Andy Molinsky: An interview by Bob Morris

MolinskyAndy Molinsky is an associate professor at Brandeis University’s International Business School, with a joint appointment in the Department of Psychology. He is also the author of Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Behavior Across Cultures Without Losing Yourself in the Process, published by Harvard Business Review Press in March, 2013. He specializes in cross-cultural interaction in business settings and has created a popular MBA course focused on cross-cultural adaptation. He has published widely on the topic of cultural adaptation; his work has been featured in a wide range of global publications including the Financial Times, Harvard Business Review, The Economist, Forbes, Fast Company, NPR, and Voice of America. He received his PhD in Organizational Behavior and MA in Psychology from Harvard University. He also holds a Master’s Degree in International Affairs from Columbia University and a BA in International Affairs from Brown University.

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Morris: What motivated you to study the challenges of adapting one’s behavior in foreign cultural interactions?

Molinsky: I think that the first influence on me was my father who was a professor at Boston University when I was growing up and taught English as a Second Language. My strongest memory from this time was the end-of-the-year party that he would have at our house where all the people from his class from around the world would bring their favorite international dishes and enjoy each other’s company. I was very young at the time and even though it was past my bedtime, I remember coming down to the party and hearing these “exotic” languages, smelling the food, and being captivated by the foreign and international nature of the gathering. I think that was the first time I became fascinated by foreign cultures and languages.

I continued this interest in college where I studied Russian and Spanish and eventually went to study abroad in Madrid and live with a Spanish family. That was my first personal experience living in a foreign culture and I remember then as well being fascinated by cultural differences – so much so that after college I chose to learn French and move to Paris to work for an international consulting firm where my interest intensified. I remember those days in Paris very well because although the actual content of my work at the company didn’t interest me, the foreign cultural interactions did! I remember keeping a “secret” file open on my little office computer at all times with my ongoing observations of the foreign workplace.

When I returned to the US, I decided to pursue a PhD in psychology and organizational behavior at Harvard University in Boston to further my understanding of foreign cultural interactions in a business context. It was there that I started working at an immigrant resettlement agency in Boston helping immigrant professional workers from the former USSR learn how to interview for jobs and network in the United States. At the time, what struck me was that although these people knew the “rules” for how to interview and network in the United States, they struggled acting in an American style because it was so different from what they were used to. I ended up writing my PhD dissertation about this idea of “switching” or “adapting” cultural behavior, and for the past 15 years have been exploring this topic of cultural adaptation in many different contexts and settings, with the ultimate goal of helping people learn how to adapt their behavior across cultures without feeling like they are compromising their authenticity.

Morris: Can you tell me what you mean by “global dexterity” and why the concept is important in the modern workplace?

Molinsky: Global dexterity is the ability to adapt behavior across cultures without losing who you are in the process. If you’ve ever been in a foreign culture, either working or just living there, you’ve likely experienced situations where your comfortable “default” behavior turns out to be ineffective or inappropriate for different situations. Imagine that you’re an American-born executive in Tokyo having to learn to give feedback to your Japanese employees. Your natural style is to “tell it like it is,” but to be effective in Japan, you have to speak much more indirectly, in a way that may feel awkward and even disingenuous. It’s important to be able to shift your cultural behavior in a way that’s effective and appropriate in a new setting, while simultaneously preserving your sense of authenticity. I sometimes call it “fitting in without giving in.”

Why does it matter? Because business has never been more global than today. And the people in those businesses must be capable of moving smoothly and seamlessly across cultures. That’s true for simple cases of etiquette, like learning how and when to bow or shake hands, but it’s especially vital when performing core professional tasks such as giving performance feedback, pitching an idea to your boss, networking, or motivating others. These are situations that make or break your ability to be an effective global manager and leader.

Morris: What is the “cultural code”?

Molinsky: The cultural code is how you’re expected to act to be effective in a particular situation in a foreign culture. It’s the script or the rules of the road. But don’t be fooled: the national culture you’re in (India, Germany, China) is not all that matters when determining the code. It’s many other things. For example, if you are doing business in China or India, all you need to know is a bit about the Chinese or Indian mentality and you’re set to be effective in whatever situation you happen to face. But that’s a mistake because the cultural code is not simply influenced by the national culture. Regional cultural differences matter too. It matters whether a business meeting is being held in a rural village in the Sichuan Province or at a gleaming office tower in Shanghai. It matters whether a job interview is taking place in central London or in a hamlet in Yorkshire.

