3 myths about effective adaptation in international teams
The workplace has never been more global than today, an increasing number of people work in international teams with colleagues from totally different cultures. Despite this, I often find that many international teams are not fully aware of the profoundness of the differences they are dealing with.
As a result, team members sometimes tend to follow "gut" theories — what they assume to be true about adapting behavior in international settings.
The problem is that these gut instincts are often false, misleading, and difficult to apply. Andy Molinsky, professor at Brandeis University’s Business School, studied this topic in the past decade and worked with hundreds of professionals from across the globe learning to adapt behavior. He identified three such "myths" of global adaptation:
Myth #1: The only thing you need to do is learn about cultural differences
It seems obvious, that to be effective in a international environment, you need to learn about how cultures differ. The ways in which people give feedback, how to make people participate, talk informal issues or not, and so on. However, learning about cultural differences in theory does not necessarily translate into successful behavior in practice. In fact, it's often quite difficult to perform behaviors you aren't used to, even if you have an intellectual understanding of what these behaviors are supposed to be. The real key to crossing cultures isn't learning about differences: it's being able to adjust your behavior to actually take the differences into account.
Myth #2: When in Rome, do as the Romans do
This idea actually comes from ancient times — from the letters of St. Augustine that described how important it was to adapt to local religious customs. Acting like the Romans certainly makes sense as a philosophy for fitting in and winning the favor of local clients, customers, and business partners. However, what happens when acting like the Romans means violating your own personal or cultural values and identity? The point is to develop a way of behaving that is appropriate and effective, but without compromising who you are.
Myth #3: Just be yourself
Of course, there is nothing wrong with "being yourself," but at the extreme, this piece of advice completely ignores the fact that there are important differences in the way people want to work together and the painful misunderstandings that follow if you don’t take them into account. Ignoring them can create high tension within the team without people understanding each other on the intentional level.
Constructing high performing international teams takes knowledge, serious effort, thoughtful strategy, and, often, a great deal of courage!