3 New Ways to Sharpen Your Global Business Skills

Research from Columbia Business School reveals surprising ways to get better results when doing business with other countries.

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Build Connections, Boost Creativity

According to a new paper from researchers at Columbia Business School, INSEAD, UC Davis, and Católica Lisbon School of Business & Economics, building close connections with someone from another culture can enhance an individual’s creativity.

Adam Galinsky, the Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Business, and his fellow researchers, including Jackson Lu, a PhD candidate at Columbia Business School and lead author on the study, tested study participants’ creativity by giving them objects and asking them to come up with as many names to creatively market the products as possible in a set period of time  —  a task at which those with past intercultural relationships excelled.

Not all intercultural experiences have the same effect on creativity, however. “In another study, we’ve found that people who have lived abroad had an increase in creativity, but travel abroad has very little effect,” says Galinsky. Similarly, Galinsky explains, “people who had deep connections with someone from another culture experience growth in creativity — but not people with shallow connections to those from other cultures.”

The difference, the study’s authors suggest, comes down to engagement. While people are naturally exposed to different ideas and experiences as part of their day-to-day existence, it’s the desire to learn about and incorporate that information that sparks greater creativity. That explains why deep intercultural relationships can have a particularly potent effect on people’s creative juices. Intercultural experience helps people learn that “the same situation can be viewed from a completely different perspective,” Galinsky says.

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Heed Power Structures

Understanding how to build and sustain a collaborative work environment is an important piece of the management puzzle for international companies trying to meld multicultural teams, says Ko Kuwabara, a former associate professor at Columbia Business School. “For example, most managers are savvy enough to know that people in Asian cultures can behave in very different ways than people from Western cultures,” he says.

The very meaning of power—and the status derived from it—is different across cultures. In the West, status tends to be viewed as a component of individual identity and is conferred by others, Kuwabara says. As a result, concerns about being respected make people in positions of power more attentive to the needs and perspectives of others. They are less likely to punish poor performance because they don’t want to tarnish their status.

Most Asian cultures, though, are based on vertical collectivism, and status is tied to someone’s prescribed place within the established hierarchy. Within that construct, social inequalities are considered normal, and conforming to your predetermined role within the collective is critical to maintaining order. “That collectivism mandates acts of dominance by high-status individuals, not for personal ends but to maintain and reinforce hierarchical relations,” write Kuwabara and his coauthors in a recent paper.

Understanding what workers expect from their leaders and how they respond to different management styles can help managers build more cohesive teams with workers from disparate backgrounds, Kuwabara says. “Organizations are becoming flatter, and managers are often dealing with people from different cultures across traditional organizational boundaries,” he says. “Everyone has to be a little more sensitive to more subtle dynamics that play out among people.”

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Beware “Indian deference syndrome.”

When Michael Morris, the Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership at Columbia Business School, was doing research in Bangalore several years back, he worked with the M.S. Ramiah Institute of Management to build a computer lab that would help him gather data. As the project took shape, he one day met with the school’s IT manager to ask if he could come by the following Tuesday to check on the progress of the lab and test some software.

The manager agreed that Tuesday would be fine.

When Morris arrived on the scheduled day there wasn’t a computer — or an IT person — in sight. In fact, carpenters will still hammering together the room. The manager had said “yes” to Morris when he clearly knew that the lab wouldn’t be ready, but that was just the beginning of Morris’ problems there. “I was utterly incapable of getting anything done at the institute,” he says. “I’ve never felt like such a bad manager in my life.”

That led to Morris’s research on “Indian Deference Syndrome,” an increasingly common label for a deeply rooted cultural norm. In one portion of his research, Morris asked MBA students in India and the United States to imagine they had graduated and were working as engineers with the opportunity to take some professional development classes. The choices were rigged so that one option sounded fun and one sounded very technical. For example, one choice was a class on networking and the other was on modeling software cycles.

One group was asked which course their manager would prefer they take. A second group was asked which class they thought their peers would prefer. Among Indian students who were asked what their manager would prefer, a much larger proportion opted for the technical course than among US students. And for those who opted for the “fun” courses, guilt was significantly higher.

“Just thinking about what your manager would prefer changes the decision that you make,” Morris says.

The implications for managers are:

  • If you want a subordinate’s thoughts about a plan, don’t reveal your own opinions until after you hear theirs.

  • Don't ask yes-or-no questions, because the natural inclination for Indian subordinates is to say yes. For example, don’t ask if a project will be ready next Tuesday. Ask what they need in order to finish the project.

  • Don’t ask them what should be done, as that prompts deference. Ask them what they prefer or what they want to do.

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