Saturday, May 03, 2014

Molinsky - Global Dexterity

Although intended as a resource for expatriate workers, Molinsky’s Global Dexterity (2013) proposes a model that can be used for a variety of purposes – understanding the cultural differences among international students, affirming colleagues whose way of interacting is shaped by their family culture, or navigating cross-border educational initiatives.  Molinsky’s approach is based on his own fascination with the expatriate worker experience as well as research, consulting and coaching he has done to help workers in foreign settings acquire the adaptive responses to allow them to be effective.  The “global dexterity” model is not a developmental sequence of growing understanding, as some other cultural development models propose; instead it is a very intuitively understandable model that allows the “foreigner” to diagnose an environment, discern what is different about the new environment, and find an adaptive approach that maintains the guest’s authenticity and values while increasing the potential of being effective in a “different” place.  As an expatriate worker with a short experience in Europe and a longer period in Qatar, I found the model very useful in reflecting on the various cultures I have encountered.

The “global dexterity” model has a six-dimensional framework that includes; directness, enthusiasm, formality, assertiveness, self-promotion, and personal disclosure.  While there are certainly other clues one might use to understand another culture, including low/high context, physical space and power/SES consciousness, the six dimensions are very revealing.  The diagnosis stage using the model involves determining if the culture one is visiting is high or low on each of the six dimensions.  As just one example from the Arab world using the first dimension of directness, Westerners (particularly Americans) tend to be very direct in their communication, making statements or making requests in very specific and direct ways.  So, if someone had something you liked, an American would say, “I really like that – I wish I could have one like it.” The statement was direct but, in America, the other person would not likely offer it as a gift.  By contrast in the Arab world, indirectness is valued, most often as a way of avoiding embarrassing or putting the other in a difficult place.  So instead of being so direct in offering a compliment, the world “mish’Allah,” which means “God has blessed you with this,” always follows the compliment.  The reason - if one doesn’t say mish’Allah, the other person is culturally obligated to give it to you.  This is a form of indirectness that is highly valued.  Indeed, gifts are part of the culture of hospitality and visitors are often overwhelmed by these gestures.  However, the gifts are to be given freely and generously without any expectation of return.

The dilemma that Molinsky explains is that there are three core psychological challenges as foreigners attempt to adapt to a different cultural environment.  The first is authenticity, the second, competence, and the third resentment.  When trying to modify one’s behavior, even when we know we might be more effective if we adapted, the new behaviors don’t initially feel authentic, sometime they are delivered in clumsy ways, and some people just plain resent having to adapt.  These psychological obstacles have to be overcome in order to adapt in ways that will allow one to have dexterity in adapting to other cultures.

Molinsky’s book is deceivingly simple, most likely as a way to appeal to a wider audience beyond academics.  However, the reader should not be lulled into thinking this is a pop-psych book without substance.  The author has degrees from Columbia and Harvard but does not make his academic credentials the central feature of his credibility.  Global Dexterity stands on its own, with a heuristic model that can be very helpful, tools to use for analysis, many examples, and recommendations for how to walk the path of becoming a person of global dexterity.  His last piece of advice - “customizing your perceptions around cultural adaptation is quite simple: embrace the new culture’s logic.  Don’t just change how you behave: change how you think.”  From my experience, truer words have seldom been uttered when seeking to be a more effective global citizen.

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