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Author Interview - Andy Molinsky - 'Global Dexterity'

Meet the author who can help you brush up on the new protocols for doing business within a global community.

A group of Russian workers were going for a job interview in the USA. As each individual faced his interviewer he was asked to respond to the same question regarding what he thought was his main weakness.This is a standard western interview technique, but for the Russians it was baffling.

In such a context, Russians tend to be brutally honest, giving answers such as "I don't like to work with other people", "I have a hard time respecting a boss", and even "I tend to sleep late and cannot get to work on time". This isn't a joke. It's a real example of what happens when you get your cultural resonances wrong in the world of hiring and firing.

This episode came to light when author Andy Molinsky was researching his PhD. Molinsky is now an associate professor at Brandeis University's International Business School, specialising in cross-cultural interaction in business settings. His experiences have inspired him to publish 'Global Dexterity', essentially a handbook for how to avoid the pitfalls the unfortunate Russians ran into.

It's important that we get these procedures right. If we know anything at all about the future of engineering, it's that markets will become internationalised and those determined to work in cultural silos will find their horizons very limited.

"For years I've been working to understand adapting behaviour across cultures," says Molinsky, whose earliest experiences in the field were the end-of-year parties his father would host for the students of his 'English as a foreign language' class. Having studied many languages in college, living abroad in Spain and working in France, Molinsky went on to Harvard University where he focused on cultural adaptation in a business context. His PhD dissertation was about the idea of 'switching' or 'adapting' cultural behaviour, which ultimately led to his new book.

The business community has become more international in the past few decades, he says. Reasons for this range from geopolitical events (say, the fall of the former Soviet Union) to increased globalisation of products and services. More companies are opening subsidiaries or basing their manufacturing overseas, while changes in technology mean that you can now have "an international team of people from multiple regions of the world all working remotely, albeit with certain challenges."

These factors have created a context where business has never been more global than today. And the people doing that work in the global economy must be capable of moving smoothly and seamlessly across cultures. Whilst there are plenty of books about simple cases of overseas etiquette, such as learning how and when to bow or shake hands, there is now a cultural imperative to take this to more operational levels. What Molinsky is referring to here are the core professional tasks of performance feedback traffic, pitching an idea to your boss, getting heard at a meeting, networking, or motivating others. "And all this movement makes global dexterity a critical skill for success."

According to Molinsky we used to think that the biggest challenge people would face when working in another country would be understanding cultural differences: in other words, how India is different from China, how China is different from the US, and so on. "Don't get me wrong: differences are clearly important. But that's the easiest part of cultural adaptation. Much more challenging is the ability to adjust your behaviour in light of these differences." The subtitle of Molinsky's book - 'How to adapt your behaviour across cultures without losing yourself in the process' - 'is a direct reference to this point. You can change so much that your own commercial culture can suffer as a result.

But isn't this just what we used to call political correctness: the idea that you had to comply with certain standards of behaviour to avoid giving offence, while trying to adapt your own behaviour as little as possible? "This pressure to accommodate can be both a help and a hindrance. On the helping side, it can motivate a person to adapt precisely because there is little leeway not to. But on the hindrance side, the pressure to adapt in a very specific way can also make people feel squeezed."

Molinsky has found that, when confronted by a new culture, people have an opportunity to adapt more than they might originally suppose. "There is a range of acceptable behaviour - what I call the 'zone of appropriateness' - and a key strategic part of adapting behaviour is finding a place within this zone where you can be both effective and appropriate at the same time."

That's the theory. But how do we make these changes so that we might become more globally dexterous? "In 'Global Dexterity', I outline a three-step process for adapting successfully and I think of it like acting. Step 1 is learning your lines: the set of expectations for how you need to behave in a particular foreign cultural situation to be effective. Step 2 is rehearsal: trying out the lines in practice situations to see how they feel. And - here's the important part - learning to adjust or customise your role if the lines don't feel natural or authentic. Finally, Step 3 is the dress rehearsal: practising in realistic situations, as similar to your target situation as possible, but with less pressure than the actual setting would have."'

Leaders best-placed to embrace cross-cultural management are those with an appreciation of how difficult it can be for their colleagues and employees to function effectively outside their cultural comfort zone. Says Molinsky: "If they appreciate the challenges, companies will go the extra mile to equip their employees to be successful. If companies or managers underestimate or dismiss the challenges, it's likely that they will pay the price in the form of increased absenteeism, turnover, and suboptimal performance."

Molinsky's hypothesis though depends largely on the idea that we really are heading for global commercial integration.'So how near are we to that? "There are certainly many small and regional businesses that are still very locally oriented - although that is changing with advances in technology. Globalisation and cultural communication is an inevitable part of business. The question is whether or not you are really prepared to deal with it successfully."

'Global Dexterity' by Andy Molinsky is published by Harvard Business Review Press, £16.99

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