The concept of cosmopolitanism seems to dominate discussions of the cultural requirements of a global mindset (Levy et al., 2007). The focus of this debate seems to be the need to be sensitive to a number of different cultural norms. Granted, respect for local norms and values are a necessary condition for international management, but such respect does not exclude the recognition that, in many cases, the firm’s innovative advantage stems from being different. For instance, the success of global brands emanates from awakening the consumption habits of local consumers in emerging economies, as such consumers choose to model their consumption habits after those of their at least partly aspirational societies. In a way, the innovative potential of global brands is to some extent determined by their ability to replicate a true and tested model that has already been endorsed by consumers in their host country. If localization efforts of such a product or service dilute the brand to the point where it does no longer represent the aspirational society, success may be compromised.
The commonly held belief that international assignees fail primarily due to their inability to cope with local usages or “localize” is not backed by empirical evidence. Indeed, even though a great deal of research (Bhaskar- Shrinivas, Harrison, Shaffer, & Luk, 2005; Bolino, 2007; Mezias & Scandura, 2005; Takeuchi, Lepak, Marinova, & Yun, 2007) has suggested that maladjustment is a core contributor to expatriate failure, such research has not demonstrated that failure can be necessarily traced to the fact that international assignees erred on the side of failing to adopt local usages. Instead, we argue that failure often stems not from the inability to act locally, but from failing to implement or, possibly more frequently, from failing to understand how certain global standards provide a competitive advantage in spite of their apparent opposition to local usages. Consider for instance the case of an Italian manager working for a Swiss multinational specialized in manufacturing commercial elevators and lifts in India. Concerned about the fact that local employees did not understand the Swiss identity of their employer, the manager organized a visit to the local Swiss embassy, where employees were encouraged to take note of how the place looked like, including its sober furnishings and neatly arranged spaces. The manager felt that familiarity with its Swiss identity would help employees understand the values of reliability and practicality that their company represented, and to communicate such values to customers.
A different stream of research has explored the role of prior crosscultural experiences as an antecedent of adjustment to international assignments (Takeuchi, Shay, & Li, 2008; Takeuchi, Tesluk, Yun, & Lepak, 2005). Less thought, however, has been dedicated to why such experiences facilitate the adjustment process. In my opinion, an unwarranted conclusion often drawn from such evidence is that cross-cultural experience allows individuals to resolve the tension between global and local forces by simply accepting and adopting local usages. We would argue that prior cross-cultural experience becomes a precursor of adjustment through a different mechanism. Undoubtedly, cross-cultural experience allows the individual to experience the tension between local and global forces. Those who truly learn from this experience, however, are not the ones who quickly adopted the local ways, but those who learned to respect local norms without rejecting their underlying core values. That is, adoption of local ways constitutes thoughtless imitation, and it cannot be equated to intelligent adaptation.
The literature on acculturation and cultural identity has revealed that maladjustment does not necessarily come from rejecting the host culture, but from trying to assert the home culture as the “true” and opposite way of the host culture (Sanchez & Fernandez, 1993). Thus, when the manager perceives the host and home identities as mutually exclusive s/he fails to realize that an individual can indeed develop multiple identities and simultaneously fit into various groups and sets of norms.
In short, managers who learn to reconcile the tension between home and host cultures do so by recognizing that global and local forces are two sets of distinct forces that can coexist, rather than being opposite poles of the same continuum. In other words, the process of acculturation in which the international executive is immersed is best represented by a two-factor model, where identification with the host culture proceeds along a different continuum than identification with the home country (Fig. 4.1). This bidimensional model contrasts with the bipolar one where local is the opposite pole of global in either a “thinking” or an “acting” continuum (Kefalas, 1998). As a result, managing the tension between local and global forces does not necessarily mean “balancing” them by finding a proverbial mid-point where such forces neutralize each other and attain equilibrium, but often learning to live with such dualities rather than trying to solve them by shortcutting one in favor of the other.
The literature has long warned international executives about the perils of “going native,” which involves breaking all ties with headquarters and, instead, becoming an ardent defendant of the local approach to doing business. Clearly, this approach is likely to infuriate the corporate headquarters, whose insistence on preserving certain global standards seems ignored. Such a process of “psychological naturalization” pushes the international manager away from his/her boundaryless role, whose nature is precisely to maintain a dual identity and preserve dual loyalties to both the home and host countries (Sanchez et al., 2000).
Going native represents the opposite pole of refusing any form of localization, and both approaches are ineffective ways of managing the tension between centripetal and centrifugal forces, because they both assume that these forces should be balanced—the strength of one should be counterbalanced by the other, so that a proverbial equilibrium may be achieved. We maintain that balancing these forces is not a necessarily effective way to manage them, because quite often one’s innovative advantage resides in the asymmetries that exist between these forces such as, for instance, in preserving certain global standards in the face of local opposition. Once again, consider the example of the multinational specializing in fast-moving consumer goods that insisted in keeping sugar at lower levels than those preferred by local customers in a North African market because their core brand was associated with a happy and healthy lifestyle. Indeed, business is not politics, and a “centrist” approach does not necessarily bring a wider range of potential consumers.