Terry Kahler’s post on his three years as general manager of Dell’s Brazilian operation provides an excellent example of establishing a successful culture in an overseas operation.
To conform to Dell’s corporate policy and adhere to U.S. law, Terry needed to manage his Brazilian employees’ Situation orientation—their tendency to question authority and ignore rules. The existence of the “Jeitinho Brasileiro”, the “Brazilian way” of skirting the law to get things done, isn’t surprising, given Brazil’s history. Situation tendencies are strong in environments where legal and political systems are considered weak or unfair, particularly those with high levels of political turmoil and corruption. Rather than obey rules as a matter of course, people decide what to do based on their own needs.
Although Terry was committed to managing his Brazilian employees in a culturally sensitive way, when it came to ethical conduct, his goal of alignment with Dell’s corporate policy would require a cultural shift at the Brazilian operation.
To create a goal-based culture, it is vital to:
At Dell Brazil, Terry Kahler established clear policies for ethical conduct, offered training in appropriate practices, and followed through with clear and public action when policies were violated. Employees had a road map for success and saw the consequences of not following it. Focusing on outcomes helped Terry justify asking employees to change their behavior and helped him avoid a cultural power struggle. Terry’s use of goal-based management principles made Dell Brazil a global success story.
Things to know and practice for success in international encounters
What to Keep in Mind
1.You have a culture, too
We tend to think of our own preferences as being “normal” or “natural” and to see others as being the ones with a culture. But our own behaviors, attitudes and expectations are culturally determined and no more “normal” than any others. If we grew up where they did, we’d have those cultural tendencies, too.
2.You’re playing the wrong game
No one would use a baseball bat in a basketball game, but we unknowingly use culture-based behaviors, attitudes and expectations in new cultural environments where they aren’t helpful. Cultural awareness means recognizing that the rules of the cultural “games” others are playing are different.
3.Assumptions are like onions; they have many layers
It’s not easy to shed culture-based assumptions because they go so deep. Concepts we refer to every day—honesty, reliability, and respect, to name a few—are defined differently throughout the world. Recognizing the assumptions behind our own expectations is vital to cross-cultural competence.
4.You’re not as open-minded as you think
We’d all like to think we’re understanding when it comes to cultural difference. A good way to test for open-mindedness is to imagine talking to someone from a different socio-economic, ethnic, or political background—in our home country. How easy is it to listen, empathize, and see through their “cultural lens”?
What to Do
5.Become a cultural investigator
New contacts and environments constantly give us clues about their cultural orientation. We can look for these clues in the way people communicate, the way they set up their physical surroundings, and the systems and processes they use. Anything that’s unfamiliar points to a different way of thinking.
6.Identify cultural “sub-texts”—explain yourself and ask questions
Discovering the cultural basis for things that are unfamiliar helps us understand others’ motivations and priorities. Actively comparing viewpoints with international contacts to expose different ways of thinking makes it possible to communicate in a culturally appropriate way and develop proposals that meet common goals.
7.Don’t make it worse
Cultural conflict begins with subtle misalignments. When something seems confusing or a little “off”, it’s best to stop, explain ourselves, and ask questions to avoid compounding the problem. Understanding differences in the way two parties view an encounter is vital to getting things back on track.
8.Have the reaction, then step back
Everyone’s cultural “buttons” get pushed at times, and it’s best to be honest about frustration when it happens. Afterwards, we can step back and think more objectively about why we responded in a certain way. Check out this practice exercise.
9.Put down the bat
Even the best baseball player cannot win a basketball game using a bat. We must understand the rules of a new cultural “game” and the reasons behind them before we make a decision to embrace them or teach others the game we know best.
10.Leverage “their” strengths
Each cultural tendency comes with unique skills and knowledge, so intercultural partners bring new resources and strategies to the table. Combining the advantages of diverse approaches is the way to achieve synergistic performance on international projects and collaborations.