Culture Fit vs. Authenticity: When Being Yourself Collides with Organizational Values

davidlivermore | June 14th, 2018 No Comments

Last year I had the opportunity to speak to the 75 most senior women from one of the Fortune 100s we work with. This is the kind of opportunity I love. Women with passports from all over the world dealing with all the issues that come with leading across borders for one of the most global brands in the world.

The women took our Cultural Values Profile—an inventory that reveals your individual preferences on ten cultural values, including differences like direct vs. indirect communication or top down versus flat leadership styles. Typically, when we use this tool, even seemingly homogenous teams are surprised at the diversity of their cultural values. But this international group of women were remarkably similar in their cultural value ratings. I actually asked our team to double check the group profile because it seemed impossible that a group of 75 women from all over the world were scoring almost identical on nearly all of the dimensions. But indeed, it was accurate.

When I shared these results with the women, they weren’t the least bit surprised. They said, “How do you think we ended up in these positions? We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think and work like our male counterparts do.”

Were they selling out? Or were they adapting to survive?

This is one of the issues that perplexes me most. Authenticity is the holy grail of diversity efforts: “Bring your whole self to work.” Yet adaptation to the preferences and norms of others is at the core of cultural intelligence. How do we give people the safety to be themselves while also expecting flexibility as a “team player”? And when are an organization’s values unifying and when do they squelch diversity and innovation?

First, consider the upside and downside of “Authenticity” and “Culture Fit”.

AUTHENTICITY: Being true to one’s self and maintaining coherence between one’s values and how one behaves at work or school. An authentic workplace is an environment where you’re safe to be yourself.

  • The Upside
    When people feel psychologically safe to reveal their identities and values at work, they are more engaged and effective. In contrast, covering one’s identify and values results in a high level of physical and emotional stress and the loss of diverse perspectives.
  • The Downside
    Authenticity can become an excuse for inflexibility. The more you work with people who don’t share your values, norms, and expectations, the more you’re going to have to choose between what is effective and what feels authentic. And what’s “authentic” for me may be “offensive” for you.

CULTURAL FIT: The likelihood that a job candidate will be able to conform and adapt to the core values and collective behaviors that make up an organization.

  • The Upside
    A number of studies demonstrate that employees who fit well with their organization, coworkers, and supervisor have greater job satisfaction are more likely to remain with their organization, and show superior job performance.
  • The Downside
    “Culture fit” can easily perpetuate the ills of unconscious bias where managers hire people like themselves and discount those who are different. This type of thinking hinders diversity and leads to homogenous cultures.

Here’s one way this dilemma plays out for me personally. My “authentic” style is to lead with transparency. So, whether it’s with my kids, our staff, or with a client, my default is to share whatever information I have because that’s who I am. And I want our organization to be characterized by transparency. But sometimes transparency is ineffective or unwelcomed. I’ve made staff anxious by sharing my uncertainty about an upcoming change, and disclosing feelings of inadequacy to a new client can create questions of credibility and confidence. And some of our other leaders prefer to keep information much more private. But going against my natural style can make me feel like I’m an imposter.

My need to adapt is minimal compared to many other people. Adaptation is implicitly expected of women more than men, gay more than straight, black more than white, etc. But when should any of us be expected to give up our authentic preferences for the sake of an organizational purpose (culture fit)?

A couple shifts in how we think about this may be one way to get started:

FROM AUTHENTICITY TO CULTURAL INTELLIGENCE

Authenticity is a noble goal but we need to rethink what we mean by it. In reality, we all adapt and filter based on the audience. How I relate to my kids is different from how I relate to my work colleagues. And I relate to each family member and colleague differently based upon their preferences and values. So we have to transcend a rigid notion of authenticity and instead, figure out what it means to be true to ourselves while knowing we always need to filter and re-appropriate how we express ourselves based on the context.

The struggle comes when a core value is challenged. If my “authentic” approach is last minute and yours is planning ahead, then what? If you view shaking the opposite sex’s hand as offensive and I see it as a respectful, professional greeting, which of us get to be ourselves?

