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As a graduate student in the late 1990s, Andy Molinsky worked at an agency in Boston helping Russian immigrants find jobs in the US. The applicants were well-qualified but they struggled during interviews.
They intellectually understood the cultural customs of the typical US job interview – smile, make eye contact and engage in small talk – but they found it hard to do so because it went against their culturally ingrained behaviour.
Now an associate professor of organisational behaviour at Brandeis International Business School, Massachusetts, Prof Molinsky was motivated to learn more about overcoming the challenges of cultural identity in the workplace. His book Global Dexterity (Harvard Business School Press) aims to help managers learn how to culturally code-switch when working in an international setting.
What is global dexterity?
It’s the ability to adapt your behaviour across cultures without losing yourself in the process – fitting in without giving in. When you’re making your way in an international culture you will find yourself in situations where how you would act in your native culture is different from the way you are expected to act in your new culture. This could range from how you pitch yourself to an investor, to how you motivate employees, to how you give performance feedback.
Why is global dexterity a ‘critical skill’ for today’s managers?
Everything you need to do in order to do your job well has the potential to vary across cultures. So you need the ability to not only diagnose and understand these differences but also to be able to shift and adjust your behaviour accordingly. If you don’t, you risk being ineffective: you won’t be able to achieve your goals or the goals of the business.
Give an example
Take one of my MBA students from Beijing going to a networking event on campus with potential employers. He is aware of the US-style assertiveness and self-promotional behaviour necessary. He knows that Americans openly tout their skills and accomplishments and are less deferential to potential employers. But for the Beijing student the real challenge is adapting his behaviour because it goes against the notions of power and respect ingrained in him since he was a kid. Some international students have told me they avoid going to career fairs because it’s so uncomfortable for them.
How do you master global dexterity?
It’s about customising a style that works for you. Sometimes it requires eliminating certain behaviours, other times it can be something as small as a linguistic change. For example, in Russia, consulting firms are very hierarchical. You don’t necessarily vie for projects – you’re slotted into them. One Russian student realised her US colleagues were advocating for themselves and she was losing out on the best work. But telling her boss, “I’d love to work on this project”, felt too difficult for her. Her solution was to customise her language and ask: “Can I be helpful on this project?”.
Are some better at this than others?
There are some people who are naturally more socially skilled and attuned to social and cultural cues. But there are many individuals who aren’t able to do that as easily. I strongly believe anyone can learn this stuff. It’s a skill; there’s no global dexterity gene.
Are business schools missing an opportunity here?
A lot of business schools do short-term immersion trips and have this idea that: “We are global. We send you abroad. By osmosis you’ll learn from people of other cultures.” This is a nice first step but it doesn’t equip people to be effective global leaders. There’s no framework or tools. We need to sensitise people to these issues.