Anyone who has joined a short-term missions project is told early and often that flexibility is essential to success in another culture. You can count on things being different than what you expect. I’ve taught the importance of adaptability to every short-term volunteer that ever came to work with us, and we taught it again last week at orientation for long-term appointees with our mission organization who are preparing for deployment overseas.
The ability to adapt is all the more important for those who have been serving across cultures for several years. After working hard to learn a language and understand how a culture operates, we tend to get lazy and assume that we understand how things work – until we get surprised by a new twist in the culture.
After several years of ministry in Japan, I came to understand the value of harmony and the practice of talking around a controversial issue rather than confronting disagreements head on. So imagine my surprise one day after our worship service, when my teammate sharply commanded me to sit down and proceeded with a a long list of complaints against me and my leadership.
After this uncomfortable conversation, I had to step back and process what was happening. How long had I been doing things to offend him, and why didn’t I see the signals earlier? Was this a natural cultural behavior – to pretend things were harmonious through years of working, but slowly let the grievances pile up until it was time to unleash them all in one apocalyptic conflict? Was he even acting according to the norms of his culture, or was there something particular going on in my teammate’s heart that caused him to act outside those norms?
It may not be the culture that surprises us. We forget that every individual in every culture is unique; not everyone acts the way we expect them to. So no matter how well we learn the culture where we are sent, we need to see each person as an individual. That’s why adaptability is an essential skill for effective cross-cultural leadership.
Adaptability requires a “willingness to practice behaviors that are universally acceptable, learning behaviors that are culturally specific, and minimizing behaviors that are ineffective” (Wilson, 2003).* Some leadership skills seem to effective everywhere you go, but some are only effective in specific cultures, and some that may be effective in one culture are counterproductive in another culture.
How do we develop our ability to adapt? It starts with humility, a determination to listen well to those we serve, a heart of openness to what others are thinking and doing. If we are quick to judge, we will be slow to adapt. Keep asking questions; keep listening to the answers. Assume you don’t understand all that needs to be understood. Lead with your ears.
*Wilson, Meena Surie (2003). “Effective cross-cultural leadership: Tips and techniques for developing capacity.” In Boyacigiller, Goodman, & Phillips, Eds., Crossing Cultures: Insights from master teachers. New York, NY: Routledge. Pp. 269-280.