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3 Asia expat headaches that inspire cultural agility

The Shanghai headquarters of Dutch life sciences multinational DSM is surrounded by China rather than being part of it. Enter its LEED-certified campus in a (relatively) green belt of the city and wave good-bye to much of the local reality. Its calm is in sharp contrast with the metropolis’s neck-breaking speed. To save power, unused meeting rooms are kept dark. In a brightly lit one, employees practice yoga at 6pm. Like embassies, the firm drives around with its culture. A DSM chauffeur won’t start until all passengers are buckled up — natural in the Netherlands but a shock in China, inventor of fake seatbelt-clips to fool car electronics. Chauffeurs are essential, because expat managers aren’t allowed to drive. Shielded from China’s pinball-like traffic and often chaotic regulations, their focus is on meeting ambitious goals. The underlying formula is simple: build awareness of cultural gaps, take a clear stance and follow up consistently.

The firm’s approach, which my tiny consulting team adhered to when we signed a voluminous agreement, takes sides in a centuries-old debate: should global organisations impose their home culture or adapt to local realities? There are dilemmas on both sides. Prioritise integrity, and you create weird islands of foreignness abroad. Allow adaptability and you may compromise your core mission. The controversy tore apart Catholic missions in China in the 17th century (should priests like Matteo Ricci become court Mandarins?), split British colonisers into ‘nabobs’ and ‘gentlemen’ (the former arguably gentler than the latter) and still haunts multinational companies in Asia and beyond. Done wrongly, both strategies can wreck your nerves and career. But there are winning formulas too, assuming you understand the most crucial variable: yourself. Below are three typical cultural annoyances I often hear from frustrated Asia expat leaders, and ways in which we turn them into culturally agile, strategically beneficial leadership styles.

Clan mentality: Outliers and outsiders

Preparing managers for expat assignments, some companies assume the need to understand ‘local culture’. Putting aside that few executives have the time, patience and interest to study elusive traditions, most communities expect foreigners to act as foreigners. “A gaijin shouldn’t try to bow”, a Japanese manager told me in reference to a visitor’s amusing attempts to mimic local greetings. Though one can gain some insight into the local character through academic classification systems like Gert Hofstede’s famous culture matrix, both predicting indigenous behaviour and giving suitable responses will stay beyond the cultural student’s reach. Managers who propose doing business ‘the local way’ resemble middle-aged dads of teenagers. Turning their caps backwards and using slang might earn some respect for trying, but won’t guarantee acceptance by the cool kids. That is because cultural agility, along with other misunderstood ‘soft skills’, yields success not through the adaptation of nuances but the constant application of simple concepts.

Expats in Asia soon discover the importance of clan-like communities in business, from town-specific ancestral lineages in China to belonging to barangays in the Philippines. Foreigners are naturally excluded from them, even if they are well-informed. However, that presents an opportunity: managers can acknowledge their outsiderness, and work with people on the individual basis. There are several reasons to do so. First, personal character is a better predictor of behaviour and performance than cultural origins, and an expat leader applying what Gallup’s StrengthsFinder calls ‘individualisation’ may unlock hidden potential in people and teams. Second, Multinational firms are often hubs for outliers in the local culture. Assessment profiles of Chinese executives I coach often reveal why they chose careers in global hierarchies, as mine explains why I felt uncomfortable in my native Hungary’s corporate culture. Each such mismatch helps the leader to choose the most suitable leadership style for himself and the team.

Fragile pride: Taming inner panic

Being an outsider might liberate expats from mimicking local behaviour, but acting across cultures still requires specific skills. One major challenge is the ambiguous attitude to confrontation in most of Asia. Reminded to avoid eye contact at cultural briefings, foreigners often resent the amount of staring they suffer, and the shock they cause by staring back. As Marriott and Mercedes-Benz recently found in China, offence and apology are culture-sensitive, and Asian pride is easily hurt. A critical remark can wrap an entire meeting in ear-splitting silence. “That was wrong, wasn’t it”, a leader I coached murmured to me after confronting a skeptical Chinese General Manager, and from a cultural perspective, it was. But pointing that out is of little help: such mistakes are triggered by the amygdala, the brain’s unruly panic centre. Sadly, that brain department is primitive enough to blame discomfort on the simplest narrative. In strange cultural surroundings, the amygdala makes us blame nationality or race before considering more rational explanations.

However, such mild but regular trauma associated with expat life is a great opportunity to learn and practice. Seasoned expats learn to treat it as a phobia, and realise that the solution must start with their own behaviour. Some people ‘jump’ easier than others, and personality awareness alone can help avoid disasters. Observing the counterpart’s personality also helps: the GM in my previous example was a tough bloke on home turf, and there was no permanent damage. Finally, harnessing outsiderness and starting an honest discussion about local perceptions of certain behaviours can help leaders forge a constructive new culture of diversity. Assessment tools linking personality and cultural factors can provide visual aid and a common language for such conversations. At my coaching, we achieve ‘aha!’ moments and lasting solutions with the same control-versus-relationship matrix that powers McKinsey strategy maps, negotiation styles training, cultural theories and personality tools.

The divine leader’s myth: Great power, great responsibility

Mastering both previous challenges enables you to collaborate across cultures and handle delicate situations, but will soon trigger another dilemma: how much responsibility do you take as an expat leader in Asia? The communal and hierarchical values that dominate the continent often cast foreign managers into an uncomfortable parent-figure role. Accepting it implies far-reaching responsibilities that go well beyond the professional. A European manager in Manila, for instance, made a fleeting remark about unhealthy meeting snacks, and found himself in charge of dietary issues in and out of work. In such cases, expat leaders must assertively choose between two possible approaches: the ‘base camp’ mentality, where the leader’s home culture prevails, and the ‘explorer’ approach, where leadership goes through localisation as the team develops. Again, each approach has hazards and benefits, and the leader’s character is the best indication of the successful choice.

Asia expats favouring a charismatic top-down image meet less initial resistance, for traditional reasons as well as thanks to the global revival of the divine visionary. Marketers and politicians have conditioned people for increasingly emotional decisions for decades. Methods like Daniel Kahnemann’s Thinking, Fast and Slow scientifically harness gut choices for business advantage. Following disruptive leaders into impossible causes is the mantra of Silicon Valley and its Asian spin-offs. This style inspires obedience and disproportionate credit to the leader, but pro-activeness and succession can suffer in the long run. DSM’s ‘base camp’ approach requires more patience to deconstruct the myth: bosses are human, they can make mistakes that aren’t brilliant disruption. But its core values including humility, harmony and consensus resonate well in Asia. When in doubt, follow your temperament. Done well, either style will help forge the next generation of Asian leaders and culturally agile expats, whether they come from IKEA or LEGO, Amazon or Alibaba.


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