When Culture Counts

Do Chinese avoid conflict? If so, how will this cultural trait affect negotiations with your Chinese joint venture partner? New research sheds light on how culture influences people in business settings.
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Based on research by Donnel Briley, Michael Morris, Itamar Simonson, Ying-Yi Hong, Chi-Yue Chiu, and Veronica Benet-Martinez

These days, all managers need to understand how culture influences people’s decisions and behavior. Whether you negotiate contracts across the globe or work in a diverse firm in the United States, you deal with people who have cultural perspectives that differ from yours in many important ways. So how can you prepare yourself and adjust your expectations?

Some people rely on guidebook generalizations about culturally typical patterns: Chinese avoid confrontation, Germans are rule-oriented, and so forth, from country to country. Although research comparing large samples of managers across countries provides statistical support for these patterns, managers are often wrong when they expect counterparts and colleagues to always behave in culturally typical ways.

What managers really need is insight into when culture affects people in business settings. For example, if Chinese tend to avoid confrontation, when is a Chinese counterpart likely to be affected by this cultural norm?

Michael Morris, the Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership in Columbia Business School's management division, worked on this problem with fellow researchers in the Behavioral Research Laboratory at Columbia Business School and parallel facilities abroad. They ran experiments in which participants solved negotiation problems under varying conditions. The researchers found that people fall back on cultural traits when faced with specific kinds of pressures, such as time constraints, multitasking and having to explain themselves on the spot.

These initial findings can help you anticipate when cultural differences may arise in a negotiation. Moreover, by reducing deadlines, distractions and the need to provide rationales, you can reduce the likelihood that negotiators will interpret problems through the lens of their cultural preconceptions.

Further experiments have shed light on the psychology of bicultural individuals who move between cultural worlds. This research shows that “cultural lenses” are not like permanent contact lenses — ever-present filters of perception — but are more like sunglasses. The same person can shift between different sets of lenses, but this process is not always a conscious one. Cultural lenses are like glasses that darken automatically when a person steps into the light: they respond automatically to the environment.

Experiments with Chinese-American biculturals found that when negotiation problems were written in Chinese, participants exhibited more Chinese behavior patterns, such as avoiding confrontation. When researchers “primed” participants by incidentally exposing them to images associated with American culture — such as a U.S. flag and a bald eagle — the participants responded to negotiation problems with more American tendencies. Likewise, priming with a Chinese flag and a dragon invoked more typically Chinese behavior. These priming studies won a major research award and launched a new paradigm for researching cultural influences in behavioral management and marketing.

Priming has enormous implications at the negotiating table. Sometimes you can benefit from a counterpart’s cultural tendencies. If you want your bicultural Chinese counterpart to avoid confrontation, then meet in a Chinese restaurant, not a Texas steak house. If you want your bicultural German counterpart to be rule oriented, then meet in Düsseldorf, not Dallas.

More broadly, this research suggests that everyone is bicultural or multicultural to some degree, not only because more and more people come from multiple national backgrounds, but also because there are many levels of culture. An Italian lawyer, for example, carries the occupational culture of lawyers as well as the national culture of Italians. Priming can help determine which cultural lenses dominate a person’s perceptions in a given negotiation.

About the researcher

Michael Morris

Michael Morris is a Chaired Professor in the Management Division at CBS and also serves as Professor in the Psychology Department of Columbia University...

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