Face Masks and Social Distancing: How Identity Can Help or Hurt Change Efforts

In the early days of this pandemic that we are all living through, you must have questioned – as I did – the behavior of the throngs of people up and about in San Francisco, or of people in bars in other parts of the country, seemingly oblivious to the dangers of COVID-19. And three months later, as countries are opening up, we are continuing to see people on beaches and gathering places, maskless. Why are so many people ignoring health and safety guidelines?

Rafael (not his real name), an executive I was coaching, was typical of many very successful executives – ambitious, confident, competitive, but also charming. Unfortunately, he was someone who was reluctant to approach colleagues for feedback or for help. In the course of my interviews to gather 360-degree data about him, there were a couple of peers in his organization who I had spoken to who thought highly of Rafael and who were willing to help him. In my coaching sessions with Rafael, he agreed that reaching out to these two colleagues was a good idea. Yet he did not seem to take any steps to contact them. Over several coaching sessions, we finally figured out what the underlying issue was behind his reluctance: it was his belief that asking for feedback, especially from peers, was not consistent with his own image of himself. This would be showing vulnerability – not a desirable quality for executives like himself who needed to show their toughness and invincibility. His identity was about projecting himself as strong and powerful, and he associated asking for feedback with being wimpy or weak, and this was blocking his ability and willingness to change his behavior.

In reflecting on this executive and on recent events in the news, as well as reading a number of recent books on organizational and behavior change (see my list at the end), a number of lessons on effective behavior change have become clearer to me.

Let’s first take a look at one of these books, written by several McKinsey consultants (Feser et al.). The authors suggest that individuals will change their mindset and behavior if four elements are present: leaders are role-modeling the new behaviors; the individuals themselves understand what is being asked of them and this makes sense to them; they have the skills and opportunities to behave in the new way; and the structures, processes and systems support the changes they are being asked to make.

Many social scientists emphasize especially this last element. The situation or our environment has a greater influence on our behavior that we might believe, and that by aligning structures, processes and systems with the desired behavior outcomes, organizational change is more likely to be successful. A similar point has been made by Thaler and Sunstein in their concept of “nudges,” which are attempts to influence our behavior with small suggestions and positive reinforcement (e.g., product placements, default options – “Would you like fries with that?”). Nudges have been applied successfully by organizations both with employees in the workplace and with consumers in the marketplace.

However, what’s seems missing in these approaches is the role of identity and the importance of developing habits for actually changing behavior more permanently. In his recent book, James Clear says that “true behavior change is identity change.” What does he mean by this? He writes, “Your behaviors are usually a reflection of your identity. What you do is an indication of the type of person you believe that you are – either consciously or nonconsciously,” and “the more deeply a thought or action is tied to your identity, the more difficult it is to change it.” Indeed, “Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs and to upgrade and expand your identity.”

In their book, Switch, the Heaths make a similar point. Using an identity framework, they point out that we ask ourselves three questions before making a decision on whether or not to change our behavior: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation? This explains in part why people today still insist on going on with their routines despite the dangers of COVID-19. Those who consider themselves as young, healthy and hedonistic (“I never get sick,” “I love having a good time”) will not believe that the situation warrants their having to stay home (“It’s not that bad,” “I’ve been cooped up for too long”). Besides, many of their friends are no longer staying home anyway (“Let’s go and grab a drink; it wouldn’t hurt to have a bit of fun these days,” “You can’t stay at home forever, especially now that the weather is getting better”). And for others, it’s about their identity as individualistic Americans (“Other people who are like me would never think about wearing a mask,” “I don’t like anyone, especially the government, telling me what to do – that’s unAmerican”).

So how do you change your identity? According to Clear, through a two-step process: first, decide on the type of person you want to be, and second, prove it to yourself with small wins. To paraphrase Clear, you start by clarifying your identity and not by focusing on results or outcomes: “The focus should always be in becoming that type of person, not getting a particular outcome.” However, this is not sufficient, in my experience. You also need to consider how you can think about your identity differently, or about your different identities and which will best help you achieve your goals.

Recently, one of my students, who had just started working for a museum, described the frustrations she was feeling as a result of the resistance to change among some of the staff in the museum. If you’ve been going to museums in the past decade, I’m sure you have noticed all the changes that have been implemented to make museums more user-friendly, such as with more interactive and hands-on exhibits. In this museum, however, a number of long-tenured employees had been resisting any changes to modernize their museum. For this “old guard,” museums were about preserving the art and making sure museum-goers did not get too close to these objects for fear of damaging them; they saw themselves as guardians of the art. Asking these employees to change the way the museum presented its pieces was going against their deeply ingrained beliefs and identity.

So here are three recommendations for change leaders and for anyone interested in better understanding the dynamics of behavior change. First, and perhaps the most important, is role modeling. If you are a leader, you need to walk the talk and practice what you preach. You need to show others that you are living proof of applying the lessons you want others to learn.

Second, make sure that the environment or the organization’s structures, systems and processes are aligned with the goals of the change. This is where nudges can come into play. Companies like Apple and Google, for example, have cafeterias with long tables where employees from different departments can sit together (although perhaps with more social distancing these days) – therefore reinforcing the importance of collaboration.

And third, make sure that you understand people’s identity and how their identity can be made congruent with the changes they are being asked to make. In the case of the museum, this might mean re-framing the old guard’s identity and recasting their role a bit differently. Remember that all of us have more than one identity and are capable of expanding our identities. For example, the museum director could start redefining the museum employees’ role as one that strives to maximize the museum-goer’s experience while at the museum. He could then ask some of these old-guard employees to join other employees on a task force to identify new ways to enhance this experience to make sure they continue to showcase the art. He could encourage them to learn some of the new technologies (e.g., having personalized recommendations for visitors based on data that would be collected beforehand, creating more immersive digital experiences) by contacting their counterparts in other museums and finding out about best practices. This re-framing gets away from having to reject one’s identity completely, a difficult step for many of us.

In Rafael’s case, over time and after many coaching sessions, he began to view his identity a bit differently: that an effective executive is one who actively seeks feedback. By my pointing to him several effective executives in his organization who modeled this behavior, Rafael was able to reframe his idealized image of a successful executive. It has not been easy; through some initial small wins (for example, he has reached out to have coffee with several peers and found the conversations to be very helpful), I am hoping he will continue to make the changes he needs to make to be successful.

And for those who are still ignoring the warnings to socially distance themselves, consider reframing your identity or expanding your identity. Yes, you are a healthy person who does not get sick but will make an exception and practice social distancing this time around just in case, since getting the virus is not going to be fun, to say the least. Yes, you are an individualistic American, but nonetheless an American who considers the rights and benefits of others (just like wearing seat belts or not smoking indoors does not necessarily trample on your individual rights). And being American also someone who cares about your family, friends and others and wants to make sure you are helping to make a positive difference. And yes, if some of the people you admire and respect (including public figures and celebrities), as well as some of your friends, are socially distancing and wearing masks (admittedly, a big “if” in some cases), perhaps you can too.


Clear, J. (2018), Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. New York: Avery.

Feser, C. et al. (2018). Leadership at Scale: Better Leadership, Better Results. London: Nicholas Brealey.

Goldsmith M. and Reiter, M. (2015). Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts – Becoming the Person You Want to Be. New York: Crown.

Heath, C. and Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. New York: Currency.

Kotter, J. (1995). Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Harvard Business Review.

Thaler, R. and Sunstein, C. (2009). Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness. New York: Penguin Books.

2020 will certainly go down as a year like no other

As we look forward to the vaccine and the new year, I’ve been reflecting on what I learned about this year and would like to share four lessons that I hope you’ll find helpful and hopeful.

  1. Adaptability. More than ever, I have learned to get out of my comfort zone and my routines, and have adapted to a new comfort zone. Wearing face masks, socially distancing, and avoiding crowds have become part of my new normal, and I for one have learned to accept and adapt, after some difficulty. I am hopeful that this adaptability mindset will help us in the future, which will likely be even more unpredictable than anything we have experienced so far.
  2. Connectedness. As social animals, we thrive on our relationships with others – with family of course, but also with friends, colleagues, and with the occasional serendipitous and delightful encounters with strangers. With the pandemic spreading, I have found new and different ways to build those connections (Zoom sessions, more regular check-ins with friends and family, joining a book club, listening to lectures and discussions online), and these have kept my spirits up during the year. I hope you have also managed to nourish your connections, and that you continue to do this.
  3. Empathy. Many of us have been fortunate that we haven’t been adversely affected by the pandemic, except for some minor inconveniences. However, I’ve been troubled by the number of people who have lost jobs, who have bleak prospects for the future, who continue to face social and racial injustice, and by those who line up for hours just to be able to get free food to feed their families. In a rich and diverse country like the United States, it’s hard to believe that such conditions continue to exist. Understanding the circumstances of the less fortunate and taking small steps to help is something that I hope all of us are doing to make some kind of positive difference.
  4. Purpose. While I continue my teaching, consulting and research, I find what the columnist David Brooks wrote recently to be profoundly significant; he said that sometimes we need to ask ourselves whether we are pursuing resume virtues or eulogy virtues – whether our priority is to continue to build on our accomplishments and achievements (our resume virtues) or to focus on our character and what others will say about us when we are gone (our eulogy virtues).

