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Culture Wars in the Workplace: Interpersonal Subtlety, Emotional Expression, and the Self-Concept

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Abstract

Culture wars can occur when the beliefs and habits of one cultural group come to dominate the norms of the workplace, making it difficult for members of other groups to be included, understood, and to attain success. It is proposed that a role for psychology is to find applications for the knowledge and understanding the psychologists have gained from decades of research on interpersonal communication, emotional expression, and the self-concept, and how culture influences each of these. Consulting psychologists are increasingly being called upon to address the challenge of working effectively in global and diverse teams. To respond at a state-of-the-art level, the consultants need to provide research-based training materials and knowledge to managers and other leaders. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Culture Wars in the Workplace
Interpersonal Subtlety, Emotional Expression,
and the Self-Concept
Rebecca A. Turner, Guest Editor Alliant International University
Culture wars can occur when the beliefs and
habits of one cultural group come to dominate
the norms of the workplace, making it difficult
for members of other groups to be included,
understood, and to attain success. It is proposed
that a role for psychology is to find applications
for the knowledge and understanding the psy-
chologists have gained from decades of re-
search on interpersonal communication, emo-
tional expression, and the self-concept, and how
culture influences each of these. Consulting psy-
chologists are increasingly being called upon to
address the challenge of working effectively in
global and diverse teams. To respond at a state-
of-the-art level, the consultants need to provide
research-based training materials and knowl-
edge to managers and other leaders.
Keywords: social– organizational psychology,
coaching and culture, management and diver-
sity, interpersonal processes in organizations,
emotional expression
In thinking about our symposium topic,
I realized how involved we all are in the
new focus on culture. I say “new” because
I remember when we spoke of culture quite
differently. These days, a lot of kids in San
Francisco know what this word means by
the time they graduate kindergarten. We are
living in one of the most diverse American
states ever and yet we are on the precipice
of change.
What is new about culture? For one, we
talk about culture wars, which in politics
refer to positions on various public issues
like abortion, gay marriage, censorship, and
gun control. In France, this term is relevant
to policies about wearing headscarves in
the school system and the strongly felt sec-
ond-class citizenship among French Arabs.
In Ukrainian politics, the Orange Revolu-
tion has everything to do with culture, pre-
cisely whether you identify as Ukrainian or
Russian. In the workplace, specific culture
wars hint at who is included and who is not,
particularly when inclusion is associated
(consciously or unconsciously) with char-
acteristics such as race, nationality, gender,
and ethnic or religious background. Culture
wars may influence explicit or implicit
workplace policies, which some people ex-
perience as political correctness and others
experience as the glass ceiling. How you
see it usually depends on your own identity
in a given situation. In July 2006, African
American employees on Wall Street filed a
class action suit against a major financial
services firm because they state the firm has
failed to promote them adequately and to
include them in important teams, leaving
them with a sense of isolation and frustra-
tion. The statistics on promotion and reten-
tion lend a lot of credence to their claim,
yet there are those who do not agree with
the claim.
Rebecca A. Turner is a professor in the Or-
ganizational Psychology Division, Marshall
Goldsmith School of Management, Alliant In-
ternational University, San Francisco.
The author is grateful to Susan Millstein and
Magdolna Cure for comments on an earlier ver-
sion of this article.
Correspondence concerning this article
should be addressed to Rebecca A. Turner, Mar-
shall Goldsmith School of Management, Alliant
International University, One Beach Street,
Suite 100, San Francisco, CA 94133. E-mail:
rturner@alliant.edu
Copyright 2007 by the American Psychological Association and the Society of Consulting Psychology, 1065-9293/07/$12.00
DOI: 10.1037/1065-9293.59.4.244
Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, Vol. 59, No. 4, 244 –253
244
The dynamics of work groups in the
United States are changing, in part because
there are fewer and fewer homogenous
groups and more and more multiethnic
groups. In the near future, ethnic minorities
will account for over 50% of the population
in California, Hawaii, Texas, and New
Mexico (Paletz, Peng, Erez, & Maslach,
2004). At the present time, according to
information from their Web sites, at the
University of California campuses at
Berkeley and Los Angeles, roughly a third
of undergraduate students self-report as
non-Hispanic Caucasian. At Alliant, a pri-
marily graduate institution in California,
only about 50% of our students self-report
as non-Hispanic Caucasian. New census
data indicate that approximately one-third
of the U.S. population overall is made up of
minorities.
Interpersonal Subtlety (or Not So...)
