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Common job issues and solutions in International Management

When Can Adaptability Slip Into Compromise? - Pitfalls of International Management.


Learn how to balance your approach to cultural norms without losing site of your objectives.


By Debbie Nicol, Managing Director, 'business en motion"

On some recent business trips, I managed to find a moment to visit the natural wonders of local beaches.  In Ghana, the width and breadth of the beach and ocean was a patchwork of blue and black plastic bags whilst on mainland Thailand, the first 200m offshore proudly displayed brown-green ocean water, silently persuading those blue ocean lovers to remain on terra firma. These observations reinforced a previous insight, or was it an ‘outsight’ – we become what we are surrounded with!


What would that look like in the theme of our own beach behavior while traveling in Ghana and Thailand? Is it possible that after finishing a local delicacy we unwittingly discard the plastic bag on the beach given the lack of bins?  Is it probable that we unwittingly choose to support local resorts that creatively discard rubbish directly into the sea?  Within both examples, the word ‘unwittingly’ embedded itself effortlessly into the syntax…


Reflect on any past international assignment you’ve held away from your home environment.  Upon arrival, with fresh and hungry eyes, which local behaviors did you immediately identify and cast judgment upon?  Reflecting back, what was that judgment based on, and how did you view that behavior after spending dedicated time with it?  (It may have been a way of processing an operational situation, a personal behavior or a corporate way of being, all having various degrees of alignment with your personal values).


I was recently asked an interesting question by a corporate team.  When can adaptability become compromise?  As an international manager, we must learn to adapt, recognizing that we may be technically proficient in best practice, or haled as a great leader, yet without alignment to the new environment, results wont be forthcoming.  Yet where does one draw the line between adaptability and compromise?  Let’s review a few corporate examples:


Which examples show Adaptability, which Compromise your objective?

  • Allowing end of month reports to take a little longer than the standard 8-day buffer zone because that’s the way we do it here.
  • Accepting that process gaps are occurring because we know ‘they’ don’t have an eye for detail.
  • Accepting that paperwork may not always be complete because completion is not a part of the psyche.
  • Driving forward strategically, without full understanding as ‘this is the first time they’ve been exposed to structure’.


When adaptability becomes embedded into the very fabric of business, what can be the effect?  Can it positively serve, perhaps allowing for the natural pace to increase gradually, perhaps providing opportunity to learn by mistake or even perhaps matching the needs of the customer?  They say for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction…could adaptability have dire negative consequences simultaneously, acting as an encouragement for bending the rules, a facilitator of inaccuracy or even an impetus for illegal acts?


So where does adaptability morph into compromise without us even being aware of its occurrence, and how would you identify it?  Perhaps these three tips may help:


Tip One: Know what matters most for successful results.

Compromise equates to movement away from the desired vision and agreed way of achieving it. There will always be the need to find alternatives, tweak certain targets and take innovative routes to attainment, yet how often is there a check on the degree of deviation?


Ask yourself – how clearly can I see movement within a buffer zone of acceptable and unacceptable, as defined by the degree of service to the vision? What will I allow and learn from within the context of local behavior and what must I stay firm on? How much do our USP’s depend upon our local behavior?


Tip Two: Become the executive sponsor of any business change required.

Adaptability is a form of change, and for any change to be successful, or maintain a positive contribution, there must be visible, active and consistent executive sponsorship of it.  Sending the message over and over in many shapes and forms is essential to ensure that we simply don’t morph into our surroundings – this can be compromise in it’s purest form and takes effort to avoid.


Ask yourself– how much am I willing to become the broken record?  Of course the goal is to find creative ways of sending the same message.


Tip Three: Recognize when time is up.

We often hear ‘blood is thicker than water’ – can it be similar for expatriates that eventually, one day, go ‘home’?  Two cases in point: Patrick Awuah, a Ghanaian working with Microsoft in US, returned to Ghana after twelve successful years, and Mohammed, a Bangladeshi F&B Manager in an international hotel in the US returned to his village home on the edge of the poverty circle.  Why – because we feel the need to – the need to reconnect to our identity, to spend time with family, to contribute our knowledge to our home!  Should we not recognize that time is nigh, we may ‘unwittingly’ become that which we are surrounded with.


We all like to fit in, and feel a part of our surroundings.  The trick is to keep the sensors and radar open and receptive at all times – to both others and ourselves!


When we don’t pay attention, adaptability can slip into compromise and we risk becoming what we are surrounded with – be careful, you may be under it’s influence without even knowing it.


Please join the conversation in 'This Week's Discussion'


Written by Debbie Nicol,

International Management Expert for ManagingAmericans.com & Managing Director, 'business en motion'

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Have you ever made assumptions based on your own culture that led to embarrassing moments overseas?