Happy Holidays!

Choosing Between Tight or Loose Organizations

I recently finished reading Michele Gelfand’s 2019 book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers, which is based on research she has been doing over the past several years (I have referenced her work in my own book, Successful Global Leadership). Her book details a different way to look at cultures by examining the dimension of tightness-looseness – the degree to which social norms are pervasive, clearly defined, and reliably imposed within nations. Tight cultures, her research shows, have strong social norms and little tolerance for deviance, while loose cultures have weak social norms and are highly permissive. Furthermore, people from tight cultures “view effective leaders as those who embody independence and great confidence – that is, as people who like to do things their own way and don’t rely on others”, whereas people from loose cultures prefer “visionary leaders who are collaborative.”

Her measure of tightness-looseness, which she and her team have administered in over 30 countries, uses the following six items which individuals respond to on an agree-disagree scale:

  1. There are many social norms that people are supposed to abide by in this country.
  2. In this country, there are very close expectations for how people should act in most situations.
  3. People agree upon what behaviors are appropriate versus inappropriate in most situations in this country.
  4. People in this country have a great deal of freedom in deciding how they want to behave in most situations.
  5. In this country, if someone acts in an inappropriate way, others will strongly disapprove.
  6. People in this country almost always comply with social norms.

Countries that she has found to be more tight include Pakistan, South Korea, Turkey, Malaysia, and Singapore, while countries that are more loose include Brazil, New Zealand, the United States, Greece, and the Ukraine.

Gelfand’s framework is but the latest in a number of frameworks studying cultural differences across nations. Hofstede’s is perhaps the most well-known, although his research, as well as those of others, has been subject to some criticism. His construct of Uncertainty Avoidance (which he defines as a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity) seems to overlap with the tightness-looseness distinction. In my own book, I propose Preference for Structure as one dimension that also seems to overlap with Gelfand’s concept.

Gelfand believes, and I agree, that her framework can be applied to organizations. Substitute “employees” or “workers” for “people“, and “organization” for “country” in the six statements above and you can see the applicability easily. For example, her book explains that part of the reason why the Daimler-Benz and Chrysler merger failed was due to the vast difference in cultural tightness-looseness between the two companies:

Daimler had a top-down, heavily managed, hierarchical structure devoted to precision. As a result, the company’s manufacturing operations were rigid and bureaucratic. Much like its country of origin, Daimler leaned tight. Chrysler, on the other hand, was a looser operation with a more relaxed, freewheeling, and egalitarian business culture. Chrysler also used a leaner production style, which minimized unnecessary personnel and red tape.” (p. 140)

She acknowledges that differences in industry pressures may also explain the collective tightness or looseness of different organizations. For example, hospitals, police departments and airlines tend to have tighter cultures than R&D groups and start-ups because failures in the former tend to have greater life-and-death consequences. She also suggests that an organization’s country of origin plays a significant role in influencing its tightness or looseness; for example, Israeli companies tend to be loose, while Japanese companies tend to be tight.

In a Fortune piece (September 11, 2018) as well as in her book, Gelfand explains that many companies today want to develop tight-loose ambidexterity. Loose organizations that are capable of deploying the opposite set of norms she refers to as having structured looseness. Flexible tightness, on the other hands, happens when a tight organization tries to deploy a looser state. What’s the right balance and how do you manage the transition? For example, when start-ups start to scale, they introduce hierarchy and rules over time, and these can stifle the looseness that led to the initial success of these start-ups. On the other hand, tight organizational cultures that move toward looseness might suffer from an “anything goes” mindset.

Having had experience interviewing and consulting with many managers from global companies, and having worked as an executive with several multinationals, I can confirm that her observations seem to make sense on the surface. However, the reality is more complex. Let me explain. As we know, all organizations have cultures that are shaped by many things: the behaviors of top leaders, the history of the organization (including certain events which have influenced it), the industry in which it belongs, its national origin, and its goals and strategy. For example, Apple and Amazon’s cultures have been heavily influenced by Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos respectively. As another example, I know managers who work in the U.S. subsidiaries of Samsung and Michelin who have described to me organizational norms in these companies that are heavily influenced by their home countries’ cultures (South Korea and France, respectively).

In my experience, there is something missing in this dichotomy between tight and loose, and that is the strength of the organization’s culture. As Sorensen (2009) and other researchers have pointed out, companies with strong corporate cultures tend to be higher-performing than companies in the same industry with weaker cultures. Now what is a “strong culture” exactly? This is Sorensen’s definition: “An organizational culture is said to be strong when the basic assumptions of the culture are widely shared and deeply held by members of the organizations.” In other words, there is a shared understanding among organizational members of what the basic values of the organization are. Talk to individuals in these organizations, such as Johnson & Johnson, Google, Wegmans, and the Navy Seals, and they will be able to tell you what the organization stands for and what its purpose is. Not only that, most of them are committed to these values.

On the other hand, the degree of tightness or looseness of an organization refers to its practices, social norms and customs rather than deeply held values. These espoused values will not always translate to practices and customs unless the organization’s senior leaders model and reinforce these practices through the organization’s systems, processes and structures. So you can envision a 2 x 2 matrix, where you have strong and weak cultures on one dimension, and tight and loose organizations on the other dimension:

Culture Types   Tight Organizations Loose Organizations
Weak Cultures 1. (Tesla)   3.(Uber)
Strong Cultures 2.(Apple, Goldman Sachs) 4.(Southwest, Twitter, Zappos)  

Some examples might help. In Cell 4 you will find companies such as Southwest Airlines, Twitter, and Zappos. At Southwest Airlines, for example, the late Herb Kelleher instilled a very strong culture through his own behaviors and reinforced the company’s values in many different ways, such as hiring employees with the right attitude. Yet Southwest leans very loose; this has been widely reported in the press as well as in several interviews with Mr. Kelleher and his successors. For example, you can watch many YouTube videos where Southwest airplane crew members are playing pranks or improvising pre-flight announcements.

In Cell 1, on the other hand, you will find companies where there is a strong emphasis on procedures and practices, but values that are not strongly emphasized and reinforced. One of my colleagues once consulted for a mid-sized, family-owned business where rules and protocols were tightly enforced. For example, employees had to follow a dress code strictly, and the CEO believed that this level of tightness was what has made the firm successful to this point. The firm paid its employees way above the market, which has kept its turnover rate low. Yet, in my colleague’s opinion, the company seemed “soulless.” Employees did not seem engaged, and there was no passion or higher purpose other than making money for the company.

Based on my readings about Tesla, it seems to fall into this category. Elon Musk runs a very tight ship and fires executives seemingly willy-nilly. A number of people I have talked to who know employees in Tesla say that they remain there mainly for the opportunity and not necessarily because they believe in the company’s culture.

In Cell 2 you will find companies such as Apple, which is run very tightly yet manages to have a very strong, values-driven culture. Tim Cook and his executive team, and Steve Jobs before him, make sure that everything is very buttoned-up. Finally, in Cell 3, you will find companies such as Uber and other startups, where cultures are not well-defined and there is a looseness to the organization. The past scandals involving Uber’s founder are a reflection of this.

What’s the best cell to be in for an organization? It depends on at least four factors: the industry or sector it’s in (e.g., hospitality versus hospitals), its own strategy and long-term goals, its competitive pressures, and its own core competencies. There is no magic bullet here. However, as far as tightness or looseness is concerned, I agree with Gelfand that companies in today’s complex and turbulent environment need to strive toward greater flexibility and looseness. In addition, I would suggest that organizations should also strengthen its culture; the evidence on the positive relationship between cultural strength and performance is quite strong. In other words, moving towards Cell 4 would make a lot of sense as a go-to strategy for many organizations today.


Gelfand, M. (2018). Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World. New York: Scribners.

Gelfand, M. (2018). Is Your Organization Tight or Loose? How to Tell – and Ways to Fix It. Fortune, September 11.

