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  • Writer's pictureTamara Makoni

Flexibility: the cornerstone of cross-cultural success

It’s no secret that I love the Olympics. Every time it rolls into town I’m like a kid in a candy store. So many sports to feast on, so little time!

For those two weeks my mission is clear; social commitments fall by the wayside as I cram in as much viewing as possible. Friends know to expect little from me besides sports trivia they didn’t ask for.

And within the Olympics I have a strict pecking order. There are the sports I watch because they’re on, and those I rearrange my life around so I don’t miss a second of the action. Gymnastics falls into the latter category. I’ve seen dozens of routines by now, but watching athletes navigate each piece of equipment never gets old. I’m mesmerised by it all - from the twists and flips to hyper-extended leaps and dismounts.

Maintaining a high degree of flexibility is vital to gymnasts' ability to perform these skills. And those who work in diverse, multicultural business environments know that it also underpins their ability to thrive there.

Of course, I'm now talking about mental rather than physical flexibility. Thinking in an agile way that allows you to tolerate ambiguity, consider different avenues and possibilities, and minimise the amount of stress you experience when you encounter something unfamiliar.

For instance, understanding that while thumbs up means one thing in your culture it may mean something different to the people you’re communicating with. Mental flexibility enables you to understand this, adapt your behaviour accordingly, and find another way to communicate what you want to get across. Without mental flexibility you might just stick to using the thumbs up symbol rigidly, no matter the consequences.

Expats have long known that adopting a flexible mindset significantly impact their ability to integrate and adapt to new surroundings. As one stated, ‘staying flexible and not getting stuck in a ‘this is how it’s supposed to work’ mindset will save you an infinite amount of stress and pain.’

But even if emigrating isn’t on your radar, applying this mindset when working with others will improve your effectiveness in multicultural teams and settings. It can be uncomfortable, for example, when you join a team that conducts meetings differently to how you’ve worked in the past. But different doesn’t necessarily equate to there will be inferior outcomes. What can you do to operate successfully in this new context? What does your team’s way of working tell you about shared and individual values? And, importantly, what can you take from this experience to enrich your own methods?

Don’t mistake flexibility for weakness

The best thing about flexibility? Not only does it up your efficacy factor, it puts the right conditions in place for you to enjoy the ride as it happens. A nimble mind is a creative mind, exploring possibilities and trying new things in order to achieve its goals.

And being flexible doesn’t mean giving in or losing sight of what you want: an elastic band is able to hold objects together precisely because it is flexible, not in spite of it. It’s not a high stakes zero sum game.

Final thought:

‘Leaders honour their core values, but they are flexible in how they execute them.’

- Colin Powell


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