Your gut and business in strange cultures

Your gut and business in strange cultures

written by: Mr. Gabor Holch
by: Mr. Gabor Holch
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How do you react when a fellow human being seems to act like a recent arrival from another planet? Whether the reason is a gap between genders, national traditions, professions or generations, do you find it amusing, irritating, confusing or flat out wrong? Your gut reaction will determine your ability to get things done across barriers.

This observation was the most popular section of my recent opening speech for the Russian executive MBA programme Skolkovo in Shanghai. Those senior managers and entrepreneurs, like most people aspiring for international business success, seldom consider how cross-cultural pressure influences their judgement, and what their winning personal strategy would be. Before you board for an exhilarating business trip, it's worth giving it a thought.

Airlifting a business model into another culture is like placing a piece of furniture into the vicious testing machine you might have seen at IKEA. Well-informed and well-connected managers see their world turn topsy-turvy in an environment where they lack legal and societal context, miss their home network and get misunderstood when they express their frustrations. Everyone has cross-cultural stories ranging from the cute to the maddening, but trying to achieve business goals under cultural pressure is no laughing matter.

The stress can be enormous, which is why few professionals thrive under culturally challenging circumstances. When people around you start acting unreasonably, it's time to place your moistening fingers on your racing pulse, and regain control over your behaviour. I developed the three steps below in my first few years of helping executives in China, and used them successfully worldwide during the last ten years. They touched the nerve last Sunday, which is why I am bringing them to you now.

Awareness: What does your gut say?

I've noticed that globetrotting problem-solvers in see stress surface in either of two natural ways: blaming others or blaming yourself. Both are natural reactions that we cannot control, based on fundamental human needs. The 'blame them' gut reaction stems from our need for integrity: This is what I am, and I'm not going to twist beyond recognition just because I'm in China (Brazil, Oregon, in a law firm, among rich white men, etc.).

The 'blame yourself' response originates in our need to be accepted. When this instinct takes over, you ask 'What's wrong with me' rather than 'What's wrong with them', and act accordingly. Which path you follow under pressure isn't up to you. It is determined by personality, upbringing and habits you've formed over the years. As Nobel laureate D. Kahnemann pointed out, there isn't much we can do about such gut responses, but being aware of them is an essential element of making smart decisions.

Skills: Your personal plan

I'm always surprised how many people struggle to guess their probable response, and last week's participants were no exception. Of course, ever since Edward T. Hall, the forefather of intercultural studies, we know how subtle cultural pressure is, and how vehemently we deny it. But among culturally unfamiliar people, your brain's alarm centre (the amygdala) will flick you into one direction or another. How can you predict the hidden trajectory hardwired in your brain?

Psychometric assessment has a lot to say, revealing that dominant and compliant people tend to blame others while socially oriented individuals, especially if they have high empathy, tend to blame themselves. But if you lack access to such tools, thorough self-reflection or asking your best friends also helps. Deciding how you will react 'next time' is pointless: It's much smarter to choose a cross-cultural strategy that suits your nature.

Habits: Build it into business

There is a 'stand out' and 'blend in' approach to everything you do. In business, knowing what your instinctive response will be determines how you approach hiring people, contracts, finance, risk, product development, marketing and more. Both strategies can succeed if done consistently. I know European Asia-veterans who spent a decade building a 'little EU' around themselves, and ones who completely internalise local business practices. At the end of the day, the only test is whether you live the life you want to live.

What works individually also works on the corporate level. IKEA stores and Adidas offices are islands of the home culture wherever in the world you go. LEGO, Tesla and many more educate customers in their values rather than localising. Boeing and Carrefour on the other hand (to name two I know in China) show surprising agility in getting things done the local way, and AB InBev, Lipton and Nestlé have hot products in one market that nobody would buy in another.