you’ll find a world of difference between the attitudes of older employees in a state run company as against 20-somethings in a modern firm,” he notes.

Mentors can be a rich source of information about a new culture, what appropriate behaviour is and what’s expected of you.

“This can be quite important for helping people rationalise behaviour that on the face of it seems inappropriate or illegitimate,” he says.

Mentors can be natives to the new culture can work well but the ideal person, he suggests, is a non-native who who has had to make the journey themselves.

As Molinsky notes, deciding to adapt to the culture remains a choice, however, and for some, the price of adaptation is too high. He cites the case of a Charles, a US-born senior manager in an Indian software company who thanked an Indian boy for bringing a tray of tea to a meeting.

Charles’s Indian colleagues were horrified as, to them, the boy was from a lower caste and did not deserve this appreciation. He had committed a cultural faux pas.

This was something Charles could not reconcile morally and he decided not to adapt his behaviour to what was expected of him in the hope that his colleagues might follow his example.

Global Dexterity – How to Adapt Your Behaviour across Cultures Without Losing Yourself in the Process by Andy Molinsky is published by Harvard Business Review Press