With businesses becoming globalized, both managers and team members must interact with people from various cultural backgrounds. To succeed in this new environment, it requires a unique skill set called “cultural dexterity.” It’s also called “global dexterity.”
The term was popularized by Professor Andrew Molinsky, who teaches at Brandeis University International Business School with a joint appointment in the Psychology Department. He wrote the book Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process.
In this article, we will discuss what cultural dexterity skill set actually is and how to improve it.
Perhaps you’ve met an executive who has worked in several countries who is both well respected and accepted by colleagues and team members wherever he or she was posted. He or she moved from one position to another with ease, confidence, and grace without any cultural awkwardness at all. Such individuals are said to have a high level of cultural dexterity.
Cultural dexterity is someone’s ability to act based on cultural differences without compromising one’s values. In opposing cultures, such as America and Japan, for instance, the definitions of pride and humility differ a great deal.
In the United States, when people praise you, it’s polite to say, “Thank you.” However, in Asian countries, it may be interpreted as over-confident or arrogant if that’s your answer. And no two Asian cultures are identical. For instance, when someone praises you, how humbly should you respond? Is it (A) “Thank you, but I’m still working on my vocabulary,” or (B) “Thank you, I’m totally new at this and need a full-time tutor to help build my confidence in speaking this language. I’m not fluent at all,”?
The ability to gauge the level of pride and humility you must show in a particular culture requires active sets of soft skills. These skills include but are not limited to reading and understanding body languages, facial expressions, inflections, expressions, and other things that might be overlooked by those with limited global dexterity skills.
In distributed teams, where communications occur with the intermediary of technologies, like e-mail, text messaging, video conference, and voice chat, some facial and physical movements can’t be observed as clearly as in face-to-face meetings. Also, abbreviated “informal language” used in text messaging, for instance, might not be something an expatriate can learn at the foreign language school.
Real-time online communication is dynamic and can be quite challenging, so equipping team leaders and members with this skill set early on is recommended. This way, whenever they need to team up and work closely with individuals from various cultures, they already have some cultural capital to tap into. This would reduce unnecessary misunderstandings and awkward moments, which is key to achieving goals and overall business success.
There are at least three things you can do to increase cultural dexterity skills. First, immerse yourself in the other culture and find a good cultural blend where you feel at ease without compromising your authentic self. Second, learn from a cultural mentor who has experiences on both sides of the fence so that you can ask questions more confidently. Third, change your behavior by going where the locals go, doing what the locals do, and saying what the locals say.