You are here

Adapting and Performing

8 October, 2015 - 15:38

Early in my professional career, I was a part of a marketing and sales team that included two team members who had very different working styles and personalities. Louisa was quiet, spent a lot of time reflecting, and responded only when asked questions or prompted to speak. When she arrived at work, she went straight to her desk, shut the door, and got right to her tasks. She was seen as “level-headed,” practical, and a no-nonsense type of person. When you had to ask her a question, you could find Louisa in her office, steadily working on her tasks and projects. When she spoke, she was direct and concise. Sometimes, when making a point or supporting argument, she numbered her points out loud, such as, “First, I think we need to do this. Second, we will move on to this. Third, if the previous situation does not work, then we can go to option two.” Our team thought she was friendly, although a bit distant and not very personable in her interactions.

Joseph was the opposite. He had was very gregarious in nature. He talked all the time, whether someone wanted to hear his ideas or not; most of the time, it was just entertaining to hear him speak and share his stories. Upon his arrival every morning, he went around to all the offices (this was a small organization) and chatted with whoever had arrived. It took him awhile to get settled into his office and to begin his work. When you needed Joseph to review a document or ask him a question, he could be found talking with people outside of his office. When he spoke, it was hard to follow his thoughts because he jumped from story to story, sometimes confusing himself in the process. And there were times that he would say things out loud, not to get our feedback but just to process the information. We thought he just liked hearing himself talk, and our team culture was such that we found him to be very personable and likeable, quirks and all.

As a young professional who was looking to make her mark on the working world, I found my time with Louisa to be extremely challenging. How was I to make an impression when this manager did not even want to talk to me? How was she to be aware of my talents and skill sets? I quickly learned that I related more easily to Joseph. He always asked me how I was, what projects I was working on, and whether I was enjoying my time with the organization. These conversations with Joseph were not short; rather, they often lasted as long as 30 minutes. Through these conversations, I learned a lot about the workings of the organization, where my skills could be most helpful, and where I could advance in the company.

Every time I interacted with Louisa, I took a cautious and pragmatic approach. I knew my conversations with her would be short and to the point. In the beginning, I went into her office, engaging her in dialogue about things outside of work and failed miserably. But after a few conversations, I picked up some verbal and nonverbal cues about her “conversation motto,” which was “Make it short and to the point.” I began to mimic her actions and language. When speaking about several points, I numbered them out loud the way she did. I found that I was more formal than usual with her than with others. I looked directly in her eyes, and once even caught myself looking at my watch when I thought she was talking too long!

With Joseph, talking to him could take a while. I talked to him only when I knew I had no other appointments or deadlines to meet. I entered his office with a singsong-like “hello,” which was the way he greeted others. We never talked business right away. And I noticed that, when explaining a story or a point, my hand gestures always matched his. Even the tone of my voice mimicked his.

When I interacted with Louisa and Joseph, my behavior changed from person to person. I cannot tell you exactly when in our working relationship this began; I assume it happened partly on a conscious level and partly on an unconscious level. What is important to note about this personal story is that changing my behaviors enabled me to work better with both Louisa and Joseph.

Earley and Peterson stated, “Adopting the behaviors consistent with a target culture is an important aspect of intercultural adjustment and interaction.” 1 Similarly, Thomas and Inkson said, Whether or not social behavior takes place in a cross cultural setting, each situation will be unique and in particular will involve interaction with other unique people…you must be able to adapt your general approach and specific interactions to the particular characteristics of the situation, and particularly, to the expectations of the other people involved. 2

Thus, cultural intelligence requires that you engage in adaptive behavior and necessitates that you have the understanding and motivation to achieve it. This third element of cultural intelligence refers to the ability of individuals to go beyond thinking: they must be doing something. To be a culturally intelligent leader, it is not enough for you to know the information you need and how you will think about it, nor is it enough to be motivated. You must have the appropriate behavioral responses and be able to acquire or adapt the behaviors to new cultural situations. And you must be willing to try and learn new behaviors, and to know when and how to use them.

Learning new behaviors is considered the most challenging component of cultural intelligence. This is because behaviors are rooted in our beliefs and values. Rather than being skilled in particular sets of behaviors, as a culturally intelligent leader, it is better to have a repertoire of behaviors that you know of and use. You must be good at behaving in a manner that will not confuse other individuals. You cannot expect that your behavior will remain the same with all individuals from either the same or different cultural groups. You need to have a variety of behavioral skills you can draw from.

This chapter discusses four key ideas in relationship to adaptive behavior: the concept of self, cognitive dissonance, linguistic relativity, and behavior and communication.