CEOs Need To Watch Out For Arrogance Abroad

On a recent swing through China and Japan, I couldn’t help but notice the disparity between the sanctuary-like atrium style lobby of the Aman Tokyo and the young American executives strolling and lounging around in it. These young professionals looked like they were dressed for a football game. Traveling through the region in the hope of building global business relationships, they seemed ill-prepared, ill-suited and ill-mannered.

Do Not Bare Your Sole

At the $1,000 per night Waldorf Astoria in Shanghai, one young American executive was shrieking multiple “OMGs” about the view as she ate breakfast with her feet perched on the opposite chair, displaying the soles of her sneakers to the world, a cultural faux pas. The couple next to me turned on a white noise app to drown her out. The next day, a bearded male reclined on a lobby couch as if it were a frat bro living room, shoes propped on the furniture. These are some of the reasons we are called “the ugly Americans.”

American cultural arrogance blinds us to our manners and appearance. But the ugliness runs deeper than New Balance sneakers. When we travel abroad, we bring an attitude that is as obnoxious as our dress habits. CEOs who assign young executives the challenge of building business relationships may not be aware of how poorly their companies are being represented. Yet, all it takes is some good old-fashioned cultural retraining.

New Ball Game

Michael Witt, a professor of Asian business and comparative management at the INSEAD business school, is an expert in the emerging field of “Comparative Business Systems.” Witt’s work takes him into each of the major Asian economies, where he gains insights into Asian markets and applies them to a global business strategy. As he told Fortune, “Everyone is playing ball in Asia, but they’re playing a very different game.” After all, Asia now accounts for roughly 38 percent of total global GDP, according to the IMF. The quality of the teams we send as envoys should reflect this level of importance.

Rice Over Rights

The global scoreboard suggests Americans take a dose of humility before thinking about Asia. In China and Japan, longevity exceeds that of U.S. citizens. China has been building universities at the rate of one per week and has lifted more people out of poverty than any other country in human history. It isn’t just these statistics, courtesy of The New York Times bureau chief’s report about Tiananmen Square, but the fact that the Asian economies as a whole will make every Western nation save the U.S. a rounding error.

In Asia, progress is defined in industrial metrics, as in how many homes, hospitals, universities you have built or how many rice bowls per day you have added to the average diet, instead of how many protests or boycotts you have waged. These are simplified versions of two cultural traditions, but the age in which we transport our values abroad is a colonial-era meme whose time has come and gone.

The Americans I witnessed were oblivious as they pranced around in sneakers and barbarian beards in a region where there is no facial hair or casual Friday dress code. They are bringing their home game abroad, and it isn’t going to work. “Culture is not how you pick up the chopsticks,” says Witt. “It’s how you make sense of the world.” As Americans, when we travel through Asia, everything from our manners to our dress code is on display, and people are asking us if that’s how we make sense of their world. We can do better.

There are fantastic consultants more than willing to retrain young execs in the ways of the Asian world. It would behoove American CEOs to take their global teams aside to be sure they have a deep and solid understanding of Asian ways. Remind them to reserve the American centric view for football games.

Read more: The Differences Between Leadership Teams In The U.S. And Asia

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham is Chief Executive magazine's editor-at-large and a professor of leadership at Arizona State University/Thunderbird School of Global Management, where he has also endowed the Cunningham Global Fellowship for next-generation leaders. He also is the founder of Thunderbird Opinions poll of business trends. He was previously publisher of Forbes Magazine and CEO of Zip2 (founded by Elon Musk). Watch his YouTube interviews at Iconic Voices and connect on Twitter @CunninghamJeff and LinkedIn.