When a focus on being ‘open’ and ‘flexible’ is bad for you.

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Recently I was coaching a German production engineer about to move to China who told me something that struck me as very typical and significant about how people see the skills required for working internationally. He said he was taking on a new role involving managing the training of local engineers to run a recently installed production line in a new automotive plant outside Shanghai. His biggest concern was that a discussion around cultural sensitivity ‘was not going to make my job any easier’. When I asked for clarification, he said that he had heard from his predecessor that many Chinese engineers tend to be very ‘pragmatic’ about following the detailed processes set by their German managers, tending to miss out steps that they could not immediately see the benefit of. The result was poor quality, and a resulting conflict with their expatriate manager both locally and abroad. The German engineer told me that any reflections on how to accept the local way of doing things and be flexible in one’s behaviour could undermine the quality of his company’s products, and the reputation of their brand. I felt the German engineer was communicating to me in a polite way that someone like myself- helping him to deal with cultural aspects of his transition – was in this case somehow unnecessary. Perhaps what he felt he needed was not a cultural expert but someone who could advise him to forget culture and ‘push’ hard to get the job done.

It struck me that there are probably a lot of our clients – involved in making important transitions into new cultural contexts – who like this German engineer assume that cultural sensitivity coaching or training is just about learning to be ‘open’ and ‘flexible’. The reality is that in the business world of balancing global consistency with local adaptation, cultural sensitivity is just as much about ‘pushing’ hard for your goals and asserting clearly your organisational values in tough, complex situations where too much adaptation can be disastrous. As Bohm said ‘You can be so open-minded your brain falls out’ – in other words, you can lose your own authenticity as a leader and sacrifice the quality of your products and the organisational values (linked to issues like safety and quality) that need to hold people together globally.

I had the opportunity some years ago to be involved in looking into what all quantitative and qualitative research findings had to say about what qualities make the difference between effective and less effective individual transitions made by managers into unfamiliar cultural environments. The research indicated that skills involving pushing forward your personal/organisational goals, values and messages in a confident, assertive way were as important as other skills – more traditionally associated with cross-cultural sensitivity – such as accepting different behaviours and ideas, and listening as well as sensing other perspectives and views. I see the former set of skills as part of an ‘inside out’ push energy that is very much about starting with yourself and your own personal and organisational agenda, and the latter a product of an ‘outside in’ pull energy which is about drawing other people and their perspectives towards you, adapting on the way. I personally tend to be more ‘pull’ oriented with the downside that I can leave people thinking that I may be a nice guy but what do I stand for in terms of values and needs. While I am undoubtedly ‘pully’ in style, I see both as critical components of cultural sensitivity, sometimes drawing in different directions but providing potentially synergy in influencing others.

In my work as a consultant, I’ve been very interested in reflecting on how to support clients like the German engineer in understanding how to see behaviours and qualities linked to these areas of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ as equally important components of the cultural sensitivity they bring to their work. In this case getting the Engineer to reflect on how he can be tough and consistent in his messages while building trust with others, understanding how they may think differently. I have helped to create self-reflection tools like The International Profiler (TIP) and International Preferences Indicator (IPI) designed to support self-reflection as to where one’s current focus is, and where it needs to shift in new roles and challenges looking forward. I’m beginning to also realise the importance of fluidity as a global manager in being able to move between ‘push’ and ‘pull’ according to the situation, supported by a recognition of one’s own preferred starting point. The doubts of the German engineer are well founded – a focus on ‘openness’ and ‘flexibility’ alone are going to foster the mistaken assumption that what we do as interculturalists is divorced from the challenges of the global workplace.

To find out more about the International Preferences Indicator (online licensing 16th – 30th November 2015) please click here.