Adapt, but don’t overdo it


If you’ve ever read a book or been to a seminars about working across cultures, you’ll probably be familiar with lists that try to explain things like how to work with Individualists (eg, Australians) or how to work with Collectivists (eg, Chinese).

But in the real world, most of us work with both individualists and collectivists on the same team - or with both direct and indirect communicators, and so on. So who adapts to whom on a multicultural team and by how much? To put it another way, how do you teach a class with students from several ethnicities and nationalities?

Learning the basics of how to adapt based on one another’s cultural values is a useful starting point. Many of my own books include this kind of information. But a culturally intelligent approach requires moving beyond simplistic lists to finding ways to draw out and use as many of the differences as possible.

Fusion cooking is an apt metaphor for bringing the best from a multicultural team. I’m a big fan of fusion cooking (err…eating!) that combines and substitutes ingredients from different cultural traditions while preserving some of the distinct cultural flavors and traditions involved.

I recently had an assortment of Caribbean and Thai tapas and the burst of flavors was unlike anything I had ever eaten. The sweet and savory Thai spices with the jerked chicken and Spanish rice all worked together while retaining some of the unique flavors. I’ve also had fusion dishes that didn’t work - a taco stuffed with falafel and kimchi that just seemed like a random assortment of different foods.

A fusion strategy for working with a multicultural group stems from minimizing the interpersonal conflict and leveraging the diversity of perspectives. Instead of a Venn diagram approach where you simply use the overlapping interests and ignore the rest, a fusion strategy leads to a whole new way of working together that not only accounts for the differences but makes use of them to lead to a better outcome.

So how can you use a fusion strategy to draw out the distinct cultural values to create something better?

1. Map your Differences

Begin by identifying each team member’s differences. Create a list with names and the most relevant differences they bring to the team. This has to be done carefully lest we end up asking the Millennial to speak on behalf of all Millennials or the Chinese to speak on behalf of all Asians.

Instead, map the differences by listing the different value orientations, preferably by using a tool like the Cultural Values Profile that describes each individual’s cultural value orientations.

2. Build CQ

Next, build the skills required to work effectively on a culturally diverse team. Cultural awareness - whether it’s awareness about unconscious bias or awareness of your team’s differences - is only the first step. A fusion team needs everyone enhancing their cultural intelligence to relate and work effectively with the rest of the team.

As noted repeatedly in our recent publications, diverse teams underperform homogenous teams when CQ levels are low. But when CQ levels are high, diverse teams outperform homogenous teams. CQ is the multiplying factor. Assess the CQ on your team and hold each individual accountable to create a personalized CQ development plan.

3. Align Expectations

Most intercultural challenges begin with clashing expectations. To address this, ask each team member write down his/her understanding of the objective, and review what each person wrote. Pay attention to subtle differences, and don’t move on until everyone is aligned in their understanding of the objective.

You can check for understanding by asking participants how they might explain the objective to others. Describe what successfully achieving the goal would look like. Don’t move on until you have agreement.

4. Draw on your Differences

Finally, a fusion strategy allows different cultural norms to coexist and each person is invited to transcend and include their personal preferences as part of the team process. Some norms are used to accomplish certain objectives and others for other purposes. For example, individualists may be consulted for helping the team take personal initiative and responsibility. The collectivists are ideally suited to help move the team toward consensus around a shared goal.

Surely there will be times when we need to forego our preferences and adapt to one another. But blindly assuming everyone should adapt is not helpful. Consider the objective and whether retaining the differences may actually strengthen your team rather than moving you toward groupthink.

Deciding when to adapt happens at an organizational level too. When Starbucks first opened in China, they adapted too much. They designed their stores to look like a Chinese teahouse and primarily sold teas. But the Chinese wanted the real Starbucks experience, complete with comfy chairs and grande lattes. Today, Starbucks in China offers the standard Starbucks experience with some minor modifications to reflect localized preferences.

The ability and willingness to adapt is core to cultural intelligence but you need to take a strategic approach to deciding when to adapt and when not to adapt, something discussed more fully here.

Andrew Ouderkirk, a leading scientist from 3M with more than 165 patents, uses a fusion strategy as an essential part of how he innovates across the globe.

“I've found that different team members from different cultures are ideal for different parts of a project,” he says. “For example, our Japanese counterparts like having us [as Americans] along in customer meetings since we can get away with asking questions that they could not. And, if we need highly detailed data or information, our German or Asian colleagues are the best ones suited for this challenge.”

Ouderkirk says this has been a critical part of his role in making 3M one of the most innovative companies in the world.

A fusion strategy takes more time but the outcome is far more likely to be innovative. Don’t be too quick to adapt nor to assume others should adapt to you. Instead, lean into the differences on your team as a catalyst for growth and innovation. And together, we can leverage our differences to come up with more innovative solutions.

[This article includes excerpts from the new book, Driven by Difference: How Great Companies Fuel Innovation Through Diversity. The book provides a concrete process for using the fusion strategy along with case studies from innovative, global organizations.]

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About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.