Clearly, high-functioning diverse and
cross-cultural groups are desired in the
workplace. Many businesses and profes-
sions have not achieved what they had
hoped by now in terms of having a truly
diverse or international workforce, espe-
cially in higher-level positions, but also in
terms of the anticipated outcomes of diver-
sity and globalization. For example, re-
cently, it was reported in the news that The
New York Times was out of date, that it had
not achieved sufficient diversity within its
ranks. Minorities were underrepresented
especially in management positions. And,
stories of concern to ethnic minorities were
given short shrift. It is not just The Times.
Journalism as an industry has not reached
target goals for hiring, as only about 13%
of staffers are ethnic minorities.
Globalization, immigration, and demo-
graphic diversity all present many chal-
lenges in the realm of communication and
understanding across cultures. I propose
that one role for the field of psychology is
to promote an understanding of what can
go wrong in multicultural and cross-
cultural settings and to serve an educative
role. Areas where psychology already has
relevant research and experience is the role
of subtle communication in interpersonal
relationships, the role of emotion in com-
munication, perceptions of self and other,
and how culture influences all of these.
Having diverse teams representing dif-
ferent cultures is good for business. Diver-
sity in the workplace is a precursor to di-
versity in the marketplace. And, we will
experience shortages in the upper ranks of
employment if we do not make room for
greater diversity. Importantly, if there is
insufficient diversity, there are financial
consequences for businesses. Some months
ago, I met with someone I hoped would be
a new client in a large, successful and pres-
tigious professional services firm in a major
Midwestern city in an industry still domi-
nated by men. One of the few women di-
rectors there asked if I would help develop
a women’s leadership program. Some
funds had been committed for this purpose.
She was African American and one of only
a few African American employees in this
firm. Her extraordinary talents were such
that she could sometimes call the shots and
she convinced the CEO to commit money
for “women’s leadership development.”
This was her “baby” so to speak. (She told
me that she did not yet dare broach the
underrepresented racial minority issue. The
women’s issue was a “safer” one.) When I
met in person with a 40-something Senior
Vice President there, he said, “Well, yes,
we need to have more women in senior
positions. Our senior leadership team in-
cludes only men. But, personally, I’m just
less comfortable with women on the senior
team. We spend a lot of time together. You
know you always have to be worried about
the sexual harassment thing, what you say,
how you say it. . . But, that doesn’t mean
we shouldn’t pursue it.” Somehow they just
never got around to making it happen, and
my original contact in the firm was very
quickly offered a bigger and better job else-
245Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research
December 2007
where. In short, these interpersonal, cul-
tural issues do have economic conse-
quences. It would have cost the firm very
little to have a women’s leadership pro-
gram. Her departure, and to a competitor, is
costing them much more.
A recent National Public Radio (NPR)
program focused on the phenomenon of
diversity fatigue. I wondered what diversity
fatigue meant and “googled” the term. Di-
versity fatigue is “a form of mental exhaus-
tion brought on by the constant attention
required to ensure a workforce or other
group is racially or ethnically diverse.” It
was first used in a Los Angeles Times arti-
cle in May of 2005. The point is, consult-
ants in the diversity training arena were
saying that people with diversity fatigue
look around and see Colin Powell and Con-
doleeza Rice and say “there is no more
racism,” “we’re there now,” and “there is
no problem.” People are tired of being
trained, do not see the point, and minorities
are tired of being the token person who has
to represent a group. Sometimes, they say,
you are obliged to play that role if you’re
the person with darker skin. The consult-
ants on the show were quick to point out
that just because we work together does not
mean there is inclusion. Ask anyone in any
group interaction, “who’s in” and “who’s
out.” It is easy to know. Minority group
members are very sensitized to the subtle
expressions that invite them in or invite
them out and no one else may even notice.
These are the interpersonal subtleties I will
turn to later.
Increasingly, consultants are revisiting
the work of Dutch social psychologist
Geert Hofstede. Hofstede (2001) defined
culture as “the collective programming of
the mind which distinguishes the members
of one group or category of people from
another” (p. 9). He was interested in docu-
menting how the predominant values
within a country may influence behavior
and attitudes in work settings. His work
focuses on national cultures and was orig-
inally conducted in the 1970s but it has
further application to multicultural issues in
the United States. Table 1 provides some of
the dimensions that Hofstede described.
Emotional Expression
The roots of modern cultural psychol-
ogy took hold with research on emotion.
Paul Ekman was one of the pioneers in this
field. In the 1960s, social scientists debated
whether facial expressions of emotion were
universal or culture-specific. In his research
at that time, Ekman showed photographs of
expressive faces in Chile, Argentina, Bra-
zil, Japan, and even in the preliterature cul-
ture of Papua New Guinea, finding that the
large majority of those tested in every cul-
ture said the same thing. Faces that we, in
the United States, labeled as happy, sad,
surprised, angry, fearful and so on, looked
the same and represented the same under-
lying feeling in every country (see Ekman,
2003 for a summary).
