Enrique Llamas couldn't believe what he was hearing. Lacking confidence? Not a team player? Not willing to contribute to group discussions? Enrique had thought he was all of those things. So why did he receive such a negative performance evaluation? Enrique felt hurt by the news and wanted to figure out where things could have gone wrong.
Enrique had started his job as a consultant at a firm in Houston, Texas, a few months earlier and was very keen on making a positive impression with his superiors. But this was Enrique's first experience working abroad, and he wasn't entirely sure how to do that. In Mexico, where Enrique was from, he knew exactly what to do. To succeed, a young consultant should get along with others, do good work, and respect his boss. Enrique figured that the same things mattered in the U.S., so that's what he did. He worked long hours and made sure that his work was top quality. Interestingly, that did not seem to be a problem in his performance review.
What was a problem, however, was the fact that he was not a "team player" and was "unwilling to contribute in team discussions." That was only partially true, Enrique thought. With peers, he was quite willing and able to participate, but when his boss and his boss's boss were in the room, Enrique did what he would have done in Mexico: let his superiors guide the meeting and be available to help or contribute if asked. Enrique was very concerned about this negative evaluation and was also highly motivated to succeed. What could he do to improve things going forward?
If you think that it's hard to impress your boss in your native culture, imagine what it's like in a different culture where the way you'd naturally make a positive impression falls flat. That was certainly the case for Enrique and is also the case for hundreds of thousands of professionals in the world who work for bosses with very different expectations for how to make a positive impression. Consider, for example, the case of an employee from China working for a Brazilian manager in Brazil. In China, employees are typically valued for their formality, reserve, and self-control, but in Brazil, it would be close to the opposite. The Brazilian professional culture is quite informal and emotionally expressive. People will typically call each other by their first name at work and often by their nicknames. This is true with colleagues and even with bosses. In many Brazilian companies, there is little formal protocol, and the atmosphere is light and casual, often with a great deal of joking among colleagues. So, imagine someone from China trying to get to know and ultimately impress her Brazilian boss — and how challenging it might be to make this switch.
So how do you impress a foreign boss? The good news is that you start with what you'd typically do in your native culture: do great work, show loyalty to your boss and to the organization, and help your boss accomplish his or her professional goals. The challenging part, however, is that the way in which you accomplish each of these tasks can vary quite significantly across cultures. For example, "doing great work" in some cultures can mean listening carefully to what your boss tells you to do and then performing a given task in a very precise and accurate manner. In other cultures, it might mean something completely different, like taking the initiative, volunteering for assignments, thinking outside of the box, and being an independent producer that your boss can always count on. You can see how these different images of effectiveness can be in great conflict. So, the first key piece of advice when trying to impress a foreign boss is to step outside of your own cultural comfort zone and work hard to learn how to impress in the local context you're in.
The second piece of advice is to get to know your boss. Not all foreign bosses are the same. That should be obvious, but it's something people often overlook in a foreign culture because they are blinded by the most obvious difference — national culture — when the reality is that many other differences matter as well. For example, regional culture can play an important role in determining your boss's expectations. What impresses in Manhattan may not necessarily impress in Sioux City, Iowa. Industry culture matters as well. What impresses at Morgan Stanley might not necessarily impress at Facebook or Caterpillar, or at that small advertising agency down the road. Finally, personal experience also matters a great deal in determining a boss's expectations. Imagine two American bosses: one, a "local" who grew up in the United States, speaks only English, and who has spent his entire career working for American companies; and the second, a "cosmopolitan," who lived and worked for a decade in Asia, and possesses a strong working knowledge of Mandarin. Do you think these two would necessarily have the same expectations of a foreign-born worker trying to impress?
When impressing a foreign boss, the devil is in the details. Don't underestimate cultural differences, but also don't be blinded by them. Consult with colleagues, find a cultural mentor, and do your own careful observations. In short, customize to your context, and your work will pay dividends in any cultural environment.