This is the same process we go through as we travel and interact with people and cultures in different places. My daughter talks about how she grapples with this as a vegetarian who finds herself traveling and interacting with many individuals and cultures that don’t share her value for avoiding meat. At its core, cultural intelligence is about finding the equilibrium between adapting to the norms and preferences of others without losing ourselves in the process.

FROM CULTURE FIT TO CULTURE ADD

I’m always impressed when I visit a business like Trader Joe’s, the U.S. supermarket known for friendly and helpful cashiers who consistently go the extra mile to provide good service. It doesn’t matter which one of their hundreds of stores you visit, the customer experience is the same. Trader Joe’s has every right to hire people who share their value for greeting people with a smile and a willingness to help.

Organizations, like individuals, need to be true to themselves. So hiring people who are willing to sign on to your core values is essential. But hiring first and foremost based on “cultural fit” quickly leads to group think. How one individual expresses warmth and helpfulness may look very different from another person. So instead of looking for people who fit the organizational culture, ask what’s missing from it, and bring in people who will enrich and stretch it. Hire based on what one can contribute to your culture and take it further rather than one who simply fits who you already are.

BE YOURSELF, BUT EVOLVE

I’m the same person I was twenty years ago, however my style, perspective, and views have evolved significantly. My story has changed based upon what I’ve learned from trying on different styles and behaviors from working and relating with so many diverse groups. Some of those don’t fit me at all, but as I try out new approaches, I keep editing who I am. That’s not being fake. It’s simply learning to adapt based on the role and the preferences needed along the way.

It’s not unlike our evolving palettes. In her wildly popular TED talk, Jennifer 8. Lee, says that what we eat is an accumulation of our life experiences, including where you grew up, the people you’ve dated, and the places you’ve visited. We often pick up favorite foods from various places we’ve lived or encountered along the way but we continue to come back to foods that mean something to us. For most of us, our comfort foods stem from our upbringing but the more you travel, the broader the menu of options for food that bring you comfort.

The same applies to “being yourself”. A culturally intelligent approach to life and work gives us the opportunity to try other perspectives, values, and norms without needing to leave our original perspectives and values fully behind. As we broaden our scope by seeing through the eyes of others, we rarely abandon everything we thought and did before, but we evolve to take on other perspectives and values that fit us well. Transcend and include.

So did the women from the Fortune 100 company sell out? It depends. Each individual has to regulate how much of themselves to reveal and uncover based on the context and the objective. Many of these women sacrificed the freedom to lead with complete authenticity. But by being willing to adapt to the dominant culture, they created room for other women to lead and brought about incremental change to the organization at large. Their willingness to adapt to the dominant norms may have given them some new perspectives and values they wouldn’t have gained if they had insisted on doing things their way. Any individual or organization can adapt too far and lose themselves in the process. But some adaptation is almost always necessary.

Each individual needs to clearly identify:

  • What are my objectives personally and professionally? What are our organizational objectives?
  • Will adapting strengthen or weaken reaching these objectives?
  • Will adapting compromise the core of who I am or expand who I am?

The only way we grow is to stretch ourselves beyond the limits of who we are and to take a more culturally intelligent approach to authenticity and fit. But organizations have to keep strategizing ways to allow people to express their diverse values in ways that move everyone further ahead. And together, we become a fuller, more authentic version of ourselves.

Cultural Bloopers & Misgivings from an Experience in America

davidlivermore | April 11th, 2018 No Comments

Guest Post By Helga Evelyn Samuel

So, you speak English and you think a trip to an English-speaking country cannot be that hard, right? Surely not, because you’ve been there several years ago. On a recent work trip, I discovered, however, that such assumptions are quite careless at the least.

After a couple of days in a room full of North Americans (well, almost!), eating out with the group and socializing in the process, staying at a Canadian-Venezuelan’s place, and navigating through unfamiliar streets, here are some observations from my brief tryst with the American culture:

1. Assumptions are unwise. Never assume that everything is going to be like back home just because the people in the country presumably speak the same language as you! Expect everything to be different: right from the pedestrian crossing symbols to the way people cross roads to the food habits to mannerisms and customs, to the way people mean and interpret the same English you speak!