Gelfand, M. et al. (2011). Differences Between Tight and Loose Cultures: A 33-Nation Study. Science (332), 1100-1104.

Henson, R. (2016). Successful Global Leadership: Frameworks for Cross-Cultural Managers and Organizations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sorensen, J. (2009). Note on Organizational Culture. Stanford Graduate School of Business Case OB-69.

Building on Your Strengths or Working on Your Weaknesses: Are They Mutually Exclusive?

If you are like many other managers who have received 360-degree feedback results, this is most likely the sequence you followed in analyzing your data. First, you looked at the overall averages for each dimension or category. Second, you read – and re-read – the comments made. For many managers, these comments are often the most insightful aspects of the process. Third, you went back to the averages and focused on the ones where you scored the lowest, examining each of the specific statements in these categories. If you wanted to improve and get better, you told yourself, you needed to focus on those behaviors where you were perceived to be relatively weaker.

Youngme Moon, a Marketing professor at Harvard Business School, makes a similar point about the way companies look at their brands in her book Different. For example, if a brand manager looks at market research data showing one brand attribute among many falling significantly below the industry average, his typical reaction might be to address the vulnerabilities in that brand and focus on improving on that weak brand attribute. Very rarely, if ever, would that brand manager double down on the brand’s strengths “further extending the distance between you and your competitors.” Yet, Professor Moon argues, “true differentiation – sustainable differentiation – is rarely a function of well-roundedness; it is typically a function of lopsidedness.”

Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, in a recent Harvard Business Review article, would agree. They maintain that we learn best when we focus on building on what we are already doing well, and that, if we get out of our comfort zone, “our brains stop paying attention to anything other than surviving the experience.” Therefore, build on your strengths and ignore your weaknesses. He does argue elsewhere (Buckingham and Clifton, 2001) not to ignore your weaknesses but to find ways to manage around them. The examples he gives, however, are of individuals who got others to help them complement their weak points as opposed to working on these weaknesses on their own. For managers, this might mean hiring people on their team who complement skills and attributes they lack that are important to the success of the group. For analytical individuals, this might mean working with someone who is intuitive and creative.

For example, Buckingham and Clifton cite Cole Porter, a very talented songwriter who, according to them, unfortunately wrote very weak plots for his musicals. Still, for these researchers, his words and melodies were so outstanding that it almost did not matter who was singing them or why. It is true that Porter wrote some flops, but he also wrote quite a number of hit musicals such as Kiss Me Kate and Can-Can.

Back to Professor Moon and her marketing analogy. She further argues that brands trying to be “well-rounded” by being above average in all of their brand attributes lead to less rather than greater differentiation – which diminishes the uniqueness of a brand. Buckingham would probably agree; he would argue that individuals who seek to be well-rounded will end up not having any distinguishing qualities that make them stand out.

What seems to be missing in both Professor Moon’s and Buckingham’s arguments is that there is a minimum threshold, a floor if you will, below which having a weakness on a particular brand attribute or individual characteristic could be a deal-breaker. In other words, what if the weakness cannot be compensated for by one’s strengths, and the characteristics in which that individual is weak are critical to achieving success, e.g., moving to a more visible role or an executive position?

In his recent podcast (When Strength Becomes Weakness episode of April 17, 2019), the author and professor Adam Grant interviewed Buckingham about his theory of developing your strengths and ignoring your weaknesses. Grant was arguing two points with Buckingham. First, he asked, why not improve something you are not good at? For example, Shaquille O’Neal was a terrible free-throw shooter (as are some other professional basketball players), and he worked hard to improve his free-throw shooting, but with arguably modest results. Buckingham countered that this was a poor investment since the results would be marginally incremental. Second, Grant argued that having too much of a strength could be a flaw. Buckingham countered that what you need to do is temper it a bit, but not stop using it. So if a self-confident leader starts to become arrogant, he or she should recognize that and dial it back a bit.

I once coached a manager who I will call Steve. Steve had an MBA from an Ivy League school and had a background in Finance. He was very talented in his field and was considered a high potential in the company where he was working. He had one major flaw: he was afraid of speaking in public and was not at all a polished speaker. I advised Steve not to ignore this weakness if he wanted to eventually become CFO of a major corporation. Regardless of how good his other strengths were, being a C-suite player today requires very good communication skills. You don’t have to be a master orator, but you have to be good enough to communicate with your team, people within your company, with investors, and with the public. And you cannot rely on others on your staff to complement this weakness; you have to overcome it yourself. Winston Churchill, Tiger Woods and Jack Welchi were stutterers, and yet somehow, they overcame this deficiency to become more than decent public speakers.

Steve realized that he could not just compensate for his lack of public speaking skills by become a world-class finance person. He had to work on this weakness so he could become at least adequate as a public speaker. The lesson here is to build on your strengths but at the same time, not ignore those weaknesses that may prevent you from reaching your career or professional goals. You don’t have to be world-class in overcoming those weaknesses but be “good enough” so these do not undermine you.

In his ground-breaking research on disruptive innovation, Clay Christensen argues that companies stick too long to improving product attributes that are no longer important differentiators for most customers. He calls this “overshooting the market”; these companies ignore the upstart firms that might be offering cheaper products, although not as sophisticated. Similarly, individuals who focus on simply building on their strengths may overshoot and neglect those qualities that others have that may become increasingly important in their organizations.

There are two assumptions in the Buckingham arguments that I would question. First, the assumption that working on weaknesses is a waste of time would not be good advice for executives like Steve who will need to reach this minimal threshold to even be considered for potential senior management roles. I would argue that incremental improvements so you can become “good enough” would be worth making. This is NOT about spending time trying to turn yourself into somebody else (which Buckingham argued in the podcast would be a “dubious waste of time”).

Second, the assumption that working on weaknesses is uncomfortable and a royal pain and therefore should be avoided also is questionable when coaching executives who want to address a critical flaw. Why work on it if it does not invigorate you, Buckingham might argue? Well, one of my clients described working on something he was not good at as follows: “Embrace the pain; make it your friend. It’s necessary to feel pain in order to get better.” He said that friends of his who run marathons know that at some point the pain will start but when they simply embrace the pain, they will find the joy that happens when they cross the finish line. Anyone who has ever tried to master a skill or a sport will know that practicing is not always fun but ultimately is extremely helpful in building the desired skills. Remember that a fundamental principle of adult learning is that adults learn best when they are stretched outside their comfort zones.

My suggestions to those of you want to improve on your 360-degree feedback results is to focus on the following:

  1. Of the various dimensions or leadership qualities assessed in your 360-degree feedback, which are the most important for success in your job today (or alternatively, for success in your career goals)?
  2. Of these important qualities: which play to your strengths, and how can you build on these strengths so you get “invigorated”? Here, I am in complete agreement with Buckingham.
  3. And of these important qualities: which do not play to your strengths, and how can you bring those up to a “good enough” level? In Steve’s case, he realized he needed to improve his public speaking, so he hired a coach who helped him with his communication skills. Remember what my executive client said about making pain your friend. Embrace the discomfort, and you will appreciate the end results more when you achieve them.


Buckingham, M. and Goodall, (March-April, 2019). Why Feedback Fails. Harvard Business Review.

Christensen, C. (2011). The Innovator’s Dilemma. New York: Harper Business.

Moon, Y. (2010). Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd. New York: Crown Business.

Can We Judge a Book by Its Cover – Accurately?

When President Trump was asked, before his recent meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, how he would tell whether Mr. Un was serious about denuclearization, he responded, “I think within the first minute, I’ll know.” How, a reporter asked?

“I just, my touch, my feel, that’s what, that’s what I do,” the president said. “How long will it take to figure out whether or not they’re serious? I said, maybe in the first minute. You know the way they say that, you know if you’re going to like somebody in the first five seconds? You ever hear that one? Well I think that very quickly I’ll know whether or not something good is going to happen. I also think I’ll know whether or not it will happen fast. May not. But I think I’ll know pretty quickly whether or not, in my opinion, something positive will happen.”

Our inclination to size up people quickly, and our confidence in these judgments, have long been topics of research in social psychology. As Nicholson (1997) has pointed out, perhaps it’s a result of our hard-wired behavior from the Pleistocene era, where our ancestors had to judge very quickly whether a person from another tribe was a friend or foe. Without relying on big data or complex analyses, our ancestors had to make decisions quickly, whether they were about people to befriend or about certain types of food to avoid. Nicholson and other evolutionary psychologists have suggested that all the environmental changes we have experienced since that time have not been different enough to stimulate further human evolution. Ten thousand years is simply not enough time for significant genetic modifications to take place across populations.

