Owww-w-w I’m so sore.

Last night I had my first swim stroke correction classes and today I’m creaking around like a rusted-up sofa bed on legs. But only four more weeks of this mild torment and I’ll be over the magic divide. I’ll be one of those people who Know How To Swim.

Until approximately 6:45 pm last night, I  thought I was already one of those people. Back in the pool lap-swimming freestyle, breaststroke and backstroke after a 4-year break, I prided myself on being a pretty competent, smooth swimmer, solidly in the medium (occasionally fast) lane, secretly condescending of ‘slow lane’ plodders.

I was also morbidly afraid of looking stupid. ‘D’you think I’m doing this right? Do I look like that person swimming over there? (Please say no.) Do I look like I know what I’m doing?’ I’d ask of my occasional swimming partner, although more often of myself. Lap swimming doesn’t come with much collegiate support.

It was the breathing that finally decided it. I just couldn’t manage to swim without stopping after each lap to regain some breath. I had to admit it – I needed expert help to make some adjustments. So I finally signed up for stroke correction classes and last night I joined six other students at my local leisure centre and met our exhaustingly sprightly coach, Thom.

Thom gave us our first instructions, some pep talk and handed out kickboards. Off we went down the pool. Twenty-five endless metres later, my lungs bursting, arms, legs and neck aching, nauseated with ingested water, I puffed up a humiliating last place behind the oldest person in the group. Thom was already discussing next steps with the others and I forced myself not to apologise for holding everyone up.

So that was my first lesson. First swim class in about 30 years, in fact. Last place every time, gallons of pool water, frequent halts to stop myself steering into the lane dividers. And the whole time this little monologue with myself: ‘This is so embarrassing. No, Anna, this is NOT a competition. It’s a class. There has to be someone last. Yep, it’s you. Just concentrate and keep going’.

From the beginning Thom cheerily shot down our assumptions that we were going to master four strokes in five lessons.  Impossible – too many people wanting to do different things at different paces. We’d need the whole four weeks to learn, practise and absorb freestyle alone. At intervals during the lesson, as we came gasping to the end of the lane, Thom shouted at us: ‘So you still think you’re going to learn four strokes in five lessons? Yeah right, ha ha’. Yeah, ha ha. Point taken.

As the lesson progressed I willed my body to do different things. Chest always down, bum up, kick from the hip, straight legs, flexible feet, swivel your legs and head when you breath, not your chest. I felt the physical and mental strain of calling forth long-dormant and non-existent muscle memory. With unfamiliar techniques, my body felt weird and awkward. I had to battle my own ‘performance anxiety’, embarrassment and fatigue. But I felt a flash now and again of ‘Yeah!! This feels great, what a difference’.

Then I’d be off again down the pool, following fresh instructions and forgetting those same techniques, while Thom walked alongside, flapping his arms in gestures that my tired mind couldn’t absorb.

At lesson’s end we had a mock fight, using our kickboards to sling water at each other. ‘So, what are are you doing to get your push and traction? ‘Thom asked us. Engaging our core muscles, we said. Keeping our balance. ‘I love what you’re saying! exclaimed Thom. ‘Yes! So the good news is: you already know how to use these muscles. Now you’re just learning how to use them differently so you can swim better.’

For me, doing these stroke correction classes is all about personal stakes – fitness, well-being, self-image, my own dignity – success. The stakes are essentially the same but so much higher when your business, your employees, your career – even your and your family’s well-being – are at issue.

If you’re setting up or managing expansion into new regions, if you’ve been relocated overseas within your company…even if you’re managing a culturally diverse team of employees who bring different value systems and behaviours to the organisation, you’ll most likely experience a jolting or slow-burn realisation that your technical expertise and your considerable business successes are inadequate in the face of experiences like this:

  • People talk and write differently from what you instinctively feel is right. They’re too circuitous/too blunt, too forceful/too passive. You hate their emailing style and their writing – unacceptable!
  • Those clients and partners you’re trying to cultivate are simply not buying into you. They’re taking too long to engage. Or they’re not engaging at all. It’s frustrating.
  • Your counterpart overseas won’t put the important stuff in writing or give the detail you need. You’re banging your head against a wall.
  • Your team members never speak up and contribute – you always have to do the work.
  • You’re not getting partnerships up and running, You can feel you’re losing respect with your new team and people are starting to leave.
  • You’re starting to feel physically exhausted and your health is suffering.

But why? Like my assumptions about my swimming skills, you probably believe that your ‘cultural GPS’ is already switched on, guiding your strategies and actions. You pride yourself on your cosmopolitan, ‘inclusive’ outlook (international food or movie festivals, anyone?). You may have good cultural knowledge. You’ve probably travelled extensively and you may have already lived and worked internationally.  You have colleagues from many cultures. In your field, you have deep technical experience, even expertise. You may be recognised as a leader in your field. You may be accustomed to success.