2. A little preparation goes a long way. Do your homework! So, you think why should you go prepared for a short work trip? What could possibly go wrong in just a few days, right? Actually, anything could go wrong depending on what the purpose of your trip is, who you are meeting, what important deals you are signing et al. When you go abroad on a work trip, you represent your company, and often times your country. You need to do some homework on what you could expect: talk to others who have been there before you, take some reading material on the country you are visiting with you on your plane ride. Also: know enough about your host country you are currently residing in if you are an expat.

3. Allow room for little surprises. How do you lock the bathroom door in your host’s old apartment? Which way do you turn the knob and why doesn’t it lock when you do it the way you do in Europe (panic attack!)? Step into the shower–now, which way does this knob turn? After fumbling a while and breaking into a cold sweat in the process, you manage to solve this great mystery! You later discover after a demo from the host on locking the bathroom door, that the last couple of times you had actually been very unsuccessful! Thankfully, nobody was home at that time! (Phew!) In the kitchen, you debate whether the water from the faucet is safe to drink, and when you reassure yourself that it cannot go wrong, you look in disgust at the very murky, gray-white liquid you’ve collected and are unsure if drinking it is going to kill you! (your gracious hosts later inform you that although water from the tap is safe, they filter it in this fascinating looking water container- and presto, that murky effect magically disappears!) Then you decide to make a sunny side up for breakfast, only to find that the mechanism of turning the knob on the stove is slightly different from what you do back home in Europe. Because within seconds you are nauseous by this overpowering smell of cooking gas. Not intending to set the host’s house on fire, you decide to safely settle for a banana for breakfast that morning! Fast forward to the day of conference. You need a coffee fix, and wander around looking for a stirrer. You find these strange, narrowly constricted white hollow tubes with bright red stripes that resemble straws. Surely these couldn’t be stirrers. They remotely bear any resemblance to the wooden, flat stirrers you are used to. Not wanting to look like an idiot, you politely ask a new friend where the stirrers are: he informs you that those narrow straw-like things are indeed the stirrers (hot flush of embarrassment!) Later you find out that the very same hotel has placed the familiar flat wooden stirrers on a shiny, jet black tray carrying your all-day coffee/tea (aka caffeine fix) supplies! Ha! You look at the familiar with a large toothy grin and run your fingers down the wooden stirrer and go ‘Sigh, just like back home!” The familiar somehow makes the heart very happy. Even something as small and silly as a mundane coffee stirrer! (tears of joy!)

4. An overdose of friendliness. The contrast is so stark that you simply cannot miss it! In The Netherlands, smiles are only reserved for people you know, people do not normally smile at strangers and very rarely exchange small talk. Those travelling by public transport always appear solemn and seldom indulge in any chitchat. A train/bus/tram ride to anywhere can be eerily silent (comfortably if you are used to it!), unless friends or family members ride together. Then you travel to the United States where everyone right from the doorman, the chauffeur, the Target store shop assistants, to even random strangers on the street are SO friendly and warm! On your first day, you are a bit suspicious since this behavior is not normal to you. By the end of the week however, you enjoy the warmth of the people so much that you suffer a temporary memory lapse at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam: you flash a big smile and offer a ‘Hey, how are you?’ to a total stranger waiting in line at the immigration. However, your polite overture is met by a shuffling of feet and a suspicious sideways glance (Ha, she probably thought you were nuts!)

5. Unfamiliar pedestrian signals. At first you are confused by the unfamiliar ‘white man walking’ and ‘red hand’ road crossing signals. In The Netherlands, these are a ‘green man walking’ and a ‘red man waiting’. And what does the countdown after the red hand mean? That this is your last chance to run for your life across the road? You look to fellow pedestrians for cues and find some sprint across quickly. You step forward to follow suit when you notice a car turns into your road during the countdown. A bit baffled and shaken, you adamantly decide to freeze in position on the sidewalk till you see the safe ‘white man walking’ signal again (shudder!). You do want to make it home in one piece after all! In The Netherlands and particularly in Germany, most people adhere to the pedestrian crossing rules. People respect the ‘red man waiting’ signal that they rarely cross–not even when there are no vehicles on the road!