Over the past several years, I have worked with executives to help them identify and develop potential talent in their organizations, and I find that many executives not only make these judgments very quickly but also seem to make them very confidently (not surprising for them, of course). A manager who they may remember texting during a meeting, or another manager who made a less than stellar presentation are samples of behavior from which executives generalize very quickly and that can sometimes derail otherwise fine talent. Impressions do have important consequences, especially for the targets.

However, note the accounts we hear about many who are surprised that some individuals who looked friendly to them turn out to be serial killers. Perhaps even more striking were those who believed that Bernie Madoff was trustworthy and entrusted their life savings to him.

Despite this, research suggests that people are not that bad at judging a stranger’s personality and abilities based on their first impressions. Ambady and Rosenthal (1992) have labeled this tendency to quickly judge people based on a small sample of behavior (or sometimes, just by looking at their faces) as “thin slicing” (a term popularized by Malcolm Gladwell). In an early study they showed some students videotaped 10-second clips of graduate student fellows teaching and asked them to rate these teachers on several factors, including how competent they were. The students did not know who these teachers were, yet their ratings correlated highly with the evaluations given by other students whom the teachers were teaching. In fact, reducing the video clips to six seconds made no difference – the ratings were still highly correlated with the evaluations.

There have been other studies that support the seeming accuracy of first impressions. Rule and Ambady (2008) asked subjects to rate how successful they believed individuals would be in leading a company just by looking at photographs of their faces. Unbeknownst to the subjects, these faces were those of CEOs of the 100 best companies in the U.S. in 2007.  There was a high correlation between these ratings of success and the actual performance of the CEOs’ companies as measured by company profitability! Of course, there are many factors that drive company performance, but this study shows that, perhaps through the CEOs’ impact on their employees’ motivation and performance, they do make a difference – at least in the short term. Extending their research, Rule and Ambady (2011) showed subjects the faces of Managing Partners in America’s top 100 law firms and asked them to rate how powerful they thought these individuals were. Power was based on ratings of competence, dominance and facial maturity. Once again, ratings of Power were significantly correlated with the profit margin, profitability index, and profits per equity partners that the firms earned. And in yet another study, this time of female CEOs (Rule and Ambady, 2009), they found a high correlation between ratings of competence (as judged by the CEOs’ faces) and company profits for one year.

Of course, cause-and-effect cannot be determined here. In other words, do companies tend to select CEOs with a certain appearance, or do individuals with a certain appearance have an edge in becoming CEOs (or perhaps some combination of both)? To me, what these studies suggest is that we have preconceived ideas of what a “good” leader is supposed to look like and act like and there might be a self-fulfilling cycle going on here. They do not necessarily prove that impressive-looking individuals can sustain their leadership effectiveness. In fact, other research suggests that individuals who are confident and extraverted tend to be selected to leadership positions, but they do not necessarily turn out to be effective leaders.

Keep in mind that there are at least three factors that might impact the accuracy of first impressions:

  • Individual differences in social sensitivity and experiences,
  • Unconscious biases,
  • The situational context.


Differences in social sensitivity and experience. Some individuals are very good at picking up cues and reading the other person, while others are less so. A combination of low social sensitivity as well as limited experience in dealing with a wide range of individuals can certainly impact the accuracy of one’s judgment of others.


All of us carry unconscious biases. Perhaps the most relevant here is the similarity bias, where we tend to favor those who are similar to us in some ways. Several years ago, while accompanying an Australian executive of a multinational company on a visit to one of its subsidiaries in Asia, he mentioned to me how impressed he was with one of the local managers he met because he spoke such good English. When discussing this manager with the local executive team, however, they were unanimous in their assessment that the manager was simply not a good performer and did not have a good track record. His English proficiency had created a “halo” effect for the Australian executive. The challenge for many managers, especially those working globally, is to be careful of thin slicing when interacting with people who are members of different cultures, since they not only look different but also talk and interact differently (even when conversing in English).


Contextual factors can also impact the accuracy of initial judgments. In a high-stakes situation, for example, where you have much to lose if you are not able to build a relationship with the other person, you might tend to be inclined to have a more favorable impression of that person. Even a manager’s mood or emotional state can influence his or her initial impression.

The following are some suggestions for managers to help balance the power of first impressions to impact their judgments of people.

  1. Prepare yourself and do your homework. For example, when you are about to engage with someone from another culture especially for the first time, step back for a moment and ask yourself what assumptions you might be making about that person or group. Suppose that you are getting ready to meet with a Russian manager in Moscow. From what you have read about Russian businesspeople and about the Russian culture, you will certainly have certain expectations about the person you are about to meet. You expect to meet someone who is most probably an ethnic Russian, who is rather formal (in terms of both attire and interaction), who does not use much body language or non-verbal communication, and who prefers to get down to business almost immediately. As you meet with and engage with the person, test those assumptions to see whether they are justified or not. As Langer (1989) has advised, beware of being trapped by categories. Some of your thinking and adjustments might have to be done “in the moment.” For example, on meeting the Russian manager, you realize that he is younger than 30, and he informs you that he has only been in Russia for five years, having been raised in Ukraine. Furthermore, he got his MBA at IMD Business School in Switzerland. These are pieces of information that you learn about as you interact with your Russian business partner and might change your impression as well as the approach you take with him. For example, you might then decide to take a somewhat less formal approach and engage in some informal topics to break the ice and establish rapport. This is consistent with the suggestion (Little, 2014) about carrying multiple categories mentally when forming an impression of others.
  2. Occasionally test your assumptions with others those judgments you trust (such as an experienced manager or a colleague who you know has a reputation for being a good judge of people), encourage them to challenge you, ask for feedback, and listen to what they have to say without being defensive. When interviewing job candidates for example, have multiple people interview them and, when asking for their views, be careful not to express your opinion first (especially if you are a higher-ranking manager).
  3. Have a learning mindset to expand your experiences and learn from others. Get out of your comfort zone and get to meet and know people from different functions, from different cultures, and from different backgrounds than you. Managing by walking around (MBWA), for example, is a decades-old term coined by Tom Peters, but it is a tried-and-true timeless practice.

The research shows that while we may be accurate about our impressions of someone’s mood or even certain aspects of their personality, we should be careful about drawing conclusions about their competence and their trustworthiness from first impressions. These are important characteristics, especially in situations where you are hiring or promoting someone to responsible positions. The danger is that we can be overconfident – and wrong – about our judgments. Furthermore, some of us are better at making these judgments more accurately than others. So yes, trust your instinct, but be open to new information and be aware of your own reactions. As we know, President Trump immediately sized up Kim Jung Un almost immediately as someone who could be trusted. Whether this proves to be the case, we will have to wait and see.

Ambady, N. and Rosenthal, R. (1992). Thin Slices of Expressive Behavior as Predictors of Interpersonal Consequences: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 111 (2): 256-274.

Langer, E. (1989). Mindfulness. Cambridge, MA: DeCapo Press.

Little, B. (2014). Me, Myself and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being. New York: Public Affairs.

Nicholson, N. (1997). Evolutionary Psychology: Toward a New View of Human Nature and Organizational Society. Human Relations, 50 (9): 1053-1078.

Rule, N. and Ambady, N. (2008). The Face of Success: Inferences from Chief Executive Officers’ Appearance Predict Company Profits. Psychological Science, 19 (2): 109-111.

Rule, N. and Ambady, N. (2009). She’s Got the Look: Inferences from Female Chief Executive Officers’ Faces Predict Their Success. Sex Roles, 61: 644-652.

Rule, N. and Ambady, N. (2011). Face and Fortune: Inferences of Personality from Managing Partners’ Faces Predict Their Law Firms’ Financial Success. The Leadership Quarterly, 22: 690-696.

Mind the Social Distance Gap

Johan de Nysschen (previously the successful head of Audi of America) was appointed to lead the Cadillac division of General Motors in 2014. When he joined GM, one of his first decisions was to place physical and psychological distance between Cadillac and Detroit, moving Cadillac’s headquarters from Motown to Manhattan in 2015. In New York, Mr. de Nysschen felt that Cadillac could attract top talent, follow consumer trends more closely, and gain new buyers.

Unfortunately, Cadillac, a brand that had begun to transform its outdated image, continues to struggle. Its sales plunged to 156,000 in 2017 (from 180,000 in 2013) while other competitors have become more successful. There are many reasons for his lack of success. Robert Lutz, a former Chrysler and BMW executive, has suggested that de Nysschen’s physical separation from Detroit made it harder to influence others (Ulrich, 2018). During his tenure at GM, Lutz recalled being able to march into a finance executive’s office if he had removed $200 worth of chrome that Mr. Lutz viewed as critical. “I’d say, ‘Where did the chrome go?” Mr. Lutz said. “You stare him in the eye, argue with him and get it fixed. Even in this day of electronic connectedness, distance matters.”

