How to balance authenticity and adaptability? By Culture Spark Global

Adaptability or Authenticity- Which is Better?

by | Jun 19, 2020 | Collaborations Across Cultures

There was once an American expatriate, who led a team of 150 employees in a multinational company in Singapore. In meetings, the expatriate would regularly speak up and interject in conversations as this is how he communicated where he came from. Soon after, the expatriate realised that others remained silent. They felt uncomfortable to challenge him and he was perceived as self-centered.

There was once an Indonesia manager who met a European business partner for the first time. Wanting to impress and establish a relationship, the Indonesian manager adjusted their accent and became more outspoken. Because it was the European’s first visit to Indonesia, they felt welcomed and at ease in communication. However, the manager’s peers saw the manager as ingratiating and inauthentic. 

The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings.

~Kakuzo Okakura

The American expatriate wanted to show authenticity but was ineffective in the Singapore work culture. The Indonesian manager wanted to adapt to show hospitality but was misunderstood for being too eager and insincere.

Authenticity and Adaptability are usually seen as a dichotomy, pitted against each other. The argument is that when one adapts, you lose authenticity. When you are authentic, others may not be able to understand or relate. Both are needed to succeed in a globalised world. The question now is how can we balance both authenticity and adaptability? There are 3 key things to consider when you want to balance between authenticity and adaptability. Firstly, is to recognise your core values. Secondly, is to embrace discomfort and finally it is in knowing the right time and place to practice authenticity and adaptability.  

Before we delve deeper into the balancing act of Adaptability and Authenticity, let’s explore what it means to be adaptable and authentic. 

Authenticity or Adaptability by Culture Spark Global

The Case for Authenticity

Authenticity has been such a big buzz word of late. Advocates of authenticity speak of being “true to yourself”. Being authentic also means to continuously strive to align with your core values and beliefs with your behaviour and lifestyle. By doing so, others will be able to recognise your “true self” and subsequently build deeper connection and lasting trust. 

In the book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown, says “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”

Honesty and “being real” are important in building trust and establishing long-lasting relationships. However, different cultures perceive authentic behaviour differently. 

In the example of the American expatriate, his culture values “speaking your mind” and is seen as an authentic behaviour. However, if the same behaviour is practiced in a culture that is collectivist and more neutral in their expressions, others may perceive this person as boastful, inconsiderate, and possibly incompetent. 

The opposite can be true too. For example, the Indonesia manager from a collectivist society listens intently to visitors from an expressive and individualist culture. Those in the individualist society might be perceive this person as not value-adding or possibly incompetent. 

In both cases of the American expatriate and Indonesia manager, the perception of others is different from the person’s intention. As such, can being adaptable help us to be perceived as more authentic?

The Case for Adaptability by Culture Spark Global

📸 by Nacho Juarez

The Case for Adaptability

Adaptability is a skill that can be developed, yet it’s not taught by many. According to Barclays LifeSkills, 60% surveyed say that adaptability has become more important in the previous decade and that only 8% of companies provide specific training on adaptability. In LinkedIn’s Workplace Learning Report 2020, adaptability is one of the top 5 soft skills that companies need most. 

Why has adaptability become such an important skill in the workplace? Faced with unprecedented changes in society, economies and technologies, the best way for businesses to survive and remain competitive is to become adaptable.

All failure is failure to adapt, all success is successful adaptation.

~ Max McKeown

When crossing cultures, individuals who are unable to adapt to a situation are perceived as rigid, unwilling to learn, inconsiderate or  even rude. For example, a leader who is used to making all the decisions finds themselves in a culture that practices consensus-based decision making. They might be perceived as a leader who is arrogant and inconsiderate of his/her peers.

Whereas, when individuals demonstrate too much flexibility, they can be perceived as ineffectual, lacking will and at its worst hypocritical. As in the example of the Indonesia manager, the subordinates might perceive this behaviour as ingratiating and possibly cowardly, when their leader speaks and behaves differently with different stakeholders and clients.

