What’s your typical approach when you disagree with someone in a professional setting? Do you immediately voice your concerns, without thinking of your word choice or tone of voice? Do you attempt quiet diplomacy? Do you pretend everything is fine and hope in vain for harmony to return (that is, if you had in the first place)? Or, perhaps you don’t think too much about how you handle conflict—or the fact that it’s fundamentally rooted in the culture that shaped you.
If you hail from North America or Western Europe, there's a good chance you’re accustomed to speaking up when you disagree with someone. But if you are from an Eastern Asian country, for example, you may signal your disagreement in a less obvious way because direct confrontation just isn’t done.
In the article "How to Argue Across Cultures," Jeanne Brett, Kristin Behfar and Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks not only break down some examples of cross-cultural conflict like the one above, they also explain that we all have invisible boundary lines that are steeped in the cultures that produced us. These lines are formed as we grow up, go through school, and observe how those around us behave—and they are hard to cross when we find ourselves in uncomfortable situations.
So when we work with people of different cultural backgrounds—with different boundary lines—(a workplace dynamic that is increasingly the norm) and run into disagreement, we also have to navigate the invisible cultural layer that isn't always explicit. It can obfuscate our ability to communicate and listen effectively if our cultural competency isn’t strong. Unlike making the commitment to, say, think positively, it’s much more challenging to recalibrate our own cultural style. Why? Because it means acting in a way that isn’t natural. And unless you are a professionally trained thespian, this is very difficult to do—and do well.
The authors write: “Westerners prefer to get issues out in the open, stating the problem and how they’d like to see it resolved. […] That same approach is an anathema throughout East Asia, where the overriding impulse is to work behind the scenes through third parties to resolve conflicts, all the while maintaining harmony and preserving relationships.”
In his article "When Crossing Cultures, Use Global Dexterity", Andy Molinksy points out that "it is very common to feel awkward, inauthentic, or even resentful when trying to adapt behavior overseas. […] The negative feelings can leak into your performance and make you look awkward or unnatural."
But the answer, says Molinksy, isn’t to turn into a cultural chameleon (very hard to do), but to become a cultural mixmaster of sorts. In other words: "Make the behavior your own. Behaving in a new culture isn’t like hitting the bull’s-eye of an archery target. In many cultures and in many situations, you have leeway to adjust, and by doing this smartly, you can achieve success without compromising your authenticity."
Molinsky had another really great piece of advice: find a “cultural mentor”. But not just any mentor—someone who is familiar with the work you do and the specific challenges you’re up against. Your cultural mentor can act as a sounding board for the decisions you are weighing, and the approaches and strategies you are mulling. And never forget, Molinksy says, to be clear with people that you are trying to learn their "cultural rules," and that making mistakes is inevitable. It’s also perfectly okay to ask for forgiveness when you run afoul.
Because here's the reality: if you want to be a successful team player—and ultimately manage a globally-diverse team—you need to have the ability to adapt your leadership style depending on who you are with, the environment you are in, and the circumstances surrounding you. This means taking on the role of a cultural anthropologist, which means paying attention to subtext, actively listening, asking questions—and above all else, being genuine, because as Molinksy makes clear there’s no faking that, irrespective of cultural differences.
To read some helpful tips on how to increase your cultural competency, you can read "How to Argue Across Cultures" in full here. And also be sure to check out Andy Molinsky’s article here.
Photo courtesy of Les Roches.