September 7, 2011

East vs. West: The Great Creativity Divide

The stereotypes persist: East Asians conform, Anglo-Americans are individualistic cowboys. New research uncovers subtleties that employers can use to their advantage.

Sharon Kahn
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Countries like Japan and the Tiger economies have largely made their market reputations by making incremental quality improvements on existing technologies. Still, they seem to be facing a crisis of creative confidence. Japan’s two-decade long economic slump has sparked debates over conformist classrooms techniques and hierarchical workplaces. At the same time, some Asians, including former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, suggest that the Western form of creativity — a more freewheeling process that emphasizes groundbreaking solutions — leads to chaos and social problems.

Michael W. Morris, the Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership at Columbia and a Chazen Senior Scholar, set out to understand how Eastern and Western cultures view creativity. We asked him explain his findings and how the differences he uncovered might find their way into the workplace.

How do you define creativity?

Most researchers define it as a solution to a problem that is both novel and useful.

What difference do you see between how Eastern and Western cultures channel their creativity?

Western cultures tend to be individualistic. When Westerners approach problem solving, they attempt to make the solution unique and ground breaking. But social norms in East Asian cultures encourage harmony and not making waves. As a result, there’s more attention to making a solution useful — easy to implement, easy for other people to accept and to understand.

There’s a lot of evidence for these cultural differences. Countries like Japan have done very well by making incremental quality improvements on existing technologies. In the West, there’s more emphasis on developing completely new technologies. Of course there are many exceptions.

How do these differences play out in the workforce?

Different cultures tend to design R&D with different outcomes in mind. Patents in Japan, for example, tend to come out of very focused projects. A pharmaceutical company will look for a drug that treats a cardiac condition. In the West, research is more exploratory. Researchers look for what might come out of a technology. So if a drug doesn’t work on the cardiac condition, but treats something completely different, they patent it for the other condition.

Where do "bicultural" individuals fit on the creativity curve?

Researchers used to think that Asian Americans or residents of a Western-influenced city like Hong Kong had habits of mind and conduct that were halfway between the cultural syndromes of East Asia and those of the West. Instead, we are finding that individuals can switch back and forth as they move between different settings in the same way you can be a mother and a manager as you go from being with your kids to being at work.

We found that very integrated biculturals — those who have grown up with both cultures or immigrants who have been in the new country for a long time — tend to experience less conflict between their two identities and base their behavior on context. If they enter a room where people are speaking Chinese or go to a traditional sushi restaurant, their Asian side comes out. When they are in an American situation, they respond in a Western manner. The behavior happens automatically.

Then we started studying less-integrated biculturals, who are more recently arrived or for personality reasons experience more stress as they move between cultures. They reported a more divided self-concept and tended to respond in a contrarian manner to culturally laden situations. When they enter the room where people are speaking Chinese, they behave even more Western than they usually do, and if they come into a situation with strong Western expectations, their Asian side comes out. We think they resist fully engaging in either of their identities because that would entail abandoning their other side.

How can companies use your research?

Knowing that people have different expectations of creativity helps a company understand its customers. There may be less acceptance of hyper-novelty in some parts of the world, where customers may prefer an incremental evolution of products.

It also would help firms tap the global talent pool. Organizations hiring in different parts of the world can find different kinds of talent. If it’s a quality-control issue, where a company wants to make an existing chip 20 percent more efficient, a company might find their scientists in Taiwan rise to this challenge, whereas their Silicon Valley people might be bored by that problem and more engaged by the problem of inventing a completely different kind of chip.

As far as hiring bicultural individuals, both chameleons and contrarians are useful to organizations. If you need somebody to be an ambassador, an integrated bicultural to mesh with the culture would be a good choice. If you need somebody in a monitoring or compliance or critical evaluation role, a contrarian bicultural would be an ideal person.

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