Based on my own experience as a global manager for many years as well as the hundreds of interviews I have conducted with global managers, social distance –the gap in the degree of emotional connection between individuals as well as among team members – is a key variable in the success of global managers and global teams. For example, quite a few expats I have met over the years have suffered from the “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome when they start to lose touch with their mentors or senior executives back in the home office.

Overcoming the disadvantages of distance in general is one of the key challenges facing global companies today. Multinationals expand overseas for compelling business reasons

  1. To seek new markets for their products and services.
  2. To take advantage of countries’ resources (what the economists call factor endowments) as well as its human capital, such as an educated workforce or particular skill sets in that country.
  3. To seek efficiencies.

At the same time, there is no doubt that distance makes it more difficult for multinationals to manage their subsidiaries and overseas locations. Youssef and Luthans (2012) have pointed out that global leaders these days experience three types of distance:

  • physical distance (due to geographical dispersion),
  • structural distance (due to organizational factors like decentralization and span of control),
  • psychological or social distance (due to status or power differentials).

Specifically, social distance reduces global managers’ ability to network, their effectiveness in building trust, and their efficiency in getting the work done. Communication gets misconstrued, and it is much harder to influence others when you cannot see your counterparts’ non-verbals. It is also harder to get feedback and to learn from the other party. To reduce the social distance gap, it is important to recognize and address what I consider to be its five major barriers.


Barrier is geography or physical distance.

As Epley (2014) has pointed out, physical distance is an important aspect of our engagement with others. He cites evidence from war and battles that soldiers who are fighting are more reluctant to use their weapons when the enemy is close to them physically. MIT professor Thomas Allen created his Allen curve, which shows the relationship between frequency of interaction and physical distance:


Strive for face-to-face interactions with your team and with other stakeholders, when feasible.

The most successful leaders make sure they establish personal connections.” As Betsy Myers (2011) has pointed out in her book, making connections is one of the qualities of effective leaders. Managing by walking around (or MBWA), popularized by Tom Peters, is still a fundamentally sound practice. When Apple was designing its new headquarters (a circular structure with 12,000 employees), its executives made it a point to make sure that the physical layout of the building maximized face-to-face contacts among employees across functions. This design was heavily influenced by the late Steve Jobs, who believed firmly in manipulating space to influence behavior. Zappos founder Tony Hsieh has talked about encouraging “collisions;” in fact, in its headquarters office, he has closed all side entrances so that all associates have to go through one main door.


Barrier is national culture.

Even though globalization and the popularity of branded products universally may seem like national cultures are becoming less important, virtually all the successful global managers I have interviewed recognize how important it is to be aware of national cultural values and norms when managing workers in different countries.

My suggestion for global managers: Develop your cultural competency by learning the cultural norms of the countries where your team members and other stakeholders are from.

Carlos Ghosn, who led a successful turnaround of Nissan in Japan, has suggested that it was important for him to like the Japanese culture and show genuine curiosity about it. 


Barrier is language.

Yes, English seems to be the language of business these days, with 1.75 billion people on the planet speaking English at a useful level, and for many organizations (including organizations with roots in non-English-speaking countries such as Unilever and BMW), English is commonly spoken in their offices. In fact, when bringing together stakeholders such as customers, vendors, or managers from different parts of the world, English seems to be the default language used by these corporations. Many companies in Japan require candidates for manager positions to achieve a certain level of proficiency in an English exam before they are even considered.

However, not being able to speak the local language can be a barrier to reducing social distance. There are still many parts of the world where English is not spoken in the work place, or where employees, not feeling confident in their ability to speak English, may hesitate to express their opinions. Quite a few global managers hire a local translator, or rely on their local administrative assistant, for help in translation and interpretation. But these only go so far and certainly require quite a bit of effort.

My suggestion for global managers:

  • Take language lessons, or at least learn a few words in the local language.
  • In parallel, be aware of assuming that a lack of fluency in English among your local staff means a low level of competency.
  • Not only will learning a few words in the local language help you communicate better with your local team, but will also send a signal that you are interested in their culture, and that you are going out of your way to show that you want to connect with them on more than just a business level.


Barrier is around structure, status and hierarchy.

Research studies have documented how upward communication is easily squelched by high-power and high-status individuals in organizations. A recent example (one among many) is the emissions scandal at Volkswagen, in which “… experts and company insiders draw a direct connection between the scandal and Volkswagen’s rigid culture, in which mid-level managers and low-level workers were reluctant to question their superiors’ decisions, including the decision to cheat on emission tests.” (This is from a story about the VW scandal by Vivienne Walt published in the August 2018 issue of Fortune magazine). Hierarchy will always be present in large global companies and as much as some organizations have tried to flatten their structures, it will never go away.

Furthermore, there are some cultures where “power distance” is valued, and where undue respect and deference is given to those in authority.

In your interactions, make sure you do more of the following:

  • Ask for input and feedback, actively listen, acknowledge your ignorance.
  • Be accessible and visible.
  • Make sure you do less of the following: punish employees for speaking up especially when it is about bad news, give orders unilaterally,
  • Refuse to admit when you have made a mistake.  


Barrier is identity.

Many research studies have shown that individuals categorize themselves into different group memberships (e.g., race, gender, profession, function, nationality) and once they define themselves into these memberships, two things happen: they will tend to like those who they feel are “like” them in some way; and they will start to define those who are in their “out-group” and like them less. The stronger their identification with these categories or memberships, the more intense these things happen. However, even when categories seem trivial, such as a shared birthday – what psychologists term as “mere belonging” – a sense of connectedness begins to form quickly. This is because we are hard-wired to form and maintain social bonds. Neuroscience has shown that the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) is a spot on each side of our brain that helps our memory and decision-making; different parts of it get activated when we are making judgments about ourselves versus others. When others are those we consider to be distant from us, those parts of our MPFC do not get activated as much, and so we don’t think of others as compassionately as we might otherwise think of those who are closer to us.

Global managers who deal with virtual teams sometimes struggle with finding a sense of identity and cohesiveness for their teams.

Establish a sense of community and shared purpose with your teams and other stakeholders by:

  • Aligning the team’s goals with the larger organizational goals,
  • Inspiring your team to have meaningful and challenging goals,
  • Finding bases for team membership that reinforce a shared sense of similarity and identity.
  • In addition, global managers should not neglect the basics of managing virtual teams effectively, for example:
  • Scheduling regular one-on-one conversations with team members, establishing regular times and routines for your meetings;
  • Regularly sending updates and communicating information and interesting pieces of news (e.g., executives who may need a bit more convincing about the value of the work that the team is doing, or even rumors on changes in the home office) so that the team feels connected.

Even though your team might be virtual, there are ways you can get members to get to know each other a little bit better and find some commonalities among them by, for example, setting up a virtual happy hour via Google Hangouts or a shared hashtag for Twitter (as suggested by PJ Camp Malik), or even build some time at the end of virtual meetings for non-work-related conversations (e.g., sports, music).

Epley, N. (2014). Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want. New York: Knopf Books.

Myers, B. (2011). Take the Lead: Motivate, Inspire, and Bring Out the Best in Yourself and Everyone Around You. New York: Atria Books.

Ulrich, L. Cadillac Makes Great Cars. Too Bad Americans Want SUVs. New York Times, May 17, 2018.

Youseff, C. and Luthans, F. (2012). Positive Global Leadership. Journal of World Business, 47 (4): 539-547.

A Checklist for Global Managers

In his book, The Checklist Manifesto, Dr. Atul Gawande writes about what Wal-Mart did in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  As you may recall, this was a major disaster in New Orleans, where 80 percent of the city was flooded and 20,000 refugees were stranded at the New Orleans Superdome.  Another 20,000 were at the Convention Center. There was no power in the city hospitals. Wal-Mart closed its 126 stores, but within 48 hours, more than half of them were up and running again.  Wal-Mart employees and managers somehow mobilized, with the use of simple checklists:

“They set up temporary mobile pharmacies in the city and adopted a plan to provide medications for free at all of their stores … They set up free check cashing for payroll and other checks in disaster-area stores.  They opened temporary clinics to provide emergency personnel with inoculations … within two days of Katrina’s landfall, the company’s logistics teams managed to contrive ways to get tractor trailers with food, water, and emergency equipment past roadblocks and into the dying city.  They were able to supply water and food to refugees and even to the National Guard a day before the government appeared on the scene.” (pp. 77-78)

Gawande’s point is not to praise Wal-Mart, nor to point to the superiority of the private sector over the public sector (i.e., FEMA).  This situation is where he started to understand the power of having a checklist.

