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Is it ever appropriate not to follow local cultural norms?

“Imagine it’s your first day on the job as chief operating officer of a global manufacturing company in a foreign country. You don’t speak the language, you don’t know where the company’s plants are located, and you don’t even know how to make a phone call.”

That’s how Carlos Ghosn landed in Japan when he took over Nissan Motor Corporation some 15 years ago.  To see the full article, go to

Stanford Education News

What’s interesting to me is that Ghosn did not follow Japanese cultural norms in many respects.  Much of the literature in the field of cross-cultural communications at least implies that whenever we travel across cultures we need to follow the local culture’s rules.  That’s what I was taught in the Peace Corps prior to my assignment in Afghanistan many years ago, and we certainly were a unique group among the American ex-pats in Afghanistan because we at least understood that the Afghans represented a different culture in many ways.  Most of the other Americans, blissfully unaware of cultural differences, just thought the Afghans were different, weird, or incompetent.  Most of those expats lived in American bubbles, separated but together in large living compounds with guards and high walls.  The only Afghans they met, under usual circumstances, were their servants and an occasional Afghan counterpart.

There are times when it is prudent to follow the rules of a local culture, and sometime prudent not to. 

So when is it not appropriate to follow local cultural norms?  Well, in Ghosn’s case he was hired by Nissan’s board, as a French-Lebanese-Brazilian born in Porto Velho, Brazil, that is to say as an outsider, although one with a strong reputation in the automobile industry.  He was one of the first non-Japanese to lead a major Japanese company.  Now, why would the board hire an outsider? 

Clearly they expected Ghosn to break some eggs, and some cultural norms. Ghosn notes:  “. . . We had overcapacity. Nobody wants to talk about shutting down plants in Japan. Why? Because it is something which is sacred. No — you know, shutting down a plant in Japan is something that nobody does. I mean, it's something which has to be forced at a certain point in time." He also broke the company’s keiretsu, the chain of suppliers, and provoked public outrage.

So in certain circumstances, to be successful at change, you need to be able to break some eggs. You can neither follow norms, nor break them, unless you understand the values, norms, beliefs, the underpinnings of a culture.  Only then can you make an informed decision about whether to follow, or to break, the cultural standards.  And that depends upon your goals, and the goals of those for whom you work with and for. 

That’s why, when ITAP and our certified trainers and coaches utilize the Culture in the Workplace Questionnaire (CWQ) for those who work or will be working in other countries, we make sure to indicate that one’s own cultural profile is not predictive of success or failure, but suggests how your approaches may be utilized, and would be perceived, by those with whom you will be working.  Then you can make you own decision about whether following the cultural norms or not following them would make you and your colleagues more effective in your work.  Most of the time, it’s better to follow the local cultural norms.  But once in a while, it may be better not to.

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