Organizational culture also makes a difference. How you interact with your boss at Google is quite different from how you interact with your boss at Microsoft or Intel. Meetings at traditional, bureaucratic organizations in France are run quite differently from meetings at small start-ups. Finally, the personal background of the actual individual or individuals you’re interacting with matter a great deal as well in determining the cultural code for any particular situation you face in a foreign setting. Imagine negotiating a key microfinance deal in Pakistan. It would be very important in this case to know whether you are negotiating with local tribal elders who have never traveled outside of the region, or with 30-something entrepreneurs with finance degrees from Wharton.

Morris: You recommend a six-dimensional approach when diagnosing that code. For those who have not as yet read the book, please explain.

Molinsky: Each situation you face in a foreign cultural setting — whether it’s learning to give constructive criticism, make small talk, negotiate, participate at a meeting, or ask a favor of your boss — has certain rules for appropriate behavior in a given cultural setting. Although there are undoubtedly many different ways to characterize these rules, I portray them in terms of six dimensions that capture the expectations that others have for our behavior in a foreign setting. These are:

o Directness: How straightforwardly am I expected to communicate in this situation?
o Enthusiasm: How much positive emotion and energy am I expected to show to others in this situation?
o Formality: How much deference and respect am I expected to demonstrate in this situation?
o Assertiveness: How strongly am I expected to express my voice in this situation?
o Self-Promotion: How positively am I expected to speak about my skills and accomplishments?
o Personal disclosure: How much can I reveal about myself in this situation?

Each situation you encounter will have a specific “cultural code” for behavior along each of these dimensions. When motivating workers in India, there is a certain level or amount of assertiveness that you are expected to show as a leader. When bonding with work colleagues after hours at a restaurant or a bar in Japan, there is a certain level of enthusiasm that is expected, and this level of enthusiasm is quite different from the level of enthusiasm expected in other parts of your workday in a Japanese setting

Morris: What advice would you give to professional who is moving to a different country for work? How can they adjust successfully to their new environment?

Molinsky: I like to think of it in terms of acting – but not “fake” acting as you might initially think of when you think of actors. By acting, I mean really learning and internalizing a new role in a way that makes you effective in the new setting and also true to yourself. Ask any actor and they’ll tell you that to be effective on stage, you need to own your role. You need to find a way to modify and personalize the role you’re playing in order to be effective and authentic – and the same goes for crossing cultures.

So, immerse yourself in a foreign culture and, like an actor would, learn your lines. Learn how you need to behave in a particular foreign cultural situation to be effective – whether it’s giving feedback to a peer, pitching yourself at a networking event, or negotiating a deal. Then, practice, practice, practice. Try out your new behavior in real situations and see how it feels to perform. What people often don’t realize in a foreign culture is that you often have leeway to make adjustments to your behavior so that it fits your own personal style. Of course, you must do this within the context of the foreign culture’s “script,” but you often do have more room to adjust this script and fit it to your own style than you think. Finally, get feedback as you work to adjust and customize your personal style. Ideally this feedback comes from colleagues who are familiar with the new culture’s norms and also with the challenges that you face. So, ideally try to find a mentor who is knowledgeable and empathic: who can sympathize with any challenges you face but who also can provide concrete advice about how to adapt successfully.

Morris: Early in the book, you observe, “I believe 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.” To what do you specifically refer?

Molinsky: Most previous work about managing cultural differences focuses on learning about these differences as the key to success – that, for example, in Germany you need to communicate negative news more directly than in the United States, or that in China, you need to show humility, not pride, when receiving a compliment. But what I’ve found in my work is that if you simply learn about cultural differences and stop there, you won’t get very far. The real challenge is translating your knowledge of culture into effective behavior – and that is often easier said than done. I find that it is very common to feel awkward, inauthentic, or even resentful when trying to adapt behavior overseas. And when you have such strong internal reactions to adapting cultural behavior, your external performance can suffer.

Morris: How best to determine which executives will be most effective after relocating to a foreign country?

Molinsky: Many people would answer this question by suggesting it would be the person with the highest innate level of “cultural intelligence” or “global mindset” that would be most successful. And that certainly could be the case. But what I want to emphasize here is that cultural dexterity is something people can learn. What I’ve found from my experience studying, teaching, and working with hundreds of people crossing cultures over the past 15 years is that learning to successfully adapt behavior across cultures is not rocket science. Executives who start out as locals, immersed in only their own native culture, can learn to become cosmopolitans – fluent in several. This in part was what inspired me to write Global Dexterity. With proper motivation and the tools outlined in the book, virtually anyone can be effective in a foreign cultural setting. So, perhaps the answer to your question is that the most effective executives will be the ones with a dog-eared copy of Global Dexterity by their side!

