Cross-Cultural Research: How to Leverage the Benefits and Positive Dynamics of Cultural Differences

Are we Debbie Downers when analyzing cultural differences in cross-cultural management research?

That is, do we look at the negative side of these differences over the positive to our own detriment?

That’s what researchers for this paper determined.

Authoring, “The upside of cultural differences: Towards a more balanced treatment of culture in cross-cultural management research,” the team of researchers encouraged scholars to “explore how cultural diversity, distance, and foreignness create value for global organizations.”

And this is what they discovered.

The State of Cross-Cultural Management Literature Today

More often than not, CCM literature looks at the negative when discussing differences in culture and management.

The paper highlights regularly used terms in such research, like “foreignness,” “cultural distance,” and “cultural misfit,” saying they reflect this emphasis on the negative.

These terms suggest incompatibility, conflict, and friction.

To counter this, the authors suggest an emphasis on the upside of cultural differences, instead seeking the “positive role of distance and diversity across national, cultural, institutional, and organizational dimensions.”

Endeavoring to seek out the positive, they argue, will balance the treatment of culture in CCM research, the goal being to leverage the benefits and positive dynamics of cultural differences in various contexts.

So, how does one do this exactly?

International and global businesses reap the benefits of cross-cultural labor and management, so the authors suggest the focus in CCM research and literature can be placed on those benefits.

A Double-Edged Sword

One example outlined in the paper is the following research submission:

Pesch and Bouncken’s paper, “The double-edged sword of cultural distance in international alliances,” shows how examining positive outcomes of cross-border interactions can benefit international businesses. 

Their findings suggest that the positive effects of cultural differences involving knowledge combination and task discourse outweigh any issues with trust-building that can occur by perceived distance. 

Moreover, cross-border alliances lead to improved innovation and joint product development. 

The research submission clarifies that these positive effects occur mainly in non-equity alliances, whereas M&As or joint ventures might run into more cross-cultural conflict, due to communication issues and social categorization processes.

Still, the above benefits are often overlooked in CCM research.

The authors conclude:

“Explicitly considering positive phenomena can help better understand when and how cultural diversity, distance, and foreignness can enhance organizational effectiveness and performance at multiple levels.”

The paper also took a look at Hyun-Jung Lee’s interview with renowned cognitive social psychologist, Richard Nisbett, who authored The Geography of Thought.

We’ll dive into that next week.

Acceptance: The First Step in Cross-Cultural Management

The first step in bridging any conflict is acceptance.

Acceptance does not necessarily mean approval; it just means you are not whipping out your red pen and labeling something “bad” or “wrong” before engaging with it in a thoughtful manner.

Acceptance means tolerance.

When you’re no longer actively butting your head against something unmovable, you are demonstrating your willingness to engage with that with which you are unfamiliar or may not inherently agree.

And to work in a cross-cultural environment, you will have to engage in various ways. Change is inevitable.

So, how do you relinquish judgment and accept another culture’s values and norms?

Good vs. Bad; Right vs. Wrong

Cultural values define what’s good and bad, what’s right and wrong, making each of us innate judges of other people’s behavior and character.

This judgment becomes even starker in another culture when the people aren’t playing by the same rules. Their “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong” are not the same as that of the foreigner who is passing judgment.

In a sense, when managing in a foreign culture, you are entering a world of moral ambiguity.

How do you navigate it?

Morality in Question

You aren’t likely to encourage debates of morality in a professional setting while working abroad. But that doesn’t mean your conscience won’t awaken when faced with another culture’s values.

We’ve discussed some of the differences across cultures in our self-assessment over the past couple weeks.

These profound conflicts of conscience might affect you outside of the workplace or inside it.

For instance, you might face the following questions:

  • Does the culture in which you are working consider gifts bribes?
  • Are your competitors circumventing the tax laws in this country? And does that mean you should follow suit, so as not to be at a competitive disadvantage?
  • Are women treated as inferior to men in the company?
  • What is the dress code like? Are public-facing jobs expected to dress professionally…and what does that even mean in this culture?
  • What if your company is manufacturing a product that directly conflicts with your cultural values (drugs used for executions, for instance)?

Here’s the thing: as a foreign manager in another culture, you aren’t going to click your fingers and change the societal values and norms by acting against the grain.

Nor should you completely abandon your convictions, because your values and norms are a substantial part of you.

All you can do is cope, which comes in the form of accepting, adapting to, and adopting the culture wherever you can.

We’ll expand on the four principles of cultural acceptance next week.