Sounds familiar? Well, if your cultural GPS is steering you off an unplanned cliff or telling you to turn around when faced with a unprogrammed bypass, you need an upgrade.

Outside familiar social and professional environments, you may find yourself being thwarted by a myriad of factors, some of which you just can’t put a finger on and others you feel that you can’t adapt to. To your frustration and dismay, your technical expertise and your previous successes aren’t helping you.

The good news is that we have greater capability to adjust ourselves than we give ourselves credit for.

Without realising it or understanding why, you may lack the cultural dexterity you need to make small but necessary adjustments to different cultural environments. You may struggle picking up subtle cues around you that are different from what you’re attuned to or have no personal value to you. Maybe you ignore the signals around you. Maybe you’re not really that good at listening – especially to things you find discomforting or different from your values or views (‘I hate being told that I’m doing it “wrong”‘).

Even if you’re ineffective and your organisation is suffering as a result of your rigid attitudes and behaviours, you may simply not be prepared to get uncomfortable and ‘disrupt’ yourself, your team or your organisation.

The three major psychological challenges we experience when trying to adjust our behaviours are described by Professor Andy Molinksy in his excellent publication Global Dexterity. These are:

  • The competency challenge – do you feel competent to perform different cultural actions in a given situation? Do you think you have the relevant knowledge and skills to successfully adjust the way you act?
  • The authenticity challenge – When you carry out a different cultural action, does it feel authentic and appropriate?  Or do you secretly feel unnatural, anxious, even guilty about performing this new action?
  • The resentment challenge – Do you feel frustrated, resentful or even angry about having to change the way you act in this situation? Do you secretly feel that others should change, not you?

Here’s how it may play out in a swimming context. You could also apply other sporting, music, language or other analogies that resonate with you:

‘The office environment looks the same but there are so many little things that aren’t gelling. I can’t pin them down’ (Which parts of my swimming am I doing wrong? I just can’t tell)

‘My managers/executive team aren’t supporting me. They may even be stonewalling me’ (the sports centre people aren’t paid to give free swimming advice so I can’t ask them and my swimming buddies aren’t much help)

‘Why waste my time learning the local language when everyone speaks English?’ (Why bother going the extra mile? The way I do it is adequate for my aerobic needs)

‘There’s no way I’m going to expose myself to embarrassment by admitting I’m struggling and seeking help.’ (This feels totally uncomfortable, I hate swimming like this and I hate looking like a fool in front of other people)

‘I can’t see or admit that my way is not the only way’ (What’s wrong with the way I swim? Everyone says what a smooth swimmer I am. It works, doesn’t it?)

‘Maybe I’m going through the motions, working in this environment that I just can’t grasp. I’ve lost the passion –  old dog –  so why bother?’ (Too old, too late to change my swimming style. Why bother?).

Unchanged, things may rub along with the usual frictions, misunderstanding, blame-shifting, stereotyping. People will give up and leave. Projects may fail. Overseas ventures and business partnerships that have brought results may have done so at enormous financial cost and collateral damage along the way arising from inadequate cultural effectiveness.

This can negatively impact your ability to develop business relationships in diverse cultural settings and your overall business success.

If you recognise that you have to do something about it, that’s great. Your next step is to understand those challenges, which you can do through cultural training, reading, observing and seeking insights through an appropriate mentor. Your major task is now to work through the psychological challenges of adjusting your behaviours without feeling you’re ‘losing’ yourself or compromising your professional integrity in the process.

Like swimming, with the right training and some ongoing support you can build better technique and expand your muscle memory to become more effective at what you already do. You should test this out first in a supportive, ‘practice’ setting (with friends, in an informal environment) and then in a real work or social context, building confidence and learning from mistakes as you go.

The more you practise – the better you get – the more you’ll relish the challenges and the business and personal rewards.

There’s no sugarcoating the fact that adjusting your attitudes and behaviours is deeply discomforting and takes time. Why else is ‘cultural change’ in business governance such a hot topic right now? From the board level downwards here’s deep tension between rigid, entrenched cultural attitudes and behaviours and the need for organisations to meet the already changed profile of employees, stakeholders and business conditions with skill and flexibility. It’s damned hard to accept, then work through, adjusting behaviours.  Like my swimming lesson, your body and mind will protest noisily as you start testing out different approaches.

The good news is that we have greater capability to adjust ourselves than we give ourselves credit for.

This is not about becoming a cultural expert. It’s about building cultural flexibility into your ‘muscle memory’ that you can draw on in any new cultural situation you find yourself in. You will have to find the moral courage to live with the discomfort, with having to to go back to training wheels from time to time. But, like with swimming, if you seek professional guidance and mentoring and join that with a healthy dose of humility, good humour and social support, you’ll manage the step out of your comfort zone and the transition to greater business effectiveness in new cultural settings and culturally diverse workplaces. And the more you practise it, the better you’ll get and the more you’ll actually relish the challenges and the business and personal rewards.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to stretch my protesting muscles.