Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process, by Andy Molinsky, Harvard Business Review Press, 2013, 198 pages. Reviewed by Craig Storti.
I’m not aware of how well known this book is, but however well it is known, it deserves the widest possible readership, inside the intercultural field, to be sure, but even more so outside the field (the lay audience to whom it is in fact addressed). As its subtitle suggests, it tees up one of the central challenges of being an effective culture crosser: When professional success requires changing your behavior to adapt to cultural differences, how do you make those changes and still stay true to your self?
“I wrote this book,” Molinsky observes, “because I believe there is a serious gap between what has been written and communicated about cross-cultural management and what people actually struggle with on the ground. Until now the vast majority of writing about culture in business has focused on educating people about differences across cultures…. The logic is that if people can learn about cultural differences, they can adapt their behaviors successfully. And for some people that’s true…. For [many] of us, however…cultural adaptation isn’t always so seamless. We might possess knowledge of cultural differences, but we can struggle as we attempt to put this knowledge into practice.”
The forms that struggle often takes are at least threefold:
- people feel anxious and embarrassed about not knowing exactly how to behave.
- people are embarrassed and frustrated by how unnatural and awkward their behavior feels.
- people resent having to make these changes to their behavior.
Unless these altogether natural reactions can somehow be avoided or at least greatly mitigated, then you’re either going to be reluctant to engage across cultures or, if your circumstances require such engagement, then you’re not going to be very good at it. Either way, you will pay a steep price in an era when business has gone global.
Molinksy says that at first he thought this was a problem without a real solution, a lesser-of-two-evils kind of choice—either grin and bear it or walk away—but after more than ten years of research and interviews, he has changed his mind and come up with a realistic and practical framework for how you can “have your cake and eat it too when adapting behavior in a foreign setting.”
His framework has four steps:
STEP I: Diagnose the new cultural code. Molinsky identifies six dimensions of engagement/interaction that differ across cultures: directness, enthusiasm, formality, assertiveness, self-promotion, and personal disclosure. In Step I you identify what the norms are for these six dimensions in the foreign setting you are operating in.
STEP II: Identify your own challenges with the new cultural code. In this step, you first identify the “zone of appropriateness,” the range of acceptable behaviors, for the six dimensions in the new setting, and then you identify “your personal comfort zone” for those dimensions/the expected behaviors. In some cases your comfort zone may overlap with the zone of appropriateness, and you’re good to go; in others, there will be a gap between the two zones, and the size of the gap represents the degree of the challenge you’ll face with any particular dimension/necessary behavior change.
STEP III: Overcome challenges by customizing your cultural behavior. Now we are into the solution part of this model. Here Molinsky makes several suggestions which add up to start with small adaptations which while they may not put you squarely inside the zone of appropriateness, they do begin to move you outside your personal comfort zone. One of the things that can make doing this more palatable is to remind yourself of the rewards that await you once you get closer to the local norms. You may also be able to find a personal value, such as openness or tolerance, that is served or even strengthened by engaging in the uncomfortable new behavior. It may still feel inauthentic (a favorite Molinsky word), but at least it reflects a part of you.
STEP IV: Integrate what you have learned through rehearsal and evaluation. The trick is how to make these new behaviors stick, to become second nature. Here Molinksy describes three phases: (1) familiarization (observing the behaviors in other people and then trying them in non-threatening circumstances, such as role-playing with a friend; (2) rehearsal which is more serious role-playing but not yet where there are real consequences; (3) dress rehearsal or more or less the real thing. (These three phases could be better distinguished.) The important point about this entire integration step is to be sure to get feedback about how you came across when you tried on the new behavior (and also to ponder how the behavior felt to you).
For this reader the key take-aways from Global Dexterity are to start with small changes that are challenging but not intimidating or threatening, and especially to find genuine, legitimate justifications for the changes—a personal value, a personal goal, a cultural value, a business imperative—that puts the discomfort into a broader perspective that can very often take away some of the sting.
I hasten to add here at the end that I fear I have done Global Dexterity a big disservice by implying it’s all dry theory and process. Far from it; the great strength of the book, apart from its practicality and non-academic prose, is in its many stories of real people facing real challenges you will immediately be able to relate to. It’s not a text book; it’s an action plan.