Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

See co-workers as individuals, not just cultural stereotypes: Andy Molinsky

Brandeis University Professor Andy Molinsky talks about building cross-cultural relationships in a global workplace

Published: May 8, 2024 11:17:02 AM IST
Updated: May 8, 2024 11:17:29 AM IST

See co-workers as individuals, not just cultural stereotypes: Andy MolinskyAndy Molinsky

Andy Molinsky is a professor of international management and organizational behaviour at Brandeis University. He is the author of Reach and Global Dexterity, and co-author of Forging Bonds in a Global Workforce: Build Rapport, Camaraderie, and Optimal Performance No Matter the Time Zone. In an interview with Forbes India, he dwells upon the nuances of global bonding –finding common ground across cultures, mastering the art of small talk, letting our personality shine through, and so on. Edited excerpts:

Q. “People are much more than their country”—could you take us a bit deeper into this premise?
Many people equate culture with country—as in the culture of the France or India or Nigeria. And there is a certain truth to this. Different places have their own customs and ways of doing things. Take Sweden and Italy, for instance. On an average, Swedes might seem less emotionally expressive compared to Italians. But it’s not a hard and fast rule. Sure, you might find a lively Swede who’s more emotionally expressive than a reserved Italian. It all comes down to personality. An outgoing Swede might show more emotion than a quiet Italian. So, while culture plays a part, personality is a big player too.

Q. As you rightly point out, we are primed to think about differences. What’s the mind shift needed to seek commonalities instead?
When diving into cross-cultural interactions, it’s common to start by pinpointing the differences. It’s a smart move—it helps sidestep cultural mishaps. For instance, knowing that praising a Korean colleague in public might embarrass them can help you adjust your approach. Similarly, understanding that American employers value eye contact and self-promotion can shape how you present yourself, even if it’s different from what you are used to. But fixating solely on differences has its drawbacks. You might misjudge situations, like expecting an Italian colleague to be late when they are the epitome of punctuality. Plus, constantly juggling cultural nuances can be mentally exhausting. So, instead of zooming in on disparities, consider focusing on similarities. Just as you naturally seek common ground in your own culture, doing the same across cultures can be just as effective. It’s about finding those shared hobbies, experiences, or interests that bridge the gap. By emphasising similarities, you not only build connections that transcend cultural barriers but also show your counterparts that you see them as individuals, not just cultural stereotypes. This approach fosters mutual understanding and trust, setting the stage for meaningful interactions and collaborations.

Also read: Nothing as powerful as culture that can influence behaviour: Marcus Collins

Q. What can organisations do to foster such a mindset?
Organisations can provide opportunities for people to discover similarities. This might happen during a social get-together or off-site meeting. Or it could even occur on an asynchronous social platform, like Slack, where people share photos and experiences.

Q. How do power and hierarchy play out in our efforts to forge bonds?
In different cultures, there are often unspoken rules about who you can form relationships with and how those relationships unfold. For instance, in Japanese corporate culture, it’s unusual for junior employees to initiate personal connections with senior colleagues due to hierarchical norms. Contrastingly, in the United States, where hierarchy is less emphasised, junior staff might actively engage with higher-ups in casual conversation to demonstrate rapport-building skills. These cultural dynamics extend beyond national borders and can vary within organisations and industries. For instance, a startup’s culture might defy national hierarchy norms, while military organisations in traditionally egalitarian countries might maintain hierarchical structures. Understanding and adapting to these cultural nuances is key to effective cross-cultural relationship building.

Also read: Companies should always focus on getting better, not bigger: Alex Hill

Q. Cultural distance with someone could lead to intrusions into privacy. Can you suggest some ways to avoid treading into personal space?
Cultural norms vary widely when it comes to bringing personal life into the workplace. In some cultures, like Germany, it’s typical to keep personal details private, with colleagues waiting a while before even using familiar language. This can create misunderstandings, as seen in a corporate merger where American employees perceived their German bosses as cold and unfriendly due to their reserved demeanour. Conversely, in Brazil, personal sharing fosters camaraderie and teamwork, with colleagues expecting open communication about personal matters. Of course, personality matters as well, and not everyone is characteristic of their national cultural norm.

In terms of tips, the key here is recognition, awareness and anticipation. You should come into an interaction with a hypothesis about what you might expect in terms of privacy, but be open to surprise if the person in question doesn’t necessarily act according to your initial hypothesis.

Q. The need for emotional intelligence cuts across all barriers. What’s your perspective?
This is certainly the case, and in my work, I emphasise the intersection between emotional and cultural intelligence. Part of being effective across cultures is recognising how cultural expression of emotion may differ in different settings. Take, for example, the expression of enthusiasm. When arguing for a point in a meeting in the United States, for example, it is quite appropriate to express your opinions passionately; it can help to convince those around you. In China, however, typically speaking, it’s self-control and modesty that are more culturally valued –not necessarily a person’s ability to outwardly express emotion. Excessive outward enthusiasm, particularly in the presence of a superior, may be interpreted as boastful, a behaviour generally frowned upon in Chinese culture.

Also read: A team's internal focus is only half the story: Henrik Bresman

Q. Does small talk hold a universal appeal?
Yes, in my view. And according to our research with 100+ professionals around the world, small talk is a quasi-universal tool for initiating conversations with strangers from different cultures, for building a quick rapport, and for planting the seeds of deeper relationships.  Quasi universal means that, in most global business contexts, you will likely find some form of small talk—though particular national cultural settings may be more or less open to it (e.g., in Korea, small talk with strangers is far less common than in Canada). I co-authored a recent article about some strategies for making small talk with anyone anywhere.

Q. Is our authenticity at stake when we try to adapt to a new setting? How much should we step beyond our cultural comfort zone?
Yes, it can be. When stepping outside their cultural (and personal) comfort zones, people can certainly feel inauthentic—because, after all, they are doing something they are not used to doing and probably something not all that confident about. In my work, I have found that people face three choices in these situations: (1) Just be yourself (and don’t adapt at all); (2) When in Rome, act like the Romans (e.g., adapt fully); or (3) Create a hybrid or fusion style of behaviour, incorporating elements from your own style or culture alongside what’s required in the new setting.

Q. Three tips for earning trust when working virtually...
The key in my view is to be relatable, reliable, and respectful.  So, find ways to do that in your conversation and you’ll be in business.