Analogies: Understanding Culture Through Powerful Mental Models

You are a manager in a foreign culture. You look at everything through your cultural lens.

Workplace behaviors are strange. Your colleagues’ habits seem irrational.

You feel like a visitor at the zoo, a spectator observing everyone.

In actuality, you are in their habitat; not the other way around. You are the odd one out, behaving according to your “strange” cultural norms and values in their culture.

You are the monkey in the zoo.

This is an example of an analogy: a powerful image that enables you to adapt your mental model to the reality of your environment or situation.

Last week, we talked about German manager, Marie, and her struggle working in a French office.

It was an analogy – the French office is like a royal court – that assisted her in adapting her frame of interpretation.

Why do analogies work?

Because they familiarize unfamiliar situations, helping us form new mental models to confront the unknown.

Analogies Reshape Mental Models

Schemes, representations, and images form the mental models used to perceive and understand the world around us.

These are largely based on past experience, education, and training.

The mental models we’ve developed provide shortcuts in decision-making, allowing us to make decisions quickly and efficiently without necessarily having all the details at our fingertips.

Because we don’t have all the details, mental models abstract reality; they are biased. They make the real world more simplistic than it actually is.

Despite significant experience or education to back our mental models, at some point, they are usually wrong in one way or another.

What’s worse is mental models are deeply rooted and slow – if not impossible – to change.

Analogies, however, make that change easier.

By “tricking” our brains into seeing something that previously seemed concrete (office behaviors, for instance) in a new light (viewing French companies like royal courts), we are able to draw different connections and conclusions than our previous mental model allowed, thus arriving at new decisions that more adequately address the reality of the environment.

Making the Unfamiliar Familiar

Unknown social constructs are reshaped by analogies into a picture you can comprehend.

The fresh perspective from this corrected mental model will allow you to make more rational decisions relative to the social constructs of the culture.

There are, however, limits to analogies. Like anything, they aren’t perfect.

But a good analogy that accurately represents a cultural dynamic that doesn’t align with your own is always an improvement on the mental model you’ve brought with you from abroad.

Trying to fit another’s culture into your own is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

So, how do you create good analogies?

Next week, we’ll talk about how Geert Hofstede’s dimensions can help.

3 Mechanisms That Bias Our Decision-Making: REVIEW

Why do we make the decisions that we do? How do we rationalize these decisions?

Research is constantly evaluating how and why business managers make the choices we make, which we’ve outlined over the last few weeks.

To sum up, the three main biases discussed:

  • Availability bias – involves making a decision not based on an outcome’s true frequency/probability, but rather on how frequent an event enters the forefront of one’s mind.
  • Representativeness bias – involves judging the likelihood of an event based on how closely it relates to another event – i.e., on a mental model that does not exist in reality.
  • Anchoring bias – involves reaching a decision from an initial set point, often grounded in your culturally-influenced values and norms.

However, these are only a few ways in which culture creeps in to bias our decision-making.

Even our confidence in our decision-making ability is often influenced by culture.

Confidence in the Veracity of Decision-Making Ability

Research shows that, compared to their U.S. counterparts, Mexican managers are exceedingly confident in the veracity of their decision-making.

In a study by Christine Uber Grosse, entitled, “Global Managers’ Perceptions of Cultural Competence,” one Mexican manager explained the differences between leaders in Mexico and America, saying:

“We in Mexico are more colloquial or informal and are not so inclined to statistics. The Americans are very ‘manual-oriented’ and organized and we are more relaxed and ingenious.”

So, while before committing to a decision, U.S. managers expect to hear a complete plan laid out, including costs, a schedule, and the target results, Mexican managers rely more heavily on their gut instinct.

Moreover, when Mexican managers commit and something fails, they are more likely to double-down on that commitment, throwing good money after bad (as U.S. managers might put it).

According to research conducted by J. Frank Yates and Stephanie de Oliveira (“Culture and Decision-making“):

“A high degree of overconfidence has been found among Mexicans relative to Americans (Lechuga & Wiebe, 2011)…Overconfidence was widespread but differed in degree according to region.”

This overconfidence was attributed by the authors not so much to a manager’s judgment in confidence, but rather to differences in ability, as the latter varied substantially across countries.

Simplified Mental Models

Tying this all together with cross-cultural business, knowledge of the biases that influence decision-making – and another’s confidence in their decision-making – will help you navigate another culture’s rationale while also redirecting yours accordingly.

With various worldviews and cultural backgrounds, subjective realities exist, resulting in different mental decision models.

But one thing is universal: managers use their simplified and biased mental models to make their decisions.

Although likely different than your own, their simplified mental model is not irrational; it is based upon their subjective cultural perception and reality, just as yours is.

Oftentimes, no matter how illogical a decision may seem to you, the other is acting rationally within their own cultural framework, their baobab.

So, before concluding that a foreign manager’s decision makes no logical sense, familiarize yourself with the culture, its perception, and its reality.

You may then understand how a manager’s availability, representativeness, and anchoring biases – or any other culturally-influenced bias – enter into their decision-making.