An example: you are an expatriate manager of a multinational company in a Middle Eastern country and you have just found out that no women are allowed to even apply for certain jobs in your department. You say to yourself, “I just don’t get it.” Another example: an executive who works with Korean nationals once expressed his frustration to me that Koreans will never tell you what they really think. “Why can’t they just be candid like Americans?”
I could give many more examples to illustrate reactions to differences in cross-cultural management practices that suggest a gap in global mindset, especially in one aspect: that of developing empathy, which suggests an ability (and willingness) to understand another person’s or group’s perspective. Actually, lots of research suggests that this skill differentiates effective negotiators from average ones. For managers working cross-culturally, I believe that this “perspective-taking” skill is critical. As two researchers from the University of Chicago (Epley and Caruso, 2008) have stated, “… the ability to accurately adopt someone’s perspective is better than chance but less than perfect.” They point to three barriers, which I will paraphrase here.
The first barrier is “activating” or switching on in our minds a willingness to do this. As managers and leaders of global teams, this is sometimes difficult to do when there are so many mental balls that we are juggling. And if we have not even made the effort to learn about other cultures, or to recognize that our way is not the only way, switching mentally to consider practices from another person’s perspective will be tough. Our default mode is our own perspective, our own way of viewing things.
The second barrier is our natural tendency is to react to things from our own perspective. In one experiment which they cite, participants were asked to send either sincere or sarcastic messages to another participant, either over the telephone or via e-mail. They were asked to predict, for each of 10 sincere and 10 sarcastic messages, whether the recipient would interpret the message correctly or incorrectly. Recipients were not significantly better than chance at distinguishing between sarcasm and sincerity over e-mail, but not surprisingly, were significantly more accurate over the telephone. But the senders did not think there would be any difference in the recipients’ accuracy when communicating over e-mail or the telephone. “The senders’ intentions to communicate sarcasm or sincerity were so clear that it rendered them unable to appreciate … that the perception of the person on the other end of the computer monitor would be very different from the person on the other end of the telephone.”
From my experience, I can recall many times when executives say they don’t understand why their messages are not being understood, or are being misinterpreted by employees. If the executive working with Korean nationals has asked them for their opinions and they don’t give him any, it must be because they prefer not being candid! The perspective that in some cultures, authority is so respected that voicing an opinion is tantamount to challenging the boss, is not something that would occur right away to this executive.
Third, if we do recognize that we need to understand another person’s perspective, our ability to do this may depend on whether we believe that person is similar to us or not. In either case, this may lead to problems. Let’s say that you are a manager for a global company working with a group of Japanese employees in the Tokyo subsidiary. You could make the assumption that because these employees belong to the same company as you they should react similarly to you. Or you could make the assumption that because these employees are Japanese, they will react based on your “stored knowledge” of what Japanese are like – which may or may not be accurate. Each of these assumptions will not necessarily reflect the Japanese employees’ perspectives.
I was recently in Singapore to teach a class in Global Leadership to a group of intelligent and experienced Asian executives, most of whom have regional roles working in global companies. One of their challenges is in managing within a matrix environment and convincing senior management that certain global policies and strategies might have to be adapted for different markets. In discussing their situation, we had a productive dialogue in looking at the situation from the senior managers’ perspective – what could be going on in their minds, what might be driving their behavior?
Although empathy and perspective-taking are sometimes difficult, developing this skill can be learned through practice and mindfulness. I have three simple suggestions. One, get to know the other person or group better, as well as their cultures. By doing this, you will minimize your tendency to stereotype. Second, learn to describe first before judging. We have a quick tendency to evaluate based on first impressions. But in cross-cultural situations, what you see is often not what you get, because our observations are filtered through our own cultural frame of reference. And third, try to reflect on what is going on and what might be causing the behavior.
So for the expatriate manager and the executive working with Korean nationals, learning about the local cultures might give them insight into why these practices exist. It does not mean accepting these practices, but it may mean developing alternative approaches. The executive working with Korean nationals, recognizing that he is an authority figure, might put more effort in asking specific questions rather than asking them generally for their opinion. Ultimately the benefit of developing empathy and of having a global mindset will help you become a more effective global leader.
Epley, N. and Caruso, E. (2008). Perspective taking: misstepping into others’ shoes. In K. D. Markman et al. (Eds.), Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation. New York: Psychology Press.