A Practical Tool for People Managers: The D-I-N Model

January 27, 2011

By Rebecca Parrilla

Are you a people- or project manager?  If so, have you ever tried to mediate a conflict between team members – where you suspect that at least part of the issue might be cultural – but you’re not quite sure what approach to take?

Culture plays a role in workplace conflicts more often than you’d think.  Here we define culture as a set of behaviors and values that are learned and shared by a group of people.  And when we say group we don’t just mean geographic populations – we’re not just talking about nationality or ethnicity.  Your team could have members who see the world differently in part because they are men, women, Catholic, atheist, Baby Boomers, married, single, grew up in Texas, grew up in Singapore, or have years of experience in a totally different industry.  So the chances of you managing a team in which all members share the exact same culture is nearly impossible!

So, back to mediating conflict. As a manager, it’s challenging enough to resolve disagreements without the added layer of cross-cultural misunderstanding.  So, what is a practical tool for navigating conflict with intercultural competence*?   We recommend the DIN (Describe-Interpret-Navigate) model.

First, it’s easy to remember because it’s just three letters.  And second, each letter represents a linear step in a process:

 D—Describe… Use only measurable, observable facts when reviewing what’s happened. A good rule of thumb is to state actions and words in a neutral, objective way that cannot be disputed by any party in the disagreement. True “descriptions” are usually pretty boring in nature. (Example: “He interrupted me quite rudely” can be re-stated much more neutrally as “He asked me a question before I finished what I was saying.”)  

 Examples of questions you can ask a team member, to get at the “D”:

What do you mean when you say “he was aggressive?”

How exactly did she “agree” to your request?

 I—Interpret… Evaluate the situation from each culture’s perspective, and be very careful to separate out personal judgments.  In other words, be sure you are interpreting the situation from both your culture’s point of view (easy) and also from and through the other culture/s’ perspective (much harder).  This is extremely important: interpret other cultures in good faith, and with a sincere desire to understand; assume positive intentions when you take their perspective (as you surely do for yourself).

Examples of questions you can ask a team member, to get at the “I”:

What do you think she was thinking when she said/did that?

What do you know about him that might explain that?

N—Navigate… Think through ways each person can navigate the situation effectively- ensuring that they take the different interpretations into account in their approach.  This is also extremely important: it is not necessary to agree with every cultural interpretation – but to be effective and successful, we must consider the consequences of our approach on other culture/s as part of our navigation plan.  If we don’t, a one-sided solution will emerge that will surely take its toll on the productivity, confidence, and drive of the party that was neglected.

Examples of questions you can ask a team member, to arrive at an effective “N”:

  • Knowing what you know, how might you do things differently next time?
  • Was s/he clear on behavioral expectations before this happened?

Can you think of a situation in which you or your colleagues jumped right into “Interpretation” before thinking through the “Description”?  Starting today, see if you can identify when you can hear someone interpreting before describing.  See how skilled you can be in distinguishing what actually happened from what a team member may have perceived to have happened. We challenge you to have them take a step back and practice the DIN.


Is Globalization Killing the “Ugly American?”

January 19, 2011

By Sean Oliver

“Americans were more rude when the dollar was strong,” – longtime waiter at Madrid’s landmark Cerveceria Alemana Bar

In January 10th’s LA Times, Gregory Rodriguez writes: “Far from projecting an image of narrow-minded superiority, Americans abroad today are more reflective of the country’s expanding diversity and cultural sophistication. They come from a broader array of backgrounds and traditions. Many still have strong ties to homelands around the globe.”

He’s writing about the shifting perspective of Americans traveling abroad; it reminds me of the tutelage from my mother about how to behave outside of the US: “Don’t complain that things aren’t the same as in The US. Try all the food; yes, all of it. Don’t talk about how things are better in America. Don’t laugh at differences. Try to speak as much of the language as you can. Don’t pick the soccer ball up with your hands.” The point was to differentiate our family from all the “bad” American tourists out there.

And they are out there…. or at least, they were. I traveled to Italy in 1996 while I was in high school, on a class trip (mistake #1). My American compatriots refused to speak any Italian, and complained about the food non-stop (“too much fish”). They ate at McDonald’s. They complained about having to change money (“why don’t they just use dollars?”). Students were forbidden from drinking any alcohol, even a glass of wine with dinner (to the horror of the Italians: “Why would you come to Italy if you can’t drink the wine?”). Needless to say, the trip ended badly, and I was angry at myself for having gone, as I knew full-well that most of my classmates (and chaperones) hadn’t been out of the country before, and were likely to live up to stereotypes.

But I think, as Mr. Rodriguez notes in his article, that globalization has had a dynamic impact on American travel culture, and American culture as a whole. In the early days of the pre-crisis globalizing economy, it was assumed that globalization would involve a unidirectional export of American culture to the rest of the world. But we can see that in fact, globalization changes US culture as much as it changes the rest of the world. American kids watch Japanese cartoons on Saturday mornings, and play with Chinese-manufactured toys. Americans know that if they hire a (non-union) plumber or construction worker, they might not speak English, either as a first language, or at all (and if the price is right, we probably don’t care). They’re more likely to know some basic cuisine from other countries than in the past (salsa became the highest-selling condiment in the US in the mid-1990’s, beating out ketchup). They may even have an opinion on the bustling economies of Brazil, Russian, China, and India.

Personally, I’ve noticed the shifting trend in traveler culture for the last 10 years. It may be my personal perspective and bias, but I’ve seen tourists from the UK, Germany, and Australia edge closer towards what we would call “ugly” traveler stereotypes, more than Americans. It might have to do with the Euro being stronger, but in my mind, I’m in agreement with Mr. Rodriguez that it’s got more do with shifting American attitudes towards diversity and cultural differences as a whole. As Americans becomes more and more heterogeneous in terms of demographics and culture, the more Americans become accustomed to cultural differences and have the opportunity to navigate them more easily.


