I am not crazy – I am just not you!

The other day I met with a former client, now an expat in Paris, who had returned to New York for the holidays. He had called out of the blue to ask for a session on a specific topic, which turned out to be cultural assimilation. Without going into excessive detail, I’ll summarize as follows: he found that the local team he now leads has fundamentally different ways of managing time than he is used to. Since he works in a fairly transactional environment, this causes him anxiety; moreover, it requires him to stay longer at the office than he believes is necessary were the day structured more efficiently. He was surprised, however, at how difficult it was to convince people of the implications of his way of working, for example taking shorter lunches or simply eating while working.

Our subsequent dialogue was less about work efficiency than about what is “normal”, and it reminded me of the video at the start of this post that nicely illustrates the issue.  Imagine, for a moment, that every penguin in this recording acted the way the main actor does – all but one, that is, who would stand sullenly off to the side.  Who would be “normal”?  The point is that working well in different cultures requires observation and the ability to assimilate.  The question of “what is the most effective way” already incorporates assumptions about effectiveness that may not hold in a new environment.  In the example of France, for example, the social fabric of an office relies more on the informal coffee or lunch together than it does in the US, and efficiency relies on that social fabric.

While my client and I developed a few simple exercises to ease the transition, I loved the 360-feedback comments he received from one of his team members:  “I am not crazy, I am just not you!”  Crisp and poignant, and a reminder to us all as we head into 2011.