Avoid the "Ugly American" Approach to Change

Jeff Cole

"Ugly American" was a phrase coined decades ago describing arrogant behavior of Americans abroad. A recent trip to Europe confirmed for me that Ugly Americans are still out there. Watch some Americans visit Europe for the first time. They seem to think English is a universal language and wonder why all the people there don’t speak it. They walk up to someone and start rattling off questions in English and then get upset if the person doesn’t understand them. (Europeans, on the other hand, must wonder why Americans only know one language.)

Aside from language, some Americans with our "super size" mentality wonder why restaurant portions are so small, don’t understand the metric system, rules of the road, or - most noticeably - the importance of culture.

Europe is interesting in that it is saturated with culture and history. It’s oozing from every crevice of every ancient structure. The subtleties and intricacies of the myriad cultures and practices can be overwhelming at first. When you greet a friend or colleague is it a handshake or a kiss? One cheek or both? How far apart do you stand when talking?

So what does any of this have to do with driving change? Every organization (domestic or foreign) or even different divisions or departments within a company has their own culture and unique set of practices. The shared beliefs, behaviors, and assumptions made in those groups can vary widely. Want to get along well in Europe? When in Rome…you get the picture – adapting to the culture of the city you’re visiting makes life much easier. The same goes when you are trying to get along in any organization - especially when you are dealing with disruptive efforts such as driving process change.


Want to avoid being the "Ugly American" in your organization’s next change? Here are a few tips:

What language do they speak? It is our job to adapt to the audience’s language. It is not their job to adapt to ours. Keep in mind that your "native language" may not be spoken by the general audience impacted by your process change. Avoid the "sigma-speak" and "OD-speak". A Six Sigma Black Belt excitedly speaking about p-values and t-tests will often receive blank stares from a typical audience of office workers. An Organization Development person pontificating on the advantages of their "enabling triads" and "appreciative inquiry" approach will often be shown the door. Rather, consider adapting to the audience’s native language. Executives often speak a financial language. Operations professionals like OPs-speak. HR has their own language, etc. Success in driving process change often hinges on our ability to become multi-lingual.

What are their practices and "sacred" rituals? People successful in driving change are not "one trick ponies" – they do not have some cookie-cutter approach to change that they shove down every client’s throat regardless of their environment. It’s imperative that we become sensitive to attributes and artifacts of the organizational culture and adjust our approach to best navigate through and around those to reach our goal. Trying to bulldoze over the culture with some form of brute-force implementation may work in the short term, but come back in six to twelve months and let us know how well that worked for you in the long run. These cultural practices can be overt (we always run things by our steering committee…) or surprisingly subtle (Al is not on any org chart. Yet, he is a key opinion leader that everyone looks to before engaging...). Such practices can be scattered across the corporate landscape like little cultural landmines waiting for you to step on them. Early on, it’s best to scan your environment, map out your landscape (preferably with the aid of a local ‘jungle guide’), and plan accordingly throughout your effort.

Unlike European travel, there is no Fodor’s Guide to navigating an organization’s culture. However, if you proceed conservatively in any new environment and keep your antenna up and alert to signs and clues to the culture, your journey should be a productive and pleasant one. Happy travels!