I like to spend time with people who have lived in other cultures. They are interesting. They have great stories. And they usually possess an exemplary set of interpersonal skills. The ability to be successful in other cultures – personally or professionally – is not an accidental ability. It is something that is developed.
As we encounter different cultures, we subconsciously use one of three methods to make intercultural relationships work. Understanding these three strategies can help us be more effective in becoming culturally agile.
Strategy 1 – Cultural Minimization. You standardize or control cultural differences in order to create consistency. Your goal is to limit cultural differences.
I teach in both North America and in Europe where grading norms differ. In order to provide a consistent standard, grading is defined by a rubric. A grading rubric outlines exactly how a grade is calculated. This minimizes differences in grading standards, something that is important when you have courses taught by people from different nationalities.
Strategy 2 – Cultural Adaptation. You adjust to cultural differences and respond in a way that is expected in that culture. You adapt to the norms of others.
My friend who lived in Indonesia was driving us through the busy streets of Jakarta. To a North American, the driving norms resembled chaos. However, as he spoke of traffic he stated, “In Jakarta, you need to drive like you are in a river. You just have to go with the flow and the currents of traffic and you’ll be fine”. Cultural adapters learn to accept and thrive within existing cultural norms.
Strategy 3 – Cultural Integration. You create a new set of norms and respond with collaboration to find solutions acceptable to all cultures affected (Caligiuri).
A friend of mine is a North American Expat living in the Middle East. In this prevailing Muslim culture, women are expected to wear abayas to cover themselves completely when in public. However, inside their expatriate camp women are theoretically free to dress as they please (they could wear their athletic workout gear at the commissary!) In practice, most women wear clothing that isn’t revealing and is deemed acceptable. Long dresses or loose clothing is worn to provide some cover yet not offend. Discretion and discernment result in an integration strategy that finds acceptable middle ground.
An easy way to understand these skills is with the following continuum:
When you minimize, you seek to make differences insignificant. Conversely, when you adapt, you decide to let the prevailing culture dictate your behaviors. An integration approach combines the two and seeks to find a middle ground or a new norm.
However, knowing these three strategies is only the first step in being culturally effective. The key is knowing when to use each one at the appropriate time (Caligiuri). There are times when minimizing will be effective and times when it will be offensive. Similarly, integrating or adapting are not always the right solutions.
Therefore, effective leaders must first equip themselves with knowledge about these three unique skills. Secondly, they must develop know-how that helps them know when each is most effective (or inappropriate). Research shows that these three skills are not optional for global workers. They are of utmost importance if you seek to be effective.
Dr. Jeff Suderman is a global apprentice, consultant and professor who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve culture, leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational future-readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman
Paula Caliguriuri (2012). Cultural Agility: Building a Pipeline of Successful Global Professionals.