„Cultural agility“ – this expression seems to be the perfect buzzword for our increasingly globalized world at work. But how do you actually define such an apparently nebulous thing? What are common myths and misconceptions about cultural agility? And how can you leverage genuine cross-cultural skills in the corporate sphere, especially in managerial positions? These are certainly big questions, but Paula Caligiuri is trying to give clear and comprehensive answers on roughly 200 pages.
Ms Caligiuri, the author of Cultural Agility: Building a Pipeline of Successful Global Professionals, is not only an InterNations member, but also a professor in the human resources management department at Rutgers University, New Jersey. Her academic background lies in work psychology while her own professional development focuses on global mobility and career counseling. Despite the latter focus, Cultural Agility is not a guide for the highly qualified individual interested in building his or her international career.
As the subtitle of the books implies, it is rather a publication addressing the strategists and decision-makers in the HR departments and on the management boards of globally active companies. That being said, I thought it was occasionally enlightening or thought-provoking from a “layperson”’s perspective too: while the book is clearly aimed at HR staff, it is also interesting to regard your own intercultural skills and career choices from the other side of the fence, so to speak.
First of all, Ms Caligiuri summarily dispenses with what she calls common (misguided) assumptions about prior cultural exposure and international successes, about cultural comparisons as well as the role of technology in the globalized workplace. The central thesis of her introductory chapter is probably that even a successfully completed international assignment does not automatically mean the respective executive is truly a culturally agile manager.
But what then is cultural agility? In the definition of this guide, it is a collection of nine psychological core competencies as well as three different response strategies to cross-cultural situations. It would be beyond the limits of a mere book review to enumerate and elaborate on all twelve aspects.
If we pick out one of the nine core competencies, “tolerance of ambiguity” will serve a very good example. This refers to the ability to remain at ease in unclear situations for which you don’t yet have an internal protocol. For employees who often have to deal with people from other cultural contexts or live and work in countries where they’ve never been before, such ambiguity tolerance is essential. As a culturally agile person, you cannot have enough of it, or the eight other, similar competencies.
With the cultural response strategies, though, things are a little different. When it comes to cultural minimization, adaptation, or integration, you have to know in which situation which response is best. Do you try to persuade other people to adopt your own cultural values and behavior (minimization)? Do you do your best to change your attitude and actions (adaptation)? Or do you attempt to find a common ground that unites several cultures (integration)? The more cultural agility you possess, the easier it will be for you to decide which course of action to go for.
Of course, multinational companies, global corporations, or even local businesses with a large customer base abroad will be highly interested in hiring candidates for strategic positions that have as many of these competencies as their job requires. Though Ms Caligiuri’s book is grounded in academic research, it is meant to be put to practical use in the business world. Therefore, its clear structure provides guidelines on recruiting and coaching culturally agile talent, on assessment practices in the hiring process, and on creating cross-cultural training programs for your employees.
Moreover, the book also integrates the handling of global mobility support practices into the “cultural agility” framework. Here, Ms Caligiuri makes a big distinction between foreign assignments that are “technical” or “functional” in nature, and those that are rather “developmental” or “strategic”. A classic case for the first kind of assignment would be an engineer sent on an overseas project to introduce new safety measures in production plants. A “strategic” assignment, on the other hand, is that of a CEO dealing with the international merger of two companies from completely different cultures.
Both sorts of overseas assignment need very different kinds of professional support from the global mobility industry. Traditional expat aid is more tailored to technical or functional jobs abroad, with people living in the “expatriate bubble”. This, however, is only of limited help to strategic professionals who need every opportunity to challenge themselves and grow their intercultural proficiency.
All in all, Cultural Agility is a dense read, which would not do as fluffy bedtime reading. But though it is technical and specialized in nature, it’s never jargon-laden or abstract. Even without a background in organizational psychology, you’ll be perfectly able to follow the author’s arguments and profit from her helpful to-do lists. For the expat employee (rather than the HR manager), the book may also contain some impulses on seeking out developmental challenges in their own career abroad.
(Thanks to Paula Caligiuri for kindly offering us a review copy of her work. Photocredit: iStockphoto)