The art of management in emerging markets - shock and awe, Part 5

by Alan Royal

In my last blog learning the strange, I introduced the idea of accepting the strangeness of the unknown as a basis for learning. Embedded within that critical competency is a critical moment in time: the rupture of the familiar.

This is the expatriate's palpable shock and awe. That moment when your eyes are wide open and your brain is wheeling. And it leads to our third new competency: resolute real time resilience - the ability to bounce back from the shock experienced when the reality of the emerging market does not conform to one's expectations of how things should be.

Resolute because you need to make a commitment to not apply learned management practice to solve the strangeness that is causing a rupture of the familiar. This is how one learns to deal with the strangeness of a management situation with new, previously unpractised management techniques.

For example...

One day you come to work to find one of your male employees wearing women's clothing. They are in the middle of the sex reassignment process. You and your staff have been through the diversity training classes, so you know this individual must be accommodated, but how?

Despite experiencing a rupture of the familiar, you are resolute in your desire to address this management situation. You make special bathroom arrangements and have diversity refresher courses for your staff. You are able to practice management as an art form, rather than resort to learned behaviour.

Of course this example is as applicable to the developed world as it is to the developing world.

Fighting learned behaviours on arrival, and emotion

Controlling your emotions plays a big part in being able to maintain resoluteness and resilience, a critical point summed up by this expatriate:

"Your mindset going into first engagement in an emerging market with the locals has to be absolutely to expect anything. The emotions associated with that are, from a personal perspective, to be reactive and sometimes fiery if first engagement with the locals doesn't meet my expectations. But over time I have had to overcome emotions - my personal, learned or emotional reactions - in favour of skills. I have to cope with anger, cope with emotion, so that my demeanour is always balanced."

We must always remember that emotion is our most primal automatic reaction to the strange and unknown - and it quickly leads us back to learned management practice, which has the effect of negating the benefits associated with these competencies.

Accepting a rupture of the familiar to get things done

In emerging markets, you need resilience to uncover how to get things done.

"I needed a staff member from a different department, for which I was not responsible, to communicate to his superior issues that I had related to his [the superior's] performance, in order to get past a critical issue. I was informed that the only way a subordinate could provide constructive feedback to his superior was in the context of an evening encounter in which the subordinate and superior had achieved a totally inebriated state. As such, to get past the critical issue I was facing, I had to quickly organise and sponsor an evening drinking session between this subordinate and his superior."

Eyes wide open yet? The appropriate message got communicated in the cultural accepted way, and there was resolution to the management situation, in a manner never encountered before.

Failure to fly

A manager willing to reconsider their way of looking at the world, in the light of the host culture's way of doing things, and to work with their emotions, is successful. But what if you don't?

"Based upon previous experience, what is encountered is often shocking and often results in the locals being viewed as ignorant. To be more specific, the expatriates' lack of effectiveness of early achievement is often directed at the locals, supported by views that the locals are incompetent and unmanageable when in fact this is not the case. The reality often is that the expatriate expects the locals to adapt his views of reality rather than him accepting and working with their views of reality."

An unchanging manager will experience what he expects. It's a classic Catch-22.

What does mastery of these competencies look like?

You have come to a new assignment where strangeness and ruptures of the familiar abound. Resolve to take the locals with you on the journey through the process of learning, which so many in emerging market countries are anxious to do.

What many expatriates in emerging markets do not realise is that the locals get it. Their practices are out of date and they want to change. However, if their manager cannot deal with strangeness and a rupture of the familiar, and stand resiliently to lead them through the journey of modernisation, they will reject the expatriate manager as one who does not understand their lived reality.

You will fail because you didn't adapt, not because they didn't want to.