While we need adaptability to survive, too much of it can be disorienting to others. How can both authenticity and adaptability work together?

Authenticity and Adaptability by culture spark global

Authenticity And Adaptability Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Humans are multifaceted and complex. We are more than a label or style that is placed in rigid categories. Imagine that each of us is an iceberg, where only 11% of ourselves can be seen above the water. The part of the iceberg above the water is what everyone is able to see, which is our dressing, preferred cuisine, traditional holidays, etc. While the iceberg below the water consists of the parts that are unseen, parts of ourselves that are more difficult to explain, such as our beliefs, values, thought processes, customs, etc. 

Within our multifaceted selves, we can choose which parts stay authentic and which can be adaptable. Just as the chameleon changes its skin colour to blend into its surroundings, it will always remain a reptile. 

To balance both authenticity and adaptability, one has to be clear in their personal values, beliefs, and intentions, and also be courageous enough to learn different ways of delivering your authentic self. This can be seen in a multicultural society with high-levels of racial integration. For example, South Africa consists of over 10 tribes and ethnic groups with 11 national languages. In communicating and interacting with each other, it is common to hear them adjust their behaviour and speak multiple languages in a conversation to each other’s culture. Yet, their intention behind it remains the same.

How to balance authenticity and adaptability? By Culture Spark Global

How can we balance between Authenticity and Adaptability?

The balancing act between Authenticity and Adaptability takes time to develop, the courage to experiment, an openness to feedback and persistence to keep trying. Here are some suggestions.

Make a list of your personal values

Firstly, we need to reflect upon and find clarity in our core values, beliefs, and intentions. By doing so, you can be sure that the essence of your message stays the same even when the style and method of delivery differs. 

Clear away about half an hour of your time. Find a quiet space to focus. Grab a pen and paper and ask yourself these questions

  • What were the moments in your life that gave you the most joy and fulfilment? 
  • What were the moments in your life that made you angry, sad, frustrated, or disappointed?
  • When reviewing these moments, what were the values behind them?

Become comfortable in uncomfortable situations

It is only natural that we want to remain in our comfort zone because we want to avoid inconvenience, uneasiness, and struggles. The biggest problem with remaining in the comfort zone is that we become complacent and we stop learning. 

While it is unrealistic and possibly dangerous to drastically change your ways, you can stretch your comfort zone by trying these few steps.

  • Go to places you’ve not been to before. It does not have to be an exotic country. It could be an unexplored area in town or even the other side of your neighbourhood. Take a short drive and find a restaurant or cafe to try. Notice the architecture, the streets, the kinds of shops and restaurants available. Observe the people, their clothing, and their surroundings. 
  • Try something new every day. Take a different route to work. Watch a different movie genre or even a movie in a different language. (with subtitles, of course) Listen to a new podcast show. 
  • Make a new connection – With social media, it is easier now more than ever to make a new connection with someone from a different culture. Drop a message to say hello, or give a compliment. Don’t have the expectation that you’ll be BFF (best friends forever). Stay curious and open. 

We cannot be stronger or smarter without struggle.

~ Ling Ling, Tai

While authenticity and adaptability are usually pitted against each other. However, we need a balance of both to succeed in a culturally-diverse environment. When you’re too rigidly authentic or extremely flexible, misunderstandings or conflict may arise. Multicultural societies, such as in South Africa, are great examples on how to balance both adaptability and authenticity, which means this skill can be developed. Without this skill, it will be difficult for you to be successful and effective in a globalised world.

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Ling Ling, Tai

Ling Ling is a seasoned Learning and Development Professional with a passion for supporting leaders and teams in leveraging diversity, increasing intercultural awareness, and cultivating inclusive workplaces. Having lived and worked in 6 countries, she believes that openness, compassion and connectedness creates workplaces that are thriving and engaging. 

The authentic self is soul made visible.

Sarah Ban Breathnach