6. Shocking supermarket facts. You wander around in Target trying to spot familiar groceries, let out an audible gasp at the unbelievably overpriced feta cheese, peppers, and salad ingredients. You are surprised by the numerous bread assortments–everything appears intriguing and some look rather unappetizing. You are impressed by the very friendly woman at the counter who even bags your grocery contents. In The Netherlands, the customer must hurriedly transfer her grocery contents into bags, so the next customer can be served immediately thereafter. A newcomer to the country has to learn to quickly shove grocery contents into shopping bags or be prepared to meet some impatient, disgruntled customers waiting in line. (Don’t tell anyone but you recruit your kids to bag the groceries with an ice cream bribe. It works like a charm every time!)

7. A warning to the foodies. Oh, the food! You are utterly delighted by the sinful array of culinary indulgences in the U.S. and eagerly dig into the large portion sizes. This is foodie H(E)AVEN (caps on intentionally)! Having been raised Indian, it is unconsciously ingrained in your mind to never waste any food on your plate (“Remember the many starving poor in India!”, your parents solemnly reminded you while growing up) and you gladly oblige–this is good stuff, after all! A week later though, when it is time to fly back home, you discover when your jeans tightly hug your lower body like a boa constrictor how quickly those extra pounds add up. Yikes!

8. Now, did you say English is universal? After a wonderful few days of getting to know new acquaintances and friends, you go around saying your goodbyes. Remember those familiar yet vital four and a half words that you reserve only for people you really like and want to sincerely make an effort to be in touch with? The magical “Let’s keep in touch!” You generously dish it out to a couple of people in the room with absolute genuineness. Only to find out much later that this sentence actually means “Goodbye, I DON’T like you that much!” in America! You recoil in horror at the subtle message you’d sent that week to the amazing, warm, friendly people whose company you had thoroughly enjoyed! (Oh nooo!)

9. Are colleagues friends? You learn that in America, colleagues rarely socialize or stay in touch as friends. They make acquaintances easily but rarely make ‘friends’ among colleagues. Such a stark contrast to The Netherlands where colleagues socialize every Friday night over the famed Dutch ‘borrel’: when drinks and conversations freely flow over raucous background music. Even strikingly different from your experience with former German colleagues you briefly worked with, who have been in touch since nearly twenty years when life took you places and are cherished friends. Some so close that you fondly call them ‘family’. Now, how do you define the connections with these delightful people you briefly hung out with in America? Colleagues? Acquaintances? Friends? How do you follow through on your word to ‘stay in touch’ with them? Your brain is certainly muddled dealing with this.

10. A little lesson on culture. Now, what do you do when the opportunity arises to travel back into the same country? A culturally intelligent person learns from previous mistakes, mentally readjusts to expectations, and applies past learnings to new experiences while still keeping an open mind to learn something new. It is important to remember, however, that your past experiences are not standards for others to gauge theirs against. Your experience does not necessarily have to be similar to another’s. It is also absurd to base your opinion on a country or its people from a few subjective experiences, so don’t be too hasty to translate your experiences into a “Do’s and Don’ts” list for that country. Be open to the sights, sounds and sensations that a new place brings. Dive in fearlessly, be prepared to fall on your face a couple of times, laugh about it, and learn from it. Have an open mind and a receptive heart. Savor the similarities. Respect the differences. Embrace the change.

Note: This article is purely based on personal experience and is merely written to entertain. However, some generalized content offers insight into learning how to deal with new and unfamiliar cultures.

  Helga Evelyn Samuel is the Founder & CEO of Curry & Culture Company based in The Netherlands, as well as a CQ Certified Advanced Professional.