As another example, Gawande writes about the Chairman of Surgery at the University of Toronto, who has been using a 21-item surgery checklist to catch potential errors in surgical care.  What is interesting is that the checklist also includes a team briefing. “The team members were supposed to stop and take a moment simply to talk with one another before proceeding – about how long the surgeon expected the operation to take, how much blood loss everyone should be prepared for, whether the patient had any risks or concerns the team should know about.”  (pp. 100-101)

In surgery, according to Gawande, you can have checklists for three of the four big killers:  infection, bleeding, and unsafe anesthesia. The fourth killer in surgery is the unexpected. So how do you prevent this?  The value of having a checklist is that it facilitates a dialogue, and people have to stop and talk through the case together before surgery. Unfortunately, according to Gawande, this kind of teamwork is not common in surgical teams.  Some research that he cites shows that team members that regularly used checklists showed great improvements in their ratings of their own teamwork.

According to Gawande, “ … under conditions of complexity, not only are checklists a help, they are required for success.  There must always be room for judgment, but judgment aided – and even enhanced – by procedure.” (p. 79)

What kinds of management situations might a checklist be used for?  Actually, Professor Michael Useem has come up with his own checklist for leaders, consisting of 15 principles.  Like Gawande, he argues that “ … when uncertainty becomes the norm and turbulence more commonplace … a Leader’s Checklist becomes more consequential.”  (p. 41)

Many of the items in Useem’s leader checklist can apply to managers leading globally.  They include articulating a vision, communicating persuasively, and building leadership in others.  However, as many of you know, global leaders face different circumstances and need to take into consideration other cultural variables.  

So I have come up a checklist for global managers.  The “targets” referred to in this checklist are those individuals, groups, or organizations from another culture that you will be interacting with.

  1. Understand your cultural assumptions.  
    • Are you aware which of your management style preferences and behaviors are influenced by your culture?
    • Are there aspects of your management style or behavior that works in your culture that might not work in other cultures?
  2. Map your targets’ cultural values.
    • What are the most important cultural values of the people or group you will be dealing with?
    • How do these values show up in how they do business with others?
  3. Establish cultural baseline behaviors with your targets.
    • Are there specific behaviors that you should be avoiding when dealing with them?
    • Are there specific behaviors that you should be sure to demonstrate when dealing with them?
  4. Clarify your managerial goals and your core values.
    • What do you hope to accomplish – not so much in terms of the task or work, but in terms of your management of your targets?
    • What are the most important values you hold, especially around management?
  5. Identify culturally appropriate options to achieving these goals.
    • Are there alternative ways to achieve your goals that might be more culturally appropriate?
    • Which of these may require your getting out of your comfort zone?
  6. Seek feedback and mentoring from others.
    • Are there people from the cultures you are dealing with, that you can approach to ask questions and get feedback?
    • Do you have a plan on building relationships with these individuals so you can gain their trust?
  7. Adjust, experiment and continuously improve.
    • Are you reflecting on what you are learning about others’ reactions to you and the feedback you are getting?
    • How are you applying what you have learned to improve yourself in your cultural interactions?
  8. Preserve your character and integrity.
    • Are people clear – not so much by your words but by your actions – on what you stand for?
    • Are you clear on what you stand for?


Gawande, A.  (2011). The Checklist Manifesto.  New York:  Picador.
Useem, M.  (2011). The Leader’s Checklist.  Philadelphia:  Wharton Digital Press.

Fostering a Global Mindset Culture in Your Organization

A recent “Idea Watch” article in Harvard Business Review reported on some new research that Carol Dweck and her colleagues are conducting.  As some of you are aware, Dweck popularized the concept of “growth mindset” (versus a fixed mindset). People with a growth mindset, according to her early research, enjoy challenges, strive to learn and consistently, and see potential to develop new skills.  

Now she has been exploring the idea whether organizations can have growth or fixed mindsets. So far, her research seems promising.  She and her team have developed a survey that has been implemented among employees at seven Fortune 1000 companies. Employees rate the extent to which they agree with a series of statements, such as “When it comes to being successful, this company seems to believe that people have a certain amount of talent, and they really can’t do much to change it.”

Dweck concludes that there is a great deal of consensus about what the prevailing mindset is in these employees’ organizations with regard to growth.  Her research shows that employees in growth mindset companies are:

  • 47% likelier to say that their colleagues are trustworthy
  • 34% likelier to feel a strong sense of ownership and commitment to the company
  • 65% likelier to say that the company supports risk taking
  • 49% likelier to say that the company fosters innovation.

Similarly, I believe that organizations can be assessed on whether it has a global mindset culture, above and beyond the presence of employees who have the traits or qualities of an individual global mindset.  Of course, hiring and developing such individuals in your company is helpful, but can be inefficient since it may take companies a long time to reach the critical mass needed. Another approach therefore is to develop an overall strategy to build or improve the organization’s global mindset culture.  The first step in developing this strategy is to diagnose your company’s current state with regard to its global mindset culture. So here are eleven key indicators that will help you assess your company’s current global mindset culture.

  1. Top management commitment to building a global mindset culture.  How regularly do the senior executives in your company reinforce the importance of thinking globally and recognizing the importance of markets other than the home market?  How often do executives travel overseas to learn about the importance of these markets – especially from their overseas subsidiaries? How frequently do managers and executives from overseas subsidiaries come to headquarters to participate in meetings?  Are key executives from overseas represented in important task forces and corporate initiatives?
  2. Structures and processes for global alignment and coordination.  What formal and informal mechanisms has your company put in place to facilitate efficient and effective coordination across countries where your company does business?  How well defined are your company’s formal structures, such as matrix relationships, global and regional roles, and roles and responsibilities of headquarters and subsidiaries?  When global teams are created, how well represented are subsidiaries from relevant countries?
  3. Infrastructures for global communication.  Has your company invested in the necessary technologies to enable efficient communication across countries?  And how much training and support is being provided so employees can take advantage of these new tools?
  4. Assessment of global mindset potential.  How important does your company consider global mindset in selecting internal or external candidates for positions that will require cross-cultural interactions?  Is cultural fit one of the criteria used before assigning individuals to global roles?
  5. Use of development assignments to build global mindset.  When setting development plans for individuals who may have high potential, what opportunities are provided for them to learn and acquire experiences in working across different markets and cultures?
  6. Reducing the headquarters ‘center of gravity.’  Has your company considered relocating some key functions out of headquarters into one of its key markets overseas?  Are at least some of your company’s centers of excellence or expertise located overseas? Are regional heads and their staffs still based in headquarters or have they moved out to the regions?
  7. Cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity as a key element in the company’s learning strategy.  How available and accessible are resources for employees to improve their cross-cultural awareness (e.g., on-line courses on doing business in different cultures, reimbursement for language training, etc.)?
  8. A global talent pool.  How inclusive is your company’s global talent management process?  For example, when considering internal candidates for key positions, does the slate of candidates include highly qualified employees from different locations?
  9. Recognition and rewards for those with global mindsets.  How valued are those individuals who have proven themselves in overseas assignments, not just in improving business results but also in being recognized as someone who has worked effectively with different cultures?  When these individuals complete their assignments, to what extent does your company leverage their experience? Does your company’s competency model and performance evaluation system include global mindset behaviors as a key element?

In a recent study by Price Waterhouse Coopers (Wang, 2014). 4,108 return migrants from 81 countries of origin who had spent between three months and two years in the U.S. at some point during the years between 1997 and 2011 under a category of the J-1 visa designated for professional training completed a survey.   These respondents all had bachelor’s or master’s degrees, and had work experience in many industries with companies such as Google and JPMorgan Chase, as well as thousands of small startups and midsized companies.

What did they find?  While almost all of the respondents reported having learned about practices overseas that they could implement in their home countries, only 67 percent reported having shared any of this knowledge upon their return. And only 48 percent reported having shared knowledge and then having seen this knowledge implemented.   The study concludes: This means that on average, for every two workers with international experience hired by a given firm, only one will successfully share knowledge from overseas at some point during his or her tenure.