Cross-Cultural Competence and Education: Keep the Change?

January 12, 2011

By Susan McCuistion

I was talking to a friend last week, and he told me a story about his 8-year old daughter. He had been called in for a conference with the teacher, because the teacher was concerned that Kayla [not her real name] was doing so well on written math tests, but was failing her verbal tests. My friend asked for an example. The teacher asked Kayla, “If you have a quarter, and you buy a pencil at the school bookstore for 10 cents, how much change should you get back?” Kayla’s answer? “None.” My friend was perplexed, and called Kayla over. He repeated the question for Kayla, and said, “Why did you answer that you shouldn’t get any change back?” Kayla responded, “Well, Daddy, it’s only 15 cents back, so I thought I’d tell them to just keep the change like you do when we go out to a restaurant. Also, why would I buy a pencil at the school bookstore for 10 cents when I can go to Target and get them for 5 cents?” Needless to say, the teacher was quite surprised at this answer. She had not expected such a complex thought pattern from an 8-year old. I wonder if, perhaps, the teacher was also unconsciously influenced by her beliefs about girls and math, or even, as Kayla is African American and the teacher is white, her expectations for the African American students in her class.

Classroom demographics are changing rapidly. As a national average, the 2009-10 school year was the first year there was a non-majority white kindergarten class, and different areas around the country have been experiencing this demographic shift for years. At the same time, roughly 80% of American teachers are white, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and 42 % of our public schools have no teachers of color (National Education Association).  Students in teacher education are often given only one class in multicultural education, a class that often focuses primarily on gender differences, and where there is not a lot of practical advice on flexing teaching skills to meet the differing needs of children from many different cultures. The changing demographics and lack of training teachers have around culture only contribute to the education crisis we already face in the U.S.

Cross-cultural competence is a key skill for teachers in the classroom, at any level. Teachers need to understand the cultures of their students in order to keep children engaged in education and provide a relevant, quality education for all students. They need to be able to flex their styles, see things from different points of view, and understand their own biases. Cross-cultural competence helps teachers develop culturally relevant teaching that engages and motivates students by making connections for them in a context they can understand, and it can help them to engage students’ parents, members of the community, and other teachers, staff and administration. This critical skill needs to be demanded of our teachers, administration, and staff, for our students to succeed.


What, Me!? Ethnocentric? What Americans and Indians (and some Japanese) say about working together

January 7, 2011

By Monica Marcel

Getting called out on our ‘stuff’ is good. We may not LIKE it, but it’s important for growth, for self-awareness…and for intercultural competence, too, by the way.

Recently we’ve been doing research to uncover what Asia-based offices find both difficult and positive when it comes to working with the American headquarters staff of one our newer clients. The dataset is in many ways what we’ve come to expect in the ten years of doing this work—a mix of statements ranging from how Americans are ‘straightforward’, ‘planning oriented’, and ‘open’, to the occasionally more pointed and revealing such as ‘heavy-handed’ and ‘controlling’.

One Indian-based manager went so far as to comment on how his team sees the Americans’ non-collaborative approach: “There is a predominant feeling that ‘We (the Americans) will tell you what to do’”.  When we share this feedback with his U.S. counterparts, and we will, some will protest that his characterization is unfair or inaccurate, while others will squirm with the knowledge of having been called out on what they know is an uncomfortable truth—they do tend to tell their Indian counterparts what to do, and now that they think about it, they will realize it may not be the best approach.

This of course is why we do this research—not to cause protests or make people squirm—but to help uncover and bring to light the things that we do to undermine our own best intentions in cross-cultural collaborations. These undermining behaviors are most often rooted in subconscious beliefs that ‘our way is the best way’—even though we would rarely say such a thing out loud.

Look at this comment from the dataset that came from a Japanese team member, who drew an analogy between the World Series® and his organization’s use of the term ‘global’:

The World Series®: When hearing this phrase, one can frequently believe that this is an international event representing all countries but in reality it is only an event held within the United States. I hear lots of talk and believe that the core meaning of the word “Global”(on our team) does not necessarily mean “global scale” but is pushing to create a standard from within the United States… I do not feel that we can use the term ‘global’ within a company culture that focuses on a top-down structure that for the most part does not accept the bottom-up approach.

How lucky for this team that they have a Japanese team member willing to call out his U.S. counterparts for talking ‘global’ but still not accepting bottom-up (non-U.S.) approaches. In technical terms, this is what we mean by ‘ethnocentrism’. And with this insight of where the team is behaving in an ethnocentric way, they now have the opportunity to do something about it.

Rest assured, by the way, Americans hardly have a monopoly on being ethnocentric. People in every culture, left unchecked, have a tendency to think that theirs is more special, more right, with more to offer. It’s what makes cultures strong, and it’s what helps create a sense of pride and community… It just happens to introduce blind spots and group think, when left unchecked.

Let’s look at this dataset one more time. This time, for an example of ethnocentrism coming from India: “People in India have come from diverse backgrounds, unlike the Americans who don’t have much diversity.” This person is clearly proud of what he sees as a strength of his Indian team, i.e. the diverse backgrounds. He’s probably also frustrated with his American counterparts, who may not be appreciating or leveraging his team’s differences as much as he’d like. That said—I know a few hundred million Americans who would be happy to educate him on the tremendous diversity present within the U.S. that he seems to have not yet experienced.

That’s the thing about cross-cultural work—there’s always more to learn, and more blind spots to uncover. We should all work to find ways to get called out on our stuff. It’s not always fun, but it’s worth it.