In his wonderful book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” Marshall Goldsmith lists twenty habits that he claims often prevent successful people from becoming more successful. The twentieth habit he calls “an excessive need to be me.” Here his explanation of this habit:
Each of us has a pile of behavior that we define as ‘me.’ It’s the chronic behavior, both positive and negative, that we think of as our inalterable essence … If we are incorrigible procrastinators who habitually ruin other people’s timetables, we do so because we’re being true to ‘me’ … If we always express our opinion, no matter how hurtful or noncontributory it may be, we are exercising our right to be ‘me.’
You may recognize this as a variation on the old cartoon character Popeye, who said, “I yam what I yam and tha’s all that I yam.” There was a popular song many years ago called “I’ve Gotta Be Me” that had a similar theme.
Kerry Lane was an Australian manager of a global medical devices company when she was sent to Japan to open a sales and marketing office in Tokyo. Smart, ambitious, and highly driven, Kerry saw this as an opportunity to prove herself while acquiring skills and knowledge by working in another country. She had never been to Tokyo before, although two years ago she had completed a successful six-month assignment in the Philippines to help develop a marketing campaign for one of her company’s products.
Needless to say, Kerry experienced a series of culture shocks in her first three weeks on the job. Her new boss, a Japanese who was head of the subsidiary, kept on bowing and apologizing to her, which she found very annoying. When she met her team of six direct reports, she was surprised at how formal they seemed to be. In meetings, they would sit quietly in their navy blue business suits (they were all male), and hardly spoke up. She knew a little bit about Japanese culture, and the head of HR, another Japanese, explained to her some of the differences between the way business gets done in Japan versus Australia. I get it, she thought to herself. But this is not the way I do things, and I know that I have been successful doing things a certain way. Why change now? Besides, this is not me. All this bowing and politeness and talking so indirectly! I would go crazy if I were to adjust my style just because I am in Japan. Besides, I am not Japanese, and they should understand and adapt to me.
Eventually, Kerry’s frustration got the better of her and after three months, she requested for a change of assignments from head office.
What happened to Kerry, and what could she have done differently? First, let’s go back to what Marshall Goldsmith points out as an excessive need to be me. For Goldsmith, the solution to this is for the person to focus less on himself (or herself) and more on other people. For example, in his case study, a manager who does not like to give recognition and praise to people because “that’s not me” could improve by focusing more on what his people wanted (in this case, a little more praise and recognition) and abandoning the notion of “me.”
This is easier said than done. What makes this difficult for many are two underlying issues. First, in my experience, this mindset of “being me” is especially prevalent in what Hofstede refers to as individualistic cultures, where the emphasis is on individual achievement rather than on group harmony. Cultures like the United States, Australia, and Sweden (to name a few) value individualism and self-advancement. So when Kerry, and Goldsmith’s example, clings to this notion, their behavior is in part culturally determined. This is what they have learned by growing up in a highly individualistic culture.
The second issue is the apparent dilemma that is created when people frame the problem as having to choose between being authentic and adapting (that is to say, not being authentic). I have worked with a number of executives who believe that they are somehow compromising themselves if they were to change their management style.
Here are two pieces of advice. First, define the handful of values or qualities about yourself that are core to you and that you believe reflect best who you are. For example: honest, reliable, hard-working, assertive, self-confident. Then as you work with people and teams from other cultures, consider how these values might be expressed in these different cultures. For example, in Thailand, being honest might mean: keeping your word, being fair, and not cheating. In America, this might mean: being direct, speaking your mind. It may turn out that your Thai colleagues share some of your values, but just express them in different ways. So the key point here is to recognize that the behaviors that demonstrate a quality or value that you feel strongly about because they mean “being you” may differ by culture. Therefore, what you might have to do to work effectively in these cultures is to adapt behaviors that are more appropriate for that culture but are still consistent with your underlying values.
The second piece of advice is to expand your comfort zone so you can begin to develop what Andy Molinsky calls global dexterity. Every one of us has a style of behavior that we are comfortable with, or that comes natural for us. And most of the time, we would rather not change our style either because we believe that this works well for us, or because it is too much trouble to learn a different style. When working across different cultures, there will be a range of behaviors and styles that will be different from what you are used to. Some will be easier to adapt to than others. For example, learning how to bow slightly in Japan, or learning how to greet someone in a different language are relatively easy behaviors to learn, and will not require much difficulty in getting you out of your comfort zone. However, other behaviors - for example, learning how to be more patient rather than being your normal assertive self, learning to read non-verbal’s in high-context cultures – are more difficult to adapt. So expand your comfort zone by practicing some behaviors that may at first not feel too comfortable for you. Get help from a friend, a trusted co-worker, or a colleague from another culture so they can give you feedback and coach you.
Goldsmith, M. (2007). What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. New York: Hyperion.
Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s Consequences. New York: Sage.
Molinsky, A. (2013). Global Dexterity. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.