Mental Models of Cultural Adaptation
Kanji Nagano was a Japanese manager for a global financial services company in Tokyo. Although well educated, having gone to one of Japan’s exclusive universities, he had never been out of the country and had always worked for Japanese companies. He showed strong leadership qualities even when he was in school, where he was elected to many leadership positions. In his fifteen years with different Japanese companies, his superiors recognized his leadership abilities by promoting him to bigger and bigger jobs.
When he joined a German-based financial services company in Tokyo, Nagano-san inherited a team of 15 direct reports. He quickly established rapport with his team by holding frequent group meetings, and built strong interpersonal relationships with his team members. When he learned that he was being sent to Germany for a six-month assignment, Nagano-san was a bit apprehensive at first. He knew that the German team he was to lead would have different expectations. Yet he was not quite sure whether to change, or how to change, his leadership style. Nagano-san’s leadership in Germany was not a success. The German team members who reported to him felt that he wasted too much time trying to get consensus. They felt frustrated at the way he ran meetings, where he expected everyone to agree to his decisions.
By contrast, Jack Ellis was a marketing manager for a global consumer products company who was sent to the Philippines for a two-year assignment. Jack was born and raised in the East coast, and graduated from an Ivy League school, where he spent his junior year in Thailand. Jack relished the opportunity to work overseas, and he quickly embraced the Philippine work culture. Recognizing the more authoritarian style of leadership in the Philippines, Jack decided that he needed to adapt his leadership style so that he could become more effective in managing his team of Filipino subordinates. At times, Jack felt uncomfortable at how directive he was becoming, but he felt that this was the price he had to pay in order to become an effective leader in this setting. Jack started taking language lessons so he could understand and speak to his staff in their native language. He even learned how to curse in Filipino, and some of his team members commented that he was more Filipino than some of the local bosses. Jack felt at times that he was compromising his values (especially when he was confronted with situations where bribery was involved), but he rationalized it all by remembering that “when in Rome …”.
In my experience, many managers in in cross-cultural settings use one of these two mental models in leading people from different cultures. The first mental model is based on the assumption that to change your style is to be inauthentic, to not be true to yourself. This then leads many managers to insist that they should not change, regardless of whether or not their style is appropriate for a given culture. In some cases, such as Nagano-san’s, the leader may believe that he may have to change, but does not know how. In either case, leaders tend to use the same leadership style they used in their home culture when they lead people in other cultures.
The second mental model is based on the assumption that leaders have to be “cultural chameleons.” When in a different culture, some managers believe the most effective strategy is to adjust your behavior and your style to what is expected and appropriate in that culture. In Jack’s case, he decided early on that he would do whatever it took to fit into the local culture, even if by doing so he may be going against some of his deeply held beliefs and values.
Neither mental model is effective for managers leading across cultures. However, I have found that you can be yourself and be an effective cross-cultural leader at the same time. Here are three pieces of advice for how you might reconcile these seemingly contradictory positions:
1. Separate your values from your behavior.
2. Learn and/or practice different behaviors through practice and coaching.
3. Integrate cultural differences by considering different aspects of yourself.
Let’s take as a third example Emile, who was a fast rising star for a global pharmaceutical company that had a subsidiary in Canada. He had an aptitude for science, and had a warm, appealing way of establishing rapport with people. Starting as a sales rep in Montreal, where he delivered outstanding results year after year, he was eventually promoted to become the head of sales for the subsidiary. Recognizing his potential, senior management recommended him for a position in the U.S. headquarters of the company to head a marketing team. Once again, he shone in his role. Emile showed many of the qualities of leadership admired within the company. He not only believed passionately in the mission of the company, he also had outstanding communication skills (even though as a French-Canadian, he did not learn to speak English until he was in his teens) and consistently exceeded objectives. He had a reputation for building high-performing teams, and his 360-degree feedback results showed that Emile was a leader who involved and empowered his team, was a good listener, treated others with respect, maintained high standards, and had integrity.
For his next assignment Emile was sent to Mexico to head the company’s subsidiary there. Even though Emile did not speak any Spanish, senior management felt that Emile was a good choice since the subsidiary needed an effective leader who would be able to build on the subsidiary’s success and introduce some needed changes. It was an organizational situation that Michael Watkins describes as “realignment,” where a previously successful organization is now faced with some new challenges. The Mexican subsidiary was certainly not a start-up, nor was it a turnaround situation.
Having established success using his participative, empowering style, Emile went down to Mexico excited at building his new management team, all of whom were Mexicans who had been with the company for many years. Although he had done his homework on the business issues facing the subsidiary, Emile had not really put it much thought to how he would do things differently in Mexico. After all, he had been successful in Canada and in the U.S. with a particular leadership style that he believed in strongly. Why should he change? Although he did not have an MBA, Emile was an avid reader and learner, and he realized that the command-and-control style of management was an antiquated way of leading people.
Emile’s first month in his new role was a near disaster. As he told me years later, the Mexicans in his team were used to being ordered by their “jefe.” They expected him to tell them what to do and to follow orders. After all, he was the “hot shot” from headquarters who was selected to make the subsidiary successful. Where were his ideas? Why was he asking them what they thought? Didn’t he have the answers already? To the Mexicans, Emile seemed indecisive and unsure.
Fortunately, Emile had the emotional intelligence to recover quickly. He realized that Mexican work culture favors strong leaders who appear authoritarian. Yet he also believed strongly in his leadership values. So how did he reconcile these conflicting practices? Emile knew he could not make changes overnight.
Using the three suggestions above, here’s what Emile did. First, he learned how to behave differently while still believing in the value of participation and empowerment. During team meetings, he made sure he was in control of the agenda at all times and ran a very tight ship. He started off the meeting by reviewing the decisions from the last session and by providing his team with information and updates from corporate. This was his way of conveying that he was in charge and that he had access to senior management. He ran the meeting but he also made it a point to make sure he invited participation. While this may have been a subtle shift, it made an impression on his Mexican team. In short, he changed some of his behaviors while still maintaining his values.
Second, Emile began to learn and practice some different and/or rarely used behaviors. For example, rather than going to his subordinates’ offices to visit and discuss issues with them, he had them go to his office. While this may seem like a small gesture, it was symbolic and conveyed to his subordinates that he was indeed the boss. He began to seek advice from an American executive he met at a business forum in Mexico City. The American had been in Mexico for over twenty years, and helped Emile gain a different perspective on managing in that culture.
Third, Emile surfaced aspects of himself and his behavior that tapped into his more authoritarian self. For example, in previous assignments in Canada and the U.S. where he had to push his team against tight deadlines, he had to adopt a very tough, no-nonsense approach so the project could be complete on time and on schedule. So he drew on these parts of himself when managing his Mexico team. These were behaviors that were already part of his repertoire but seldom used.
Over time, as the Mexican team began to develop trust and respect for Emile as the boss, he began to shift his leadership towards a more participative and empowering style. He asked for their input before implementing new initiatives from corporate. He encouraged them to take initiative on some of their key responsibilities. Emile became an effective leader in the subsidiary who also gained the admiration of the locals. After a successful four years, Emile was promoted to head the Latin American region for his company.
Watkins, M. (2009). Picking the right transition strategy. Harvard Business Review (January), pp. 47-53.