Conrado Morlan of the Project Management Institute wants to tell you a short story about the value of adapting to different cultural attitudes. He talks about joining a global corporation in Mexico a few decades ago, where he worked at a building with a boardroom that was lined with awards and honors. The mahogany table where many major deals had been made was “treated like a museum piece.” Morlan says there came a day when American executives from their US headquarters came to their Mexican branch for a quarterly review meeting, and he was shocked to see the American executives fling their business cards across a table at him and the other Mexican executives, as well as casually drop handouts in front of them. Morlan and his people by comparison handed their cards and handouts respectfully to the Americans. Even worse, one executive put his feet up on the mahogany table. It was a very frustrating experience for Morlan, who perceived the Americans as rude, and so the next time the Americans came, he turned the tables on them. He flung his cards and handouts at the Americans while politely handing out his cards and handouts to the other Mexicans. The results were surprising:
By the end of the meeting, the executive I saw with his feet up on the table months prior asked me to stay in the room. I expected to be reprimanded, or even fired. But he said: “Thanks, Conrado. Your actions during the meeting made me realize that business behaviors need to be adjusted according to location. What may be okay in my country may not be okay in yours. You taught me a great lesson. Employees like you make this a great company.”
As Morlan says, his actions ultimately became a source of motivation, introspection, and change within the company. He does not recommend going to such extremes all the time, but the point is that we have much to learn about each other’s cultures, and we will operate better in business as we attempt to understand those nuances.