This is our second article in our three-part series about the TU Leading Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Program. In this article, we discuss the importance of acknowledging cultural differences in our work teams, and how these differences shape important outcomes such as work performance and job satisfaction.
Imagine a scene where a woman is meeting a colleague for an important business meeting at a local coffee shop. She has been at the café for 25 minutes, but there is no sign of the colleague yet. How should she feel? In large part, the answer to this question will depend on one’s cultural background. If she is from the United States, she will likely feel insulted because of the colleague’s tardiness. However, if she were from Argentina—where it is the norm to start meetings 20-30 minutes late—this would be completely normal. This cultural variance is especially important in today’s globalized world, where people from the United States, Argentina, and every other corner of the globe are regularly working together within the same organizations.
Critically, though these people may find themselves in the same organization and the cultural background that they bring to the table cannot simply be turned on and off. Rather, the social values and norms that we grow up with often stay with us for the rest of our lives. Thus, it is imperative that leaders become aware of these differences in order to take them into consideration when making important work decisions.
Although cultural differences have traditionally been limited to independent versus interdependent differences between the West (North America and Western Europe) and the East (Asia and the Middle East; see figure below), work by Dr. Richard Nisbett and his colleagues at the University of Michigan has shown that culture also has a significant impact on our Attention, Expectations, and Motivation.
In Western cultures, people tend to focus on the central object or issue. Meanwhile, Eastern cultures pay more attention to the context, as well as the relationship between people and objects. When might this matter in practical settings? Let’s say an individual in your work team is not pulling their weight. How to do you explain this lack of performance? Research has shown that Western individuals are more likely to blame the individual for being lazy or unmotivated, while Eastern workers are more likely to give the benefit of the doubt and assume that the individual must be experiencing unexpected challenges that are slowing him down. Importantly, it is not that one of these perspectives is the correct way to look at the situation. Rather, we are trying to highlight that individuals may look at the same issue with completely different worldviews, and these differences will undoubtedly impact group dynamics and performance in mixed-cultural teams.
In the West, people see the world linearly. If things are going well, they should get even better in the future. But when things are going poorly, there is no reason to believe they will change anytime soon. In contrast, the East views the world non-linearly—or what is often referred to as the yin-and-yang concept of dualism. When life is good, enthusiasm should be curbed as things could change at any moment. Similarly, if things are not going your way, you should exercise patience as your fortune is bound to change. In business, leaders and their organizations regularly face both prosperity and hardship. How long do you ride the wave, and when do you take your losses and move on? Again, the answer will depend on the cultural lens through which you view the world. In mixed-cultural teams, these differences can lead to significant conflict if individuals from different cultures disagree about future prospects and do not have the cultural awareness to understand why their peers see the opposite.
Research has also shown that individuals from different cultural backgrounds differ in their motivation towards the same task. Specifically, Anglo-Americans perform better and persist longer on a difficult mental task when they get to choose their topic of interest. However, Asian-Americans actually perform best when their elders choose the task for them. These idiosyncrasies can be traced back to the differences outlined in the figure above, which highlights how Western individuals value autonomy and choice, whereas Eastern individuals desire group harmony and cohesion. These differences are critical for leaders looking to get the best out of their diverse teams. Indeed, a “one size fits all” approach will no longer cut it in today’s globalized world. Individualized consideration is required in order to truly maximize each employees potential.
This article briefly outlined some of the important ways in which culture influences our attention, expectations, and motivation. In Towson University’s Leading Diversity & Inclusion Program, we will dissect these differences further in order to examine how they impact our everyday interactions with our colleagues. Further, we will work through real-life case studies of global organizations that have faced challenges with mixed-cultural teams in order to extract lessons that we can apply to our current workplaces.