By John Bevell, Director, Talent Innovation and Corporate Partnerships
Prior to moving to Thailand I studied the Thai language, culture and customs for four months, which prepared me entirely for everything I was to experience, so much that Thai people actually believed I was Thai myself. Life was perfect. The end.
Okay, so things didn’t exactly happen quite like that. Actually, the experience went a bit like this: I spent four months painstakingly trying to learn a tonal language where one word spoken with a different inflection could mean three to five different things. When I arrived ‘in-country’ I found that I was hardly prepared for the cultural complexity – let alone speaking Thai like a native. Instead of hitting the ground running, I spent a year painfully learning and adapting to a new way of life and perspective on the world. I tried. I failed. I tried again. I listened to recorded excerpts of spoken Thai and mimicked the tones, pace and style of speaking over and over until I felt I spoke the word or phrase as good as I could. During that year, I celebrated new holidays like Songkhraan and Loi Kratong and I grew to appreciate the standards, mores and cultural norms of my new home.
If during my first visit, Thailand were an organization and I was applying for a job there, I’d be rejected outright because I wasn’t a cultural fit. Yet, organizations do this very thing every day. Because these organizations are actually seeking candidates who are already ‘natives’ to their organizational culture, they overlook great candidates simply because they are a bit different or approach problems from a unique experience.
What your organization really needs isn’t ‘fit’ at all. It’s a healthy curiosity.
Culturally curious individuals are engaged, interested in others and interesting people. They want to explore what’s new, different or novel. They adapt and flex to the demands of the situation.
This was the lesson I took with me when I moved to Jordan. I spent time asking my Egyptian, Lebanese and Emirati friends about their culture and what words and phrases I needed to know. What I didn’t do was attempt to be a cultural fit before I sat foot in Amman. Because I didn’t know how to act or what to say, I asked. That was the right move. During that year, I traveled to Iraq for business development and applied those same skills again and again. If Bidaya Corporate Communications in Amman had hired me for ‘cultural fit’ I would’ve been dispositioned outright. Instead, Jumana Twal, CEO, hired an American MBA intern based on cultural curiosity – and that decision changed my life.
What organizations need to do…
Stop hiring, firing and dispositioning talent based on arbitrary ‘cultural fit’ and start hiring culturally curious individuals. Seek out talent who is comfortable not knowing the answer, who can pull in desperate data points and devise a different approach or solution, who is brave enough to admit to not knowing the answer but courageous enough to seek it out.
When I first visited Thailand I thought that my practice and preparation meant I’d be a ‘cultural fit’ for the country – I wasn’t. My message to recruiters: no one is a 100% ‘cultural fit’ for your organization when they interview for a role. The question isn’t “Is this candidate a cultural fit?” but instead, “Is this candidate curious enough to fit into our culture?”