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What are the right behaviours for success internationally?

I was talking to a client recently who was looking for a behavioural assessment to identify people and behaviours that would be successful in managing their global matrix organisation.

Our approach is to offer assessments around the situation to identify the context and the challenges that people face. However, we are sceptical about anyone’s ability to define in detail the behaviours that are necessary for success in a global or international context.

We know for example that different cultures respond to hierarchically differently. Whereas challenging your boss is expected in countries with low power distance such as the Netherlands or the Nordic region, the same behaviour may be distinctly career limiting in Asia.

If companies define successful behaviours as “openness” or “being challenging” they can expect that these will be interpreted very differently around the world. This is fine when operating within your national culture but, as businesses become more integrated globally and as teams have more diverse membership, then it becomes a challenge to evaluate whether people are meeting behaviourally defined criteria.

Imagine a Dutch manager, who expects to be challenged directly, evaluating a Korean subordinate who values politeness and respects the hierarchy. What score will they give them in their appraisal on openness?

If we are recruiting people to be successful in an international context – do we imagine that the same characteristics correlate with success in Japan as in California? Should we be recruiting against a fixed global profile; choosing people for their fit to a local culture, or emphasizing flexibility to deal with a variety of different contexts? Each of these answers will give us a very different behavioural profile.

Many organisations define their values at a high level to allow for some flexibility in local interpretation. However, this just leads to different interpretations locally.

A memorable example was when we were running a corporate values workshop in India for a multinational client. One of their values was “integrity” – a very common one. An Indian participant became annoyed when discussing this “how can this company claim to operate with integrity when it stopped me from employing my cousin?”

The European representatives of the company was surprised at this. In Europe or the USA nepotism (employing family members) would be seen as lacking in integrity. The Indian employee explained “In India how would anyone trust you to look after a customer or a stranger if you don’t even look after your family?”

I don’t feel we can define a globally consistent set of behaviours or values that everyone in the world must comply with to make their matrix a success. If we do so, we often find ourselves just restating the values of our dominant home country culture. This doesn’t encourage diversity or enable inclusion.

What we can do, however, is propose a set of practices that tend to lead to success. We can give people tools and skills for how they collaborate and decide. We can also help them to become aware of cultural differences and build the skills to bridge them.

Whilst the challenges and principles around success in matrix management are very consistent between organisations and cultures – the behaviours that we use to apply these tools and principles may and should differ.

In one of my books “Speed Lead” is a chapter “Leave my values alone, I only work here“, as global organizations, we need to recognise that values are culturally determined and set very young. They are deep-seated and rarely change at work.

Shared practices however are much easier to instil and provide a common platform for people to collaborate internationally without giving up their deeply held values.

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