Interestingly, countries like China, India and Brazil are creating incentives to entice their foreign-trained nationals to return.  A recent Wall Street Journal article described the emergence of these “sea turtles,” the term used for a Chinese native who is returning home after several assignments in the West.  The article mentions several such Chinese businessmen who, after working for multinationals like Coca-Cola and Nike in the U.S., have decided to return to China, often in much larger roles and with much greater compensation than they had in their former companies’ headquarters.  Aside from these considerations, there is the perception that the opportunities with a Chinese company are greater, as are the psychic benefits. For example, Guo Xin, a sea turtle who joined a Chinese recruiting firm, said, “You’re making global decisions rather than having these decisions made for you” by Western headquarters.  

  1. Support for individuals on overseas assignments.  Does your company provide ongoing support for individuals on overseas assignments – before, during and after the assignment is over?  In Ernst & Young’s Global Mobility Effectiveness Survey (2013), they found that on average, 16% of assignees left the company within the first two years after repatriation, and a further 41% returned to their pre-assignment position.  Does your company require some form of cultural training for the individuals and their families prior to an overseas assignment. For example, BASF works with an outside vendor that helps international assignees adjust to their new surroundings.  The vendor also provides “cultural attaches” who will help BASF employees with the day-to-day logistics of settling in a new country, e.g., finding apartments, completing mandatory state registrations, setting up bank accounts, etc.

In another company, I helped develop an expatriate mentorship program whereby international assignees were assigned to senior executives as mentors, with the condition that these senior executives had to be outside these individuals’ functions.  For example, the CIO volunteered to mentor two individuals in Marketing and two managers in Finance who were all in overseas locations. He kept in contact with them throughout their assignments, and helped facilitate their transition back to their next assignments.

  1. Formal and informal processes for sharing best practices globally.  When he was CEO of GE, Jack Welch was relentless in promoting knowledge management, and he held people accountable to make sure that they were proactive in communicating and sharing best practices.  How much sharing of information and best practices goes on internally in your company, and are there formal and informal mechanisms for facilitating the dissemination of these best practices? Somewhat belatedly, for example, GM has just begun to implement this.  In an interview with the Wall Street Journal (November 2, 2014), President Dan Ammann described what the company has started to do:

“A couple months ago we brought about 25 of the top sales leaders from around the world together in Charlotte, N.C.  We conducted workshops where each discussed the tactics they are using in their home markets to drive sales, work with dealers and interact with customers.  This is the first time anyone can remember that happening.”

Perhaps next time they should meet in Beijing, Sao Paolo, or Mexico City.

Once you’ve done your assessment, then you’ll have a better understanding of where the gaps are, and your organization can begin to prioritize actions to narrow these gaps, taking into account the organization’s overall strategic goals and where the best payoffs are.  For example, if the organization is planning a major expansion into China over the next three to five years, then assessing cultural fit among high potential employees (#5) and establishing an office in one of its cities (#6) should be high on the list of actions.


Bennett, J.  (2014). GM’s Ammann Drives for Change.  Wall Street Journal, November 12.

Chu, K. and Lublin, J.  (2014). Chinese firms bring more natives home.  Wall Street Journal, September 3.

Gupta, A. and Govindarajan, V.  (2002). Cultivating a Global Mindset.  Academy of Management Executive, 16(1), pp. 116-126.

Idea Watch.  (2014). How Companies Can Profit from a Growth Mindset.  Harvard Business Review, November, pp. 28-29.  

Wang, D. (2014).   The Untapped Value of Overseas Experience.  Strategy + Business: http://www.strategy-business.com/article/00283?pg=all.

Global Leaders’ Moments of Truth

Many years ago, while consulting with the Customer Service unit of a consumer products company, I came across a book by Jan Carlzon, then president of Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), called “Moments of Truth.”  This phrase, which has now entered the business vocabulary, described the contact between a customer and a company representative that can profoundly impact the customer’s impression of the product and/or the company.  In the book, this is how Carlzon described it:

“Last year, each of our 10 million customers came in contact with approximately five SAS employees, and this contact lasted an average of 15 seconds at a time.  Thus, SAS is ‘created’ 50 million times a year, 15 seconds at a time. These 15 million ‘moments of truth’ are the moments that ultimately determine whether SAS will succeed or fail as a company.  They are the moments when we must prove to our customers that SAS is their best alternative.”

Those of us working globally have many interactions with different stakeholders coming from different cultures.  They include customers, vendors, subordinates, bosses, and colleagues in the various places where we do business.  Some of these interactions could certainly be described as “moments of truth,” when the outcomes of these interactions can lead to a more positive path and ultimately a productive and effective relationship – or its opposite.

I’ve identified nine such sets of interactions or “hot spots” where your cultural intelligence will be put to the test. Your ability to handle these interactions effectively will help you to survive and thrive as a global leader.

Here’s the list.  These are not sequential, although clearly the first two can make or break a potential relationship you are trying to establish.  Some of these interactions are one-on-one, others are with a group. The specific tactics you use will also depend on the characteristics of the person or group you are interacting with; for example, greeting a male senior executive in Japan will be different than greeting a young female professional.

  1. Greeting someone
  2. Establishing rapport
  3. Leading a team
  4. Conducting a meeting/participating in a meeting
  5. Providing instructions or guidance; coaching and teaching
  6. Resolving disagreements and conflicts
  7. Negotiating
  8. Motivating others
  9. Giving and receiving feedback

For example, Lucy Kellaway, the acerbic columnist of the Financial Times, wrote a column recently about the challenges of greeting people from different cultures.  She was giving a talk primarily to Asian women at a conference in Singapore and she was at a loss as to how to greet the various attendees at the conference:

“In the old days, the principle was when-in-Rome. So when actually in Rome you kissed on both cheeks anyone you knew reasonably well. In Holland, it was three cheeks. In Russia you might expect a crushing bear hug, in Japan a nod and in India hands clasped and a namaste. In the US and Germany you could look forward to a bonecrusher of a handshake, in the Middle East something more like a limp fish.”

“Global business has made matters more complicated. We no longer know whose culture trumps whose. Is it the host country’s? Is it the majority in the room? As no one seems to know, what tends to happen is a general confusing, embarrassing free-for-all. We live in a permanent state of hello hell.”

She then adds:

“Now an even more unwelcome form of greeting has arrived: the hug. This is how young Anglo-Saxons routinely greet each other outside work, but now they have started doing it in the office too. The hug represents far too much touching for my liking, but is also devilishly hard to get right: there is the full hug, the side hug, and the hug accompanied by a slap on the back.”

“In my other job as a non-executive director, hello hell has got so bad that I find myself dreading the start of every meeting. Diversity might be a good thing on a board, but diversity of greeting is deplorable. My European colleagues are confident and enthusiastic kissers, as is one of the British women non-execs, while various of my male colleagues seem to dislike it as much as I do. Which means I often end up kissing some of the directors but not others – which seems very wrong indeed.”

Rather tongue-in-cheek (I think), she proposes a Global Greetings Protocol, where the only permissible greeting in a business setting would be a handshake.  If it were only that simple.

Given the research on our subconscious biases and first impressions, thinking through your approach to greeting people from other cultures is, I believe, enormously important, and deserves a great deal of thought on your part on how to approach and greet someone from another culture.

Greeting someone, of course, is just one of the key interaction hot spots (see above) that can make or break your effectiveness as a global leader.  I have three pieces of advice on how you can benefit from these interactions. First, understand what your “default mode” is in each of these situations.  Most of us have a preferred way of approaching certain interpersonal situations based on our experiences and our own natural inclinations. Keep in mind that your preferred way may also be influenced by cultural assumptions and norms.  For example, Americans and Germans like to resolve conflicts by being very direct and raising issues in a straightforward way – to “cut to the chase,” as the expression goes. So what’s your typical modus operandi when you’re trying to resolve a conflict or disagreement? You might be thinking, it depends on who the person is.  Yes, of course, and that is a reasonable response; nonetheless, you are likely to have a preferred approach, one that you use other things being equal.

Second, consider the cultural background of the person or group you will interact with.  As mentioned above, most of us will recognize that we will need to adjust our approach depending on the specific characteristics of the person or group we are interacting with (e.g., their age, gender, position in the organization, educational level).  What I am suggesting is that you include culture as another dimension to consider. For example, Hannah is a manager of a global IT consulting company who was recently appointed to lead a team of Indian consultants in Bangalore. Hannah has a reputation as a good leader who likes to empower and delegate.  But aware of the cultural expectations of her Indian staff, Hannah has had to adjust her style to make sure that she is more directive and explicit about her communication, at least initially.

