Did you watch the recent dash-cam/smartphone footage of the British-Australian George Collins and the Thai man, Mr Sumeth Lungrathanaphan, in Pattaya last month? If you did, you know that Mr Collins chased Mr Sumeth with a knife because of a perceived driving infraction. Collins then drove his car in to Sumeth’s body, sending him flying through the air. In response, Sumeth punched Collins unconscious in front of police and witnesses.
Cross-cultural clash means being faced with values, norms, behaviors and attitudes that clash with our own. But cross-cultural conflict doesn’t have to send us into such dangerous meltdowns. In many cases, cross-cultural clashes can be an opportunity to see the world from a different angle.
Delay and divert tactics
The Collins-Sumeth case is a sad testament to the power of the brain’s limbic system to literally send us “out of our minds” when we are triggered by cross-cultural conflicts.
Successfully negotiating worldview differences between people requires a high degree of emotional intelligence – a sophisticated capacity to manage our emotional reactions to cultural clashes. We must carefully balance the brain’s limbic system reactions (fight-or-flight) with a more measured neocortical response (rational, considered engagement).
But there are scientifically proven reasons why this is hard to do. Physiologically, the brain’s limbic system gets stimuli from the world around us a nanosecond earlier than the neocortex (the reasoning part of our brain) does. The limbic system and its emotional reactions can have more power over us in moments of stress. This is why most of the advice you read on calming an emotional reaction is about (1) delaying your response to it and (2) diverting your attention to something else. So, breathing, counting, relaxing the body, using a memorized quote are all remedies so well-known they have almost become clichés, but they are powerful ways to divert and delay – so they give your neocortex time to kick-in.
But to be honest, effective cross-cultural leadership requires accepting one basic value: that our own cultural ‘game’ is not the only game in town. Thais are incredibly generous to Western foreigners. We are permitted to participate in Thailand’s extraordinary society with a high level of freedom, flexibility and access. I am personally and unashamedly grateful for this opportunity because, despite (and because of) its differences to Australian society, there is so much to love about Thai people and Thailand.
However, perhaps like you, I have made plenty of cross-cultural mistakes in my time here. And one big problem with cross-cultural mistakes is that we make them in public – they are, by their very nature, social breaches. They come with a good measure of embarrassment and even humiliation (think back to the Collins-Sumeth situation and how they must be feeling now).
If you compare us to say, Europeans, Australians face particular challenges in cross-cultural workplaces. We grow up in a largely mono-cultural country where one language dominates. As we grow up, we are less engaged in cultural differences than Europeans, who often speak 3 languages by the age of 16. So, we have less experience at cross-cultural negotiation and, at first, we make plenty of mistakes. Australians take a little longer to recognize and adjust to the psychodynamic differences in multilingual and multinational workplaces and environments.
One of the cultural differences I’ve seen, while coaching, is in response to stress. So, in the rest of this article, I’m going to focus on one reaction to stress in cross-cultural workplaces: over-functioning and under-functioning.
Stress reactions in cross-cultural workplaces
Over-functioning means getting hypervigilant or hyperactive in response to stress. Over-functioners may use more initiative or self-will to fix a problem. They may come up with new ideas quickly or try to force a situation to a resolution. They may exercise more personal agency or deploy more personal power in stressful situations. Over-functioners can be over-emotional and can become angry in response to difficult circumstances that don’t resolve quickly.
Under-functioning looks like the opposite of this. Under functioners become inactive, slowing down, deferring to others to make decisions for them or to completely fix a problem on their behalf. So the tendency of under-functioners is to rely on the people around them to solve the problem, to wait and focus on collective action rather than use personal agency to bring a problem to resolution.
But before I move on: which one are you?
You will be more one than the other. I tend to over-function when stressed. I take control of the people around me. The Thais in my family and in my workplace have taught me how to react differently (translation: “Get off your high-horse, Aussie. You’re not the only one with a brain around here”). So, a great benefit for me in living in Thai society has been that I’ve learned to share the load and to be more generous when getting things done in a crisis.
Now, a question: What are the Thais in your personal and professional life teaching you? Take a moment to ponder that because, if you believe in a higher power or a higher purpose in life, it may be the reason you’re here.
Over- and under-functioning in cross-cultural workplaces
It would be easy to assume that over-functioners are more productive than under-functioners. But that’s a huge mistake – because over functioning is still non-optimal functioning. Over-functioners use 80 percent of their effort to get 20 percent of the result. Have you ever had a reaction from a staff member who is not getting results in which they say, “But look how hard I tried!”? That may be the signal siren song of the over-functioner.
Over-functioning looks like optimal functioning because so much activity and arm-flailing goes in to it. But over-functioning isn’t sustainable in the long term. It usually results in the people around the individual feeling slighted, insulted or disempowered – because over-functioners take control of everything, without much sensitivity to the social nuances around them. You can see how this is a stress reaction because it is insensitive to many other dynamics in the workplace.
Conversely, I have seen under-functioners let deadlines slip by and become passive in response to a pressured workplace. That’s a big problem both for them as individuals and for you as the boss. Under-functioners need support (and sometimes tough love) to recognize the legitimacy of a deadline, to meet it or call it out and renegotiate it before it arrives. They need help to respond differently to a workplace with multiple pressures, requiring their active participation and personal decision-making capacity.
It would be easy to assume that under-functioners are less intelligent or care less about workplace pressures. That would also be a huge mistake. Under-functioners may feel just as conflicted, upset and committed to getting a problem solved as do over-functioning people. The pathway to a solution may be understood differently. Sometimes, differences in stress reactions are a function of personality traits like extraversion and introversion.
But, in the cross-cultural workplace, under-functioning may be a sign that the use of personal power is not permissible in the situation. Subordinates in cross-cultural workplaces may believe that, under pressure, they must pass power to the leader. Nothing is more frustrating than a subordinate who over-reaches; but nothing is more satisfying than a subordinate who knows when to talk to the boss, first. This suggests that aspects of under-functioning, while frustrating in a high-pressured moment, are actually skills that are essential for good followership. Under-functioning and the skills it utilizes can be very helpful in other circumstances that are not complicated by deadlines.
Cross-cultural leadership is about working with personalities (our own and others’) to find a middle way. There’s an old Taoist proverb that compares the personality to a piano keyboard. The proverb goes something like this: when we play a discordant note on a piano we don’t permanently amputate the offending key from the piano’s keyboard – because to do so would render the piano unusable for a different song.
So, in life, the goal is not to remove an unwanted aspect of ourselves simply because it jars in one situation. Instead, we learn to play some parts of ourselves strongly and other parts of ourselves sotto voce (softly) in any given circumstance. The parts we play softly, in one situation, we may need to play strongly in another. The reality is that we are a matrix of tendencies and qualities, all of which have their place, but none of which benefit from either shame or blame, when we get it wrong.
Cross-cultural leadership is exactly the same: we learn to encourage aspects of an employee’s personality in one situation and encourage a different aspect of their personality in another. If you are a parent then you are already an expert at this. By doing this, we honor our employees as people and as individuals. But we also honor culture by respecting Thai society and its differences to our own.
To conclude, in this article I’ve used words like “may”, “perhaps” and “sometimes”. In this globalized world, more and more of us seem to want simple, definitive and one-answer solutions to highly complex problems. If you’ve worked in cross-cultural leadership for any period of time, you know how futile that really is. The challenge, as always, is how to manage the complexity of an increasingly globalized world and workplace while still getting the job done.