Outsourced: New Show Bound to Spotlight What NOT to do When Managing in New Cultures

I can’t help but think that Outsourced, a new workplace comedy scheduled to air this week, will give us another reason to laugh at potential real-life business scenarios. In a vein similar to The Office, this show centers around an American manager who relocates to run a call center in India, and how he interacts with the cast of characters he is charged with managing.

The premise of this fictitious show reminds me of the challenges organizations face in managing different cultures in a global environment and the one common mistake that most make—thinking people are different in other countries.  As a matter of fact, I made this mistake early in my career too!  My client, a textile company in Italy, was the first work we had done outside the U.S.  We had trained an internal consultant, Enrico, to assist in implementing a performance improvement initiative in seven of their plants. 

At lunch on the day Enrico was to return to Italy, we were discussing the details of the implementation when I remarked “I sure do hope this works in Italy.”  He responded, “It will work in Italy.  Do you know why?”  “Why, I asked?”  He replied, “Because Italians are people too.”  Touché. The laws of behavior are the same in Italy as they are in the U. S. – exactly the same!  The principles that cause people to do their best are the same in India, China, Russia and the rest of the world. 

When managers export techniques that they have learned in the U. S. to other cultures without an understanding of the science of behavior, they are bound to have problems as I am sure that this series will exploit.  In the US, when managers implement ‘best practices’ without understanding the laws of behavior, we get funny shows like The Office and just as likely, Outsourced. Such shows are made very funny because the scenes show that the boss doesn’t have a clue as to why employees do or don’t act the way the manager intends. Equally important to managing employees globally is to successfully identify the right reinforcers.

Managers must understand what is reinforcing to each individual in order to get the right behavior going, and keep it going. Given the cultural differences between the US and India, I expect many laughs on this topic as well. Whether managing locally or globally, follow these tips (validated by the science and applied across the U. S., and in over 30 countries, for the past 35 years) for improving performance:

  1. Discover the positive reinforcers of each individual involved. They are different for every individual, regardless of geographical locale. Dinner with the boss, while reinforcing to many is terrifying to others. Standing before a group to talk about some personal work accomplishment is what many employees strive for while others dread.  Social reinforcement cannot work without a good personal relationship.
  2. Determine the behaviors that add value. Not attitudes or competencies but things you would want to see someone do. Make sure they are directly related to a specific business result.
  3. Graph progress of individuals and/or the group. Post group progress publically; individual progress privately
  4. Reinforce behaviors that contribute to the progress. If you do it right, you can’t do it too much.
  5. Celebrate results. Relive the accomplishment by having employees describe actions that created the result.

When managers know the scientific principles that explain why people do as they do, the setting is no longer strange and mysterious—another culture and thus not relevant to us.  Rather, they can see the humanity common to us all.  They can use these scientific principles to derive techniques that consider and respect the particular culture in which they are applied.  They won’t be as funny as Outsourced, but will certainly be more effective.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.