Third, adjust your approach so that it is culturally appropriate for that person or group.  What this means is that you will have to develop a repertoire of approaches, and not always rely on your default mode, difficult as that may be at times.  We naturally gravitate to behaviors that either come naturally to us or that we have been used to because we have been doing it for a long time. The challenge for many global leaders is not only to stop and think about other cultures, but also to go into manual mode and use those behaviors that are most appropriate for that culture.  For example, this may mean that you don’t always look a person directly in the eye in a culture where doing this with very senior executives may not be considered appropriate.

This also means that you may have to practice some new behaviors and, as Molinsky so eloquently describes in his book Global Dexterity, expand your personal comfort zone.  It’s not always easy to do this, but you can make a conscious effort by practicing some new behaviors incrementally.

For example, Feng was a Chinese student in my class who was not used to speaking up in the classroom.  In China, students are not expected to raise hands, nor are class discussions encouraged. As a result, when she signed up for her MBA classes, she felt overwhelmed and intimidated.  In advising her, we worked out a goal of being a more active participant in the class. She started out by writing down a question beforehand that she would ask the professor. So when, towards the end of a lecture, the professor would ask if there were any questions, she would raise her hand and ask a question.  Eventually, as she became more comfortable in asking questions, she then wrote down a couple of points she wanted to make about whatever was being discussed that day, and raised her hand to offer her opinion when her professor asked for comments. By the end of the semester, she was a more active participant although she still cannot just “jump in” to a discussion – at least not yet.


Carlzon, J.  (1989). Moments of Truth.  New York:  HarperBusiness.

Kellaway, L.  Do we hug?  Kiss? Shake hands?  Bow?  Financial Times, September 22, 2013.

Molinsky, A.  (2013). Global Dexterity.  Boston:  Harvard Business Review Press.

Slicing the Culture Pie

In her book “Overwhelmed” (on the pressures of work-life balance, among other topics), Brigit Schulte describes her trip to Denmark and her interviews with working couples there.  Here’s what she writes about work life in that country:

“Danes don’t live to work.  Danes work hard … but they work in a very focused way.  Lunch is usually no more than half an hour … Most Danes work the standard thirty-seven hours a week.  Long hours are outlawed for most workers under the European Union’s Working Time Directive … no European is allowed to work more than forty-eight hours a week … Workplaces tend to be flat, without a lot of layers of management … Most Danes don’t feel obligated to check their smartphones and e-mail after hours … people who put in long hours and constantly check e-mail after hours are seen not as ideal worker warriors, as in America, but as inefficient … “

And yet, Schulte points out,

“The Danish economy is one of the most competitive in the world, just a few rungs below the United States.  And it’s one of the most productive, ranking just behind the United States … Denmark has a low unemployment rate and one of the highest standards of living in the world.  It has one of the smallest gaps between rich and poor of any country on earth … and only 6 percent of Danes find it difficult or very difficult to live on their current income, compared to 21 percent of Americans …”.

Those of us who have worked in several countries are fully aware of the differences in workplace cultures from country to country.  And scholars from Hofstede to Trompenaars have constructed outstanding frameworks to help us understand and explain variations in these cultures.  In applying some of these frameworks over the years, I have found them helpful to some extent. It is important to have a common vocabulary to be able to compare different cultural values, especially those relevant to the workplace.  In personality research, there is general agreement on a few selected taxonomies like the Big Five (McCrae and Costa) that most mainstream psychologists use to describe people’s personalities.

I don’t believe we are at a similar point with regard to describing different workplace cultures across countries.  There has been outstanding research in this area, pioneered by Hofstede; his dimensions have scores by which we can compare different countries.  Although his methodology has been criticized, his analysis seems to make a lot of sense to many managers and students. There has also been considerable research on organizational cultures (Cameron and Quinn, Denison and Mishra), with a few of these dimensions (e.g., adaptability, hierarchy) overlapping with those of Hofstede et al.  

In my experience and interviews with managers globally over the years, I have drawn from these past scholars, as well as the more recent work by Lane et al. to offer a framework that is still a work in progress, but I believe is useful to managers working globally. It can be easily remembered with the acronym FASTAIDE, which stands for the first letters of each of the eight dimensions of workplace culture.  The idea here is that there is a set of dimensions by which to compare different countries’ cultures as they relate to workplace behaviors.

  1. Formality – How formal should I be? At the one extreme are cultures where people are very informal, not only in terms of their interactions with one another but also in terms of how decisions get made, their appearance and the physical environment.  In the workplace, people refer to each other, and even senior executives, by their first names. Dress is typically casual, and there are not a lot of rituals involved in meetings and business discussions. At the other extreme are cultures that are quite formal, from attire to the way people address each other to the way meetings are conducted.  Titles are important, and offices are designed to reflect this. In general, countries like Australia and the Netherlands tend to have informal cultures, while countries like France and Russia tend to have more formal workplace cultures.
  2. Authoritarianism – How directive should I be?  Some cultures such as France and Mexico expect bosses to give orders and run a command-and-control type of organization, while other cultures such as Israel expect their bosses to be more participative, asking for input from others and valuing a more bottom-up approach.  
  3. Structure – How much detail should I provide; how explicit should I be?  In some cultures such as Greece and Uruguay, employees prefer to have things spelled out in order to reduce any ambiguity.  For example, job descriptions are essential, and employees have handbooks that describe the company’s procedures in detail. In other cultures such as Sweden, employees have a higher tolerance for ambiguity.  Hofstede refers to this as uncertainty avoidance.
  4. Time Orientation – How concerned should I be about time commitments?  Some cultures such as Switzerland and Germany are very strict on time, whether it’s when meetings start and end, or on deadlines for projects.  Hall describes this as linear or monochromic time. Other cultures such as Central and South American countries are more fluid and flexible about time.  Promptness and following a schedule are not as important as focusing on relationships. So schedules are not adhered to strictly and interruptions are welcome.  Hall refers to this as flexible or polychromic time.
  5. Aggressive – How aggressively should I behave?  There is a lot of evidence of differences in aggressiveness across cultures.  And some would vigorously defend promoting aggressiveness in the workplace, suggesting that doing so improves productivity and profitability.  In countries like South Korea, it is not uncommon to have shouting matches among co-workers. There is a tendency towards pushiness, an in-your-face mindset.  In other cultures like Canada, workers can still be competitive but will not be as confrontational.
  6. Individualism – How much should I focus on individual needs and goals versus group needs and goals?  In some cultures, such as the U.S.A. and Australia, the emphasis is on “I” and self-reliance. These cultures value individual over group identity, and individual rights are very important.  Managers hold individuals personally accountable. In other cultures, such as China and some Latin American countries, the emphasis is on a larger entity, such as the group, organization or tribe.  The good of the group often trumps the individual rights of individuals.
  7. Directness – How straightforward should I be?  Some cultures such as Australia and the U.S. encourage managers to get straight to the point.  In other cultures such as some East African countries, the message is more subtle and indirect. What is implied is more important than what is actually stated.  People in these cultures place a lot of emphasis on nonverbal communication. This is similar to Hall’s concept of high and low context cultures.
  8. Expressiveness – How much should I show my emotions and be transparent?  In countries like South Korea, this is well accepted in the work place, while in countries like Russia and Hungary, you almost have to wear a poker face, or at least not reveal what they are really feeling.

I want to make three points about this framework.  First, each of these is on a continuum and while countries can be arrayed along this continuum, it is important to consider the relative standing of countries on each dimension rather than their absolute position.  Second, like Hofstede, these dimensions tend to be relatively independent of each other, although there may be clusters. For example, informal cultures also tend to be non-authoritarian cultures. Third, these are average or central tendencies.  It does not mean that everyone in that culture behaves in accordance with these dimensions. For example, you may meet a Chinese executive in Beijing who might be expected to behave a certain way based on your categorization of Chinese work place culture.  Yet you may discover that this Chinese executive actually went to college in America, worked for a Swiss company in Lucerne, and got his MBA at Insead. She would not be expected to fit the typical profile.


Cameron, K. and Quinn, T.  (1999). Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture.  Reading, MA:  Addison-Wesley.

Denison, D., and Mishra, A.  (1995). Toward a Theory of Organizational Culture and Effectiveness.  Organization Science, 6, 2, 204-223.

Hofstede, G.  Culture’s Consequences (second edition).  (2001). Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage Publications.

Lane, H. et al.  International Management Behavior (sixth edition).  (2009). United Kingdom:  Wiley.

McCrae, R. and Costa, P.  (1987). Validation of the five-factor model of personality across instrument and observers.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 81-90.

Schulte, B.  Overwhelmed.  (2014).  New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Trompenaars, H.  Riding the Waves of Culture:  Understanding Cultural Diversity.  (1993).  London: Economist Books.