Morris: Most mergers and acquisitions in business either fail or fall far short of original expectations and, more often than not, cultural differences are the primary cause. Why?

Molinsky: Again, I believe that people often misunderstand what exactly is so challenging about adapting behavior across cultures. Simply being aware of differences is not enough. The critical task is finding a way to create a cultural fusion or blend – a way of successfully merging two different cultural traditions. Global Dexterity provides a formula for doing so for individuals adapting behavior across cultures and I believe that the same formula can apply at the organizational level as well.

Morris: Of all the tools that you provide in the book, which — in your opinion — will be of greatest assistance and value during the adaptation process? Please explain.

Molinsky: That’s a bit like being asked to choose your favorite child! But let me take a shot at it. The reality is that all the tools in the book are really meant to work together to help people successfully adapt behavior without losing themselves in the process. So from that point of view, there really is no single “best” tool. But I have to say that the one piece of the framework that I have received the most feedback about has been the core system detailed in the book for analyzing the “gaps” between your own personal comfort zone and the “zone of appropriateness” in the new cultural setting. People seem to find this tool particularly useful for pinpointing why they experience the challenges you do in a new culture, which of course is critical for addressing these challenges.

Morris: Many MBA students want to have a foreign work experience after concluding the degree. In your opinion, are MBA courses adequately preparing students to deal with cultural differences while doing business? How could they help with the challenges of foreign behavior and customs?

Molinsky: My view is that MBA programs are trying hard to prepare students to function effectively in foreign cultural environments, but many only go halfway. The most popular programs, for example, are study-abroad programs, international consulting projects or immersion trips. Students emerge with a general grasp of how business gets done in other countries, but these experiences only provide them with an intellectual understanding of how business is done overseas. They do not come away with the ability to actually perform effectively in foreign cultures – especially in situations where how they need to behave is very different from how they would naturally and comfortably behave. I actually have recently written an article about this same topic in the Economist that might be of interest.

Morris: You created a course at Brandeis International Business School (IBS) to help students learn to manage successfully across cultures. How does it work?

Molinsky: In my class on managing across cultures, I ask international students to choose a situation in America that lies outside of their comfort zone, such as networking, interviewing or making small talk. With an American mentor’s help, students master the new cultural rules through discussion and role-playing. Then they practice this new behavior in real-life situations, like networking events or job interviews. Immediately afterwards they write in a journal about their experience. Finally, back in the classroom, we debrief and discuss ideas for dealing with the challenges of cultural adaptation.

The important point here is that students are not learning about cultural differences vicariously through a case study; rather, [begin italics] in reality…awkward silences and all. This, I believe, is the only effective way for students to succeed.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Global Dexterity, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Molinsky: I believe that Global Dexterity is particularly critical for small business owners because of the size of their organizations. If cultural differences are a key issue and impact their businesses, the impact is quite directly felt because of the relatively small size. So, for small business owners who feel that cultural differences impact their business but aren’t sure how to deal with them, my hope is that Global Dexterity can be an eye-opener and can offer some concrete tools for helping them grapple with these issues. In some cases, the owners themselves might also benefit from the tools and perspectives detailed in the book. Perhaps they themselves grapple with culture as they attempt to shift or adapt their own behavior? Global Dexterity is a very easy-to-read guide for helping them make this transition. My image when writing Global Dexterity was that it could be a trusted resource for anyone who struggles with culture and cultural differences or who simply wants to learn more about the topic. I’d encourage any business owner or leader to contact me directly to brainstorm ways to use the book to increase their success.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing Global Dexterity? Please explain.

Molinsky: Yes. I have to admit that I was and continue to be surprised at how flexible people can be when it comes to adjusting their cultural behavior. The well-known cultural researcher Geert Hofstede once wrote that culture is like “software of the mind,” and that depending on where we grow up, we each have a different form of mental software for making sense of the world and for guiding our actions. You’d think that once this software is ingrained in us we can’t deviate from it. However, that’s not at all what I have found in my work. I’ve been continually amazed at how flexible people can be with their cultural behavior and how, with the right strategies in place, they can adapt cultural behavior without feeling like they are losing themselves in the process.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Molinsky: I think we’ve covered it! Thanks so much for the opportunity to chat with you about Global Dexterity. I really enjoyed it.

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Andy cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Amazon page for Global Dexterity link

Facebook link

LinkedIn link

Twitter link

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