Cracking the Cross-Cultural Code

Andy Molinsky
Mike Lovett
Andy Molinsky

You’re an American manager in Mumbai trying to create a collaborative office environment, but when you ask your employees for their opinions, they consider it a mark of your incompetence. Can you find a middle ground?

You’re a Chinese analyst in New York, and your co-worker reveals personal information when making small talk, which makes you uncomfortable. How should you handle it?

These are just some of the questions Andy Molinsky, associate professor of organizational behavior at Brandeis International Business School (IBS), discusses in “Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures Without Losing Yourself in the Process” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013).

Here, the Harvard-trained psychologist talks about his book, which he views as a practical guide for employees, managers and executives who need to “switch” their behavior when working in foreign cultures or with people from other countries.

How did you first become interested in global dexterity?

When I did my PhD, I volunteered at a resettlement agency to help Soviet immigrants find jobs in the U.S. These were smart people with excellent résumés, but they weren’t getting offers. They understood the ritualistic aspects of U.S. job interviews: things like smiling, making eye contact and engaging in small talk. But they had a hard time changing their culturally ingrained behavior from Russia. It inspired me to explore the psychological challenges people face when they’re trying to fit into a new culture.

Describe the psychological challenges.

People may feel self-conscious about their inability to “do it right.” They think, “I’m not good at this, and people can tell.” They may feel disingenuous about trying to fit in, or resent that they have to adapt at all — “why can’t they adapt to me?” It’s internally distressing to have to act in a way that’s completely not you.

Is this mainly an issue in the workplace?

No, I see it in schools, too. Take a hypothetical Brandeis IBS student from Mumbai — we’ll call him Sandeep. He comes from a culture where the professor is the one with the knowledge and students must be deferential; you’re not expected to contribute your perspective — especially if it might contradict the professor. Sandeep knows rationally that he should speak up in classroom discussions, but that’s only step one. He now needs to take that knowledge and translate it into action.

How should he do this?

By learning global dexterity. Sandeep needs to figure out the cultural rules that are hardest for him and then customize his behavior in a way that feels authentic.

Does it require a temporary personality transplant?

Not at all. Some of these changes are subtle, and people often have more leeway than they think. In my book, I profile an Israeli consultant — Anat — who worked for a U.S. firm. The way she was accustomed to giving performance feedback in Israel was to be direct. There’s not a lot of sugarcoating. In the U.S., managers often use a “sandwich method,” where they say a bunch of positive things, one negative thing, and then end on a positive note. During performance reviews, Anat was getting into trouble because she was coming off as a jerk; one of her employees left the office in tears after her review.

Why not just learn to do it the American way?

She could’ve tried to mimic the American system, but it didn’t sit right with her. So she worked with an American mentor, and together they developed a customization: an “open-faced sandwich,” where she gave some positive feedback but then went into the meat of what she wanted to say.

Is it always that easy?

Some people can figure this out on their own. They are the cultural MacGyvers, who can piece together strategies on the basis of social cues. Others find a mentor. This mentor is usually someone from your native culture who’s had experience fitting in, or someone from the new culture who wants you to succeed. But anyone can learn this stuff.

Why is global dexterity such an important skill for today’s MBA students?

Technology has created more pathways to interact cross-culturally. Economies are maturing, and more students are leaving their countries for education. Many MBAs plan to work for global organizations, and most will at least work with people of other cultures. There is a yearning to learn how to be more effective global leaders. The world is becoming more global, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re getting any better at it, and that needs to change.

Adam Conner-Simons is communications coordinator at Brandeis International Business School.