7 Questions to Assess Your Perspective Taking

davidlivermore | March 15th, 2018 No Comments

Whether I’m talking with my kids, interacting with our staff, or speaking to a group of executives, one of the themes I talk about more than any other is the importance of “perspective taking”. Perspective taking is the ability to step outside our own experience and consider something from another person’s point of view. It’s something we do unconsciously all the time. What kind of gift would they enjoy? How is my colleague going to interpret this email? What does that group think about me? But we’re less likely to engage in perspective taking if the individuals with a different perspective aren’t part of our in-group. —

Research reveals that perspective taking is a skill that can be developed—and that’s good news. Perspective taking is one of the most critical skills needed to manage unconscious bias and lead with cultural intelligence. You can’t motivate people and negotiate effectively if you don’t know how others think and feel about something. And there’s mounting evidence that perspective taking makes a critical difference in whether diversity training actually works.

Most of us do perspective taking quite naturally with those from our in-group—our friends, loved ones, and people like us. But we’re less likely to slow down and consider another’s perspective if they are outside our in-group. Think of the age-old psychological notion of fundamental attribution error—the assumption that someone’s negative behavior stems from a character flaw while excusing the same behavior in ourselves due to external circumstances. Here’s how fundamental attribution error works: If someone’s phone rings in the movie theatre, my default assumption is that they’re a rude or forgetful person who is inconsiderate of others. But if my phone rings, surely people know that it’s only because I’m awaiting an urgent phone call in the midst of a crisis.  This isn’t my usual behavior! According to fundamental attribution error, I’m more likely to give the benefit of the doubt to people who “look like me.”

The greater the cultural distance, the more important it is to exercise perspective taking. Use this informal inventory to reflect on your perspective taking skill:

1. When giving someone directions to a restaurant, do you change the way you explain the directions based on whether the individual is an out-of-town visitor versus a local?

2. When telling a story, do you tell it differently based on the audience? (e.g., amount of details provided, references to things they do/don’t know about, etc.).

3. When providing instructions on how to do something, are you aware of how much the other individuals already know about this task? Do you over-explain the instructions even though they provide cues that they understand? Or do you use lingo that leaves them confused?

4. When an acquaintance asks where you live, do you give the same response to someone on the other side of the world as you do someone from your own region? (e.g., “Grand Rapids, Michigan” versus “In the central part of the U.S., near Chicago.”)

5. Think about a work challenge you’re currently facing right now. To what degree can you accurately describe the perspectives of 3-5 colleagues who are also facing the same challenge?

6. Identify an issue you feel strongly about (e.g., climate change, politics, gay marriage, etc.). To what degree can you offer a coherent argument that represents the opposite of your perspective?

7. How often do you say things like “As you know,” or “Given your experience in this area…”?

Perspective taking doesn’t mean you give up your own perspective or lack conviction. In fact, this is one of the critical differences between perspective taking and empathy. Empathy may go too far in some situations. A member of the special forces who empathizes with the enemy or a sales person who is distraught about a customer’s complaints may fail to fulfill the mission of their respective organizations. But there is no way to succeed without some understanding of the “other side’s” perspective.

Perspective taking is best developed in relationship. Many people change or at least reevaluate their dogmatic views about sexual orientation, religion, or politics when a friend or loved one is the one who represents the opposing perspective. Conversation and dialogue are the best ways to learn about another’s perspective. But there are some other practical steps you can use to develop the skill of perspective taking.

—Curate a more diverse social media feed. You’ll quickly see wildly different interpretations of the same current events.

—Use the ten cultural value dimensions to consciously consider the differences in how someone from either extreme would view a new initiative (e.g., an individual with a low uncertainty avoidance orientation may be more drawn to something new than someone who is high uncertainty avoidance).

—Use Bezo’s “empty-chair strategy” at important meetings to represent a perspective that won’t likely be present by the individuals in the meeting.

—When discussing a challenging issue with someone, see if each of you can articulate the other person’s perspective. Clarify whether you have an understanding of each other’s perspective.

—In the words of our friend and colleague Adam Grant, “Argue like you’re right. Listen like you’re wrong.”

Seek to understand. It’s one of our mantras at the Cultural Intelligence Center. We know that diverse perspectives x CQ creates better solutions. We don’t do it perfectly ourselves. But we’re resolved to keep at it. I hope you will continue the pursuit with us.

[See Chapter 3 in Driven by Difference to learn about the critical link between perspective-taking, CQ, and innovation. ]

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