Lessons in Cultural Adaptability: Varying Attitudes in Eastern and Western Cultures on Project Decisions and Direction

There’s a recent article featured on HBR that examines how people’s attitudes in the workplace depend on their relationship toward authority, which is largely driven by the culture they grew up in. Take for example, the difference between Western and Eastern cultures.

In the West, we are asked to be more proactive and a strategic leader is seen as more valuable than a tactician. In Asia, employees expect to learn their tasks play-by-play from their bosses. When American managers are assigned to Asia, or Asian managers are asked to work with American employees, disagreements ensue.

I see this first hand in my experience working with Asian colleagues from the Philippines. Part of my job is to provide marketing guidance to our team in Asia in a consultative environment. The recurring question is: How do we transform our marketing in the digital world? During our weekly meetings, those in the Philippines ask for rules and guidelines that they can follow step-by-step.

They ask about which specific media channel they should invest in: should we put all our media budget on Facebook?

They come to us looking for what amounts to laws of the land, or hard-and-fast rules that are rigid but comforting to them as they are well-defined. Is Facebook the one channel that will give us the best results?

My American colleague and I hesitate to provide them with a singular way to achieve a certain goal, because we wanted to encourage autonomy and creativity. In this case, they are a variety of media channels that they can look into investing in, not just Facebook. So we tell them over and over again that it would serve them well to look at the data, understand consumer behavior, and research media channels that are both successful and innovative in the market to make the right decision on their investments.

Yet, at the end of these meetings, our Filipino counterparts feel they are not given enough guidance because they are not given specific answers nor been told to go a specific direction. Whereas us here in the States feel that by looking for “rules” and “step-by-step” lists, they may be thinking in a rather short-sighted way, reluctant to open themselves up to new ways of doing things (ie. data-based decision making and experimenting with other digital channels).

In these interactions, I’m learning that Eastern culture emphasizes the importance of doing well what one is told to do, while Western culture emphasizes generating new ideas and collaborating on solutions.

Now, I’m trying to balance the cultural expectation of providing specific directions while also introducing a cultural change to think more freely, independently and rely on hard evidence such as data. I’ll suggest a specific scenario to answer their questions, then walk them through the process of why it would work, while reminding them that it’s not the only answer to their challenges.

Understanding cultural contexts allows us to make changes to our actions and communication in order to relate better to our peers.


Kindness or Directness as a Influencing Tactic?

Living in Asia makes you realize that there are communities in the world who see kindness is a strength, not a weakness. In my corporate experience in a big city like Chicago, I was rewarded more when I was firm with people, when I pushed back to claim what my team needed, and when I talked in a way that’s more matter-of-fact than friendly. Strength and grit is rewarded here in the States, while in Asia, it’s the opposite. If you’re brief and firm, people don’t see it as being curt and respect you for it– they see it as antagonistic and tell you you’re bossy.

So what’s an expat to do? One who commutes back and forth, and sees the dichotomy between two cultures amplified? It’s a lesson in adapting, for sure. Fortunately, I have friends in both places who understand the hard task of frequently having to navigate between cultures, and I confide in them to help me interpret situations. As we discussed this, we agreed that relating to people in different cultures means having toolbox with a set of tools (ie. knowledge about relational tactics that will make you more favorable in a certain culture). The more cultures you have to deal with, the more tools you collect as you learn more about it, expanding your toolbox.

The next time I need a team in Asia to do something, I’ll try a kinder approach– one that’s more friendly, even humbling oneself– since they respond better to this and will do the work with more motivation. They will see it as doing work they owe to you, as a kind boss. If I use this same approach in the States, it will be seen as weak, not strong enough to earn the respect of the team that they will not end up doing the work I ask them to do. So in that context, I will be more direct and straightforward, and discuss common objectives as a team to accomplishing the work.¬†They will see it as doing the work for common ideals, as a team striving for success.

“You can’t be what you can’t see”

This is a quote from an article about GoldieBlox, a manufacturer of toys for young girls. I agree with this quote, and I think GoldieBlox has a noble mission to inspire girls to get into male-dominated fields.

I agree with this quote because it can be applied to a variety of situations, particularly when one is part of the minority. It could be a woman in a male-dominated group, the single Asian in a team of 15, or the only Catholic in a group of 30, or a gay man in a class that skews male. The people who are outsiders in these situations share in the experience that they are not part of the larger group. They see things a little differently. They are more observant of the aspects that give them entry into the group, as well as those that segregate them from the majority.

I have always felt that I’m always the odd one out– I’ve been in countless situations when I’ve been an outsider. Whether as the new girl in school, a newly arrived immigrant, an Angeleno transplant in Chicago, or a minority in an industry that is not known for diversity, I’ve seen it all. Then I realized that identity is multifaceted, and I have a lot of things in common with the people who seem to fit right along with everyone else– everyone has felt slightly uncertain, everyone in America is an immigrant or a descendant of one, many have moved to various places and it is rare to find people in my generation to have stayed in one place throughout his or her life. I’m not saying prejudice, whether intended or inadvertently directed, does not exist– it does, and I’m sure it happens everyday. But I think I’ve focused more on my commonalities with others, and it has been easier to connect with them with this idea at the top of my mind.

I still believe that role models are important and a re-imagining of the world where you are accepted as a leader is empowering. The more I see people I identify with in positions of power– whether woman, Asian, immigrant, alumni, industry colleague– the greater it impacts my perspective of what I could potentially be down the line. So yes, I look up to leaders who represent their true selves. In doing so, they inspire me to be my true self, regardless of others’ acceptance of it. Thanks to my inspirations, I can be what I can see. I hope to be a role model for the causes I stand for, too.

Beyond mentors, and getting sponsors

I came across this video today while sifting through some management articles on my feed. Almost every career book out there will have a section about finding a mentor, a successful professional you have direct contact with who can teach you and hone your talents into a successful career. Joanna Barsh, a director at McKinsey & Company, goes beyond simple mentoring and introduces the idea of a “sponsor”– one who will throw you into the fire to challenge you and gives support when necessary to make sure you succeed. We should all find mentors and sponsors alike, no matter what industries we’re in, to give us advice and guidance as we navigate our careers and reshape the business world.


“A person in a very high high position, opening the door to an opportunity, then shoving a woman through before she personally thought she was ready. And then, not leaving her out there on a rock to die, but putting a safety net down, so that if she made a mistake (we all make mistakes), that person would be there to help and makes sure she gets up on her feet and gets going. So that she gets more learning opportunities, as well as more performance opportunities.

A lot of guys get that naturally. They don’t even get think about it, they just get it, because often the sponsors sponsor somebody who looks like their younger selves. A lot of men get chosen without even knowing it. But few women do. It’s great to have sponsors, it’s great to have two. I won’t even stop at two, I will get three.”

Blog posts by Joanna Barsh.
You can download the video here.