You’re Just So American

Any global leader may face culturally motivated development issues.

An Indian executive told me a story about a prominent U.S. CEO who visited an Indian company that was a key supplier. When they met, the U.S. CEO launched into a tirade about how the Indian company was letting the U.S. company down.

Every time he seemed to have finished, he remembered something else, which prompted another bout of ill-tempered shouting. There was a long silence as he waited for his Indian host to react. Finally, the Indian CEO said, “Welcome to India, we are very honored to have you here.” He then looked at his watch. “We have 90 minutes for this meeting, and I see we have used up 45 minutes already. Shall we move onto the agenda?”

The aforementioned story illustrates the emotional mindset of Indian and U.S. cultures. Americans are typically direct and to the point, whereas the Indian instinct is to play one’s cards close to one’s chest. Indians assume you understand their vague promises mean little. “If you don’t get an unambiguous yes, then just assume it’s a no,” one executive told me after several disappointments in India.

U.S. executives also tend to be highly positive and optimistic in their approach to leadership. This can create problems, especially when Americans are dealing with cultures driven by avoidance of failure, such as Europeans. Those cultures can resent settingoverly-optimistic or even impossible goals, or air-brushing away genuine problems. In some cases, American positivity may also be perceived as inauthentic, which can hinder U.S. leaders’ ability to genuinely connect with other cultures.

U.S. executives also show a tendency to engage the world on their own terms and not flex their models too much in different environments. The U.S. global business model often involves rolling out at scale a uniform set of products/services/ways of doing things. This works in many places, but in India, such an attitude runs into the brick wall of Indian stubbornness and an inherent independentmindedness.

As U.S. leaders engage on the global stage, their positivity may come across as naïve optimism in some cultures. Further, others may not share their action orientation and efficiency. Americans need to curb their tendency to assimilate everything into the internal mental models they have about the world and themselves. Instead, U.S. leaders should listen to others rather than imposing their views on them.

As the aforementioned story illustrates, in the face of power, Indian executives can be stubborn and just plain unimpressed. Indian leaders are more prone than other cultures to be internally focused. As a consequence there is a tendency to develop ideas in a relatively individualistic manner.

In our research, we found Indian executives to be particularly poor with respect to “self-awareness and insight.” They tend to respond to feedback as if it was evaluative rather than developmentally helpful. Indian executives also tend to engage in high levels of rationalization to protect their internal view of themselves.

When dealing with people from different world regions, Indian leaders should attempt to think “team first.” Furthermore, as Indians can be highly ritualistic and bureaucratic when interpreting rules and largely unresponsive to others’ desire to be flexible with requirements, an important step for them would be to become less process-bound and resist interpreting their role too narrowly.

Where U.S. executives are highly action-orientated, execution at pace is a challenge for European leaders, as they tend to focus on long-term goals. Similar to Indian leaders, they’re more bureaucratic and rule-governed than their U.S. counterparts.

An analytical, process-oriented and structured approach, which is the default setting of many European-based multinational companies, has given them a competitive advantage over others in the past. However, this thinking style may be too slow, inflexible and cumbersome in a dynamic and fast-moving world where the unpredictable currents of change require a more intuitive, emergent and flexible set of responses.

If European organizations are to maintain a competitive edge in the years to come, European executives will need to learn to be more open toward change and flexible in response to uncertainty. They would also benefit from becoming more agile and action-oriented, learning to operate in a less structured and rigid way.