When in Rome, DO NOT do as the Romans do!

To work well with foreign colleagues, you may have to risk feeling inauthentic and incompetent.
So claims the byline to a piece in HBR by Andrew L. Molinsky, associate professor of organizational behavior at Brandeis University's International Business School. With the utmost of respect for Professor Molinsky I strongly disagree with his idea of cultural "code-switching" as a way to navigate doing business with different global cultures. I have worked in the field of global diversity for over 20 years and done business in 21 countries with people from over 45 different cultures. I can say two things categorically:

  • The one quality that overcomes all cultural difference is authenticity. Give up authenticity in an effort to "fit in," at your peril.
  • People from other nationalities or ethnicities excuse the cultural ignorance of foreigners. They do not forgive disrespect or inauthenticity.
Executives from a large American global retailer recently showed me how they had been taught to hand a Japanese person a business card. They bowed (bowing doesn't look as dignified when we Americans do it as it does when a Japanese person gracefully bows his or her head) ) and grasped their card with both hands as they handed it over. Bowing and the way a Japanese executive hands you his card is part of a much bigger cultural tapestry. When we focus on one spot of the tapestry while the rest of our behavior shouts out our cultural ignorance of the full tapestry, our actions look incongruous and inauthentic. Respecting other people's cultural nuances is different from mimicking them. Even different culturally-based styles of management cannot be authentically mimicked.

In the '70s, working for a global commodity trading company, I learnt how important authenticity is in, what I call "arbitraging human differences for mutual advantage." Simco Cable, a small copper wire manufacturer in the town of Rasht in Northwestern Iran, entered into a joint venture with the large Swedish communication company, LM Ericsson. This joint venture grew Simco's capacity 100-fold virtually overnight. Recognizing the opportunity and having secured a source of raw copper in Africa, I went to pay a visit to their CEO at that time, Yusuf Esfahani (name changed to protect privacy). Unknown to me was that Mr. Esfahani was a respected leader of the Moslem community in Rasht and quite extreme in his religious beliefs. My office in Tehran advised me not to call on him myself, and that if I did, I would need to hide the fact that I had visited and studies in Israel as well as any hint of my Jewishness. Failing to do so, in their opinion, would not only destroy any chance of business but could also trigger an unpleasant or possibly violent incident. Still in my twenties and not very wise, I decided that since I was the product specialist and the most qualified person in our company to negotiate the deal, I would not delegate my role. I would also not change anything about how I presented myself but would just be authentic. I proceeded to his plant in Rasht. At the security gate they called to his office, and by the time I drove up to the main entrance, a tall, imposing man dressed in a crisp, white thawb (an ankle-length robe) and keffiyeh (a traditional headdress), was waiting to meet me. He strode up to my car, opened my door, and pulled me right out of the car. Trembling in fear, I was convinced I was about to be knifed by a crazed religious zealot. But the opposite was the case. Yusuf embraced me and, referring to our common Abrahamic ancestors, addressed me as his cousin. He led me into his office and assured me that we were going to have a long and prosperous relationship. Thus started a warm, personal friendship and a long and profitable business relationship.

By staying authentic to myself instead of adapting my culture to his I had unwittingly connected with Yusuf's core value-driver trust. Yusuf, like many people with trust as their core value-driver, could not establish a meaningful relationship with an individual who was inauthentic. He accepted my difference and my relatively poor knowledge of his culture. But he would not have accepted my being inauthentic, because authenticity has nothing to do with culture; it is a universal value. By guarding my own authenticity -- even at some considerable risk -- and making myself vulnerable, I had laid the foundation of trust on which we could both later build. Consequently we did business at a price and at terms far more favorable to us than I could possibly have negotiated by any conventional means. I learned that just as you can arbitrage market differentials for advantage, so can you also arbitrage the differences between people's cultures and values for mutual economic advantage. This costs you nothing but could be worth a fortune to the other person. The idea became foundational to my philosophy of Cultural Intelligence. This story is an extract from my book, Lead By Greatness (available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions). In the book I relate other examples and show how you can develop a global language that enables you to build trust, command respect, lead, manage and negotiate in any culture without having to compromise your own authenticity. This process, that Lapin International teaches in its workshops and coaching, has saved and generated millions of dollars for our multi-national clients.

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