Global Dexterity. How To Fit In Without Giving In



CHANGE IS REQUIRED: Doing business effectively with people from a different culture — or with people from a different functional culture in your own company or in a different industry — requires changing your behavior without losing yourself in the process.

KNOWLEDGE ISN’T ENOUGH: Knowledge and understanding of cultural differences aren’t enough. Changing your behavior to adapt to a different culture involves psychological challenges that can produce anxiety, discomfort, resentment — and failure to produce results.

THE HYBRID SOLUTION: In working with other cultures a blend works best, integrating your own authenticity and values with something that works in the new culture to create a different set of expectations.


Businesses in the travel industry have always grappled with the challenges raised by the need to communicate, collaborate, and manage across cultures — a unique skillset that author Andrew Molinsky calls “global dexterity.” 

That skillset, increasingly in demand as more and more industries globalize operations, requires much more than a simple understanding of cultural differences, according to Molinsky, a management professor at Brandeis University’s International Business School with a joint appointment in the Psychology Department. It requires the ability to act on the identified differences without compromising one’s own values. That is no easy task. 

Molinsky first came face to face with some of the challenges that cultural differences can pose in a business environment while helping immigrants from the former Soviet Union apply for jobs in the United States, part of his Harvard Ph.D. dissertation. A job interview with a potential boss in the Soviet Union was more like a discussion with no eye contact, no smiling, no firm handshake, and no small talk, Molinsky said

“Small talk wasn’t part of the cultural script,” he said. “You also wouldn’t trumpet your accomplishments. You wouldn’t self-promote in the same way that we do in interviews here. There were strong cultural values around being modest and also honest.” 

But what Molinsky found most interesting in that experience was that it wasn’t enough for the immigrants to simply understand the different interview approaches intellectually. “We had lots of different training seminars, and they could very easily rattle off all of the differences,” he said. “What was super challenging for them was actually changing their behavior in light of these differences, the ability to adapt and adjust while maintaining their own integrity and without losing themselves in the process, what I now call ‘global dexterity’.” 

Molinsky combined his background and experience with organizational behavior, international affairs, and psychology in a practical guidebook to successfully navigating the sometimes great cultural divides that make doing/uploadedImages/TW_Plus/xTW_Plus_Images_ONLY/AndyMolinskyHS1.jpg business in and with other countries challenging in Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process (Harvard Business Press Books, 2013). 

The is the first excerpt from a dialogue between Molinsky and Diane Merlino about what it takes to function effectively in today’s global business environment. 

Merlino: Andy, give us your nutshell definition of global dexterity.
Global dexterity is the ability to adapt or adjust your behavior effectively across cultures without losing yourself in the process. In other words, fitting in without giving in. Being effective at your job and appropriate in a new culture but also feeling and remaining authentic to who you are.

Merlino: Do the practical pointers you make about global dexterity apply only to people who are living and working in a culture different from their own? Or are they equally applicable for U.S.-based businesses whose leaders and staff have operations in other countries?
Absolutely, the ideas are relevant for business people who have to manage and work with people from other cultures, who have to negotiate deals with other cultures, who go on short trips abroad, or who have to work and operate across cultures even within their own country.

Incidentally, the ideas here are also very relevant to people who have to operate across organizational cultures, functional cultures, industry cultures, and so on.

Merlino: What do you mean by operating across functional cultures?
When someone in marketing has to function effectively in the world of finance people, or a woman has to operate successfully in a male-oriented or male-dominated corporate culture. Or when someone in engineering all of a sudden has to operate successfully in the world of sales people. And when people have to operate according to different organizational cultural expectations in the world of mergers and acquisitions. It’s the exact same thing.

Merlino: You’ve defined global dexterity as changing your behavior to conform to a different cultural context without losing yourself in the process. What do managers and executives find the most difficult about that?
People underestimate the psychological challenges involved in changing your behavior. I think people assume that it’s just a question of understanding the differences, but that’s only step No. 1. It’s actually about learning how to incorporate that knowledge of differences into your behavior. People are often surprised at their own reactions — the anxiety, the discomfort, the resentment that they feel about adapting when the time comes. That then makes it difficult to adapt. 

Merlino: In the book you emphasize that true global dexterity involves a variety of psychological aspects, including authenticity, competence, and resentment. How do those particular elements come into play?
Authenticity has to do with the fact that you have to act according to a totally different set of expectations, a different set of rules, a different script for behavior. And that new script for behavior can conflict with your typical script, your typical way of acting, and with your ingrained cultural values and beliefs. When that’s the case, you can feel quite inauthentic and disingenuous.

In terms of competence you still have to be able to learn the rules, and oftentimes people struggle with that. Intellectually, they understand that there are new rules, but when you actually have to put them into play, some people have a difficult time calibrating their behavior. For instance, if you learn that in Germany you need to give more direct feedback than you would in the United States — more honest, frank, direct feedback — an American manager can worry that they’re being too direct or be unsure if they are being direct enough. That anxiety over GlobalDexteritycalibrating one’s behavior can create a feeling of incompetence and a sort of performance anxiety, oftentimes embarrassment when actually engaging in the behavior.

Resentment comes into play when people feel that they’re quite competent as leaders and managers so why should they have to change their behavior — I’m pretty successful in my own culture. Why do I have to act in this other way in this culture? To some people, it just doesn’t seem right, and it just doesn’t seem necessary. The logical part of their mind might understand the fact that they need to adapt, but the emotional part might feel that it’s unfair. 

Merlino: Fitting in without giving in is basic to global dexterity. Why is it important not to give in?
In the short term, we often have to act in a way that is not exactly how we want to behave throughout the rest of our lives. And in the short term, we often do give in. We often do suppress how we’d like to be. Maybe even occasionally suppress who we are in very specific or one-off circumstances.

But if that is a systematic part of your job, if it’s something you are doing all of the time, it wears on you. It becomes very difficult to actually be at your best, and that discomfort leaks out into your behavior. And, most importantly, you don’t appear authentic. You don’t appear genuine. And when you don’t appear authentic and genuine, it’s very difficult to manage people, to be a leader, to successfully negotiate deals, to interact with customers.

Merlino: Andy, give us a mini case history that illustrates the skill of fitting in without giving in. 
Sure. How about an American CEO, head of a global consulting firm, offering strategic advice to technology firms, who went to India to do technology consulting in the Indian market? He was a very participative CEO who believed in involving his employees in decision-making. He was that kind of manager. His favorite mentors from the United States were that way as well, and he wanted to bring his best practices from the United States to India.

So he came to India and tried to involve his employees in decision-making in the same way, and it completely backfired. They interpreted his efforts to involve people — his participative management style — as indicative of the fact that he didn’t know what he was doing. It wasn’t that he was involving them; it was that he was not a good enough leader or manager to do it on his own. 

This CEO struggled because he wanted to fit in. He wanted to be effective. And he learned that in order to fit in and be effective in this particular context he needed to be more authoritarian, more hierarchical. But he was not that kind of person. It went against his values. So it was a major, major struggle for him because he couldn’t fit in, be effective, and at the same time retain who he was and maintain his authenticity.

Merlino: Did the CEO come up with a solution?
He was able to resolve the issue through what I call cultural customization — customizing behavior by creating a blend or a hybrid, something that works in the new culture while also retaining a person’s authenticity and integrating part of who they are into the new expectations. A lot of successful managers and executives are able to do this. They’re able to create a blend that works and that ultimately is the solution to having your cake and eating it too — maintaining your personal integrity while adapting to a different cultural style.

NEXT ISSUE: Andy Molinsky with practical pointers on how to develop a global dexterity skillset.  


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