If facial expressions of emotion are uni-
versal, what then is the role of culture in
emotion? Why do people sometimes smile
when they are unhappy or afraid? Ekman
dealt with these questions by describing the
phenomenon of display rules. Display rules
are social norms about who is allowed to
show what emotions to whom and in what
Table 1
Four of Hofstede’s Culture Dimensions
Individualism/collectivism—degree to which members of a culture are supposed to look after themselves
or remain integrated into groups
Power distance—degree to which members of a culture accept and expect unequal distribution of power
Uncertainty avoidance—extent to which members of a culture feel comfortable in unstructured situations;
risk avoidance versus risk taking
Masculinity/femininity—achievement orientation versus emphasizing relationships and communication
246 Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research
December 2007
situations. They are heavily influenced by
culture. In other words, in some cultures, it
is okay to show anger toward a sibling, but
not toward a teacher. Display rules are
learned. We learn them through the larger
culture in which we live, in our communi-
ties and in our families. Display rules are
illustrated in comments like “come on, stop
pouting.” When we move to a new setting,
we may learn new display rules that are
applicable to the new setting. Even differ-
ent professions and different organizations
have different display rules. A young man-
agement consultant told me that her super-
visor always says to the team just before a
client meeting “put on your neutral mask”
while simultaneously waving his hand in
front of his face to indicate a sort of putting
on a mask or wiping off the joviality. The
idea was to project very little emotion
around clients. This was an explicit display
rule about how and when to look profes-
sional based on the belief that clients would
have greater trust and feel more comfort-
able in an emotionally neutral meeting.
One of my African American colleagues
said that some of her African American
supervisees have told her that they are per-
ceived as “aggressive” in the workplace.
She said that the feedback they receive is
not something they can make sense of be-
cause they are merely speaking their mind,
expressing themselves in an open way and
in their own emotional tone that they are
accustomed to, yet they are seen as aggres-
sive, using a tone that is upsetting. “I did
not intend to intimidate,” they say. She said
that how they are expressing themselves at
work is how they do so in their families and
their communities. My colleague notes that
it is the intention that counts in communi-
cation, after all. We have to be sure that we
do not confuse the outcome (that is, how
we are feeling) with the other person’s in-
tent. That is, we should not confuse our
own emotional reaction with their intent.
This perspective is precisely in line with
advice given by Ekman (2003). The other
person’s behavior, despite it having made
us feel perplexed or angry, may have been
culturally appropriate, based on the other
person’s experiences and display rules. Re-
member that display rules may be con-
scious, unconscious, or only conscious at
times when they are specifically brought
into focus. And, it is well documented that
racial bias can cause people to perceive
those of another race as aggressive even
when their behavior is not more aggressive
than anyone else’s (e.g., Greenwald,
Nosek, & Banaji, 2003; Greenwald, Oakes,
& Hoffman, 2003).
In coaching a man who spent the early
part of his life in a Middle Eastern country,
it was useful to examine 360-degree feed-
back and to make more conscious the be-
liefs he held that caused him to come across
in a particular way. He was failing on the
“people skills” side of management in a
Silicon Valley firm, where he was seen as
extreme in yielding to authority. He ex-
pected to succeed based on loyalty and
seniority but was not aware of the extent to
which this expectation pervaded his ap-
proach to almost everything.
My experience as chair of the San Fran-
cisco Mental Health Board has reinforced
my belief that understanding the relevant
display rules are an important ingredient
for political influence. People with mental
health problems are among the most disem-
powered in society. Without the voice of
advocates who are constantly challenging
the quality of care and conditions for those
with unpopular problems, little would
change and those with mental illness would
suffer even greater marginalization. Yet our
new board members learn fast that they are
significantly more effective and influential
when they deliver messages in ways that
offer solutions and minimize the offending
comments and blame. It is that healthy bal-
ance between opposition and positive ad-
vocacy that we are always striving to attain.
People need feedback about how they
come across in professional settings, and
247Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research
December 2007
this becomes an extra sensitive issue when
different cultures are involved. There has to
be a lot of trust and a relationship to pro-
vide feedback in any situation, but that is
especially the case when the feedback
crosses cultural lines. My African Ameri-
can colleague says to her supervisees,
“You’re going to have to back off. Let’s
figure out another way you can be respect-
ful in how you say that.” That works better
than simply thinking “I’m going to write
you off for being inappropriate.” Giving
feedback in a way that can enhance the
other person’s awareness and knowledge of
how they are received is a retention issue
and it is one of the most difficult skills for
supervisors and coaches to develop, one
that is compounded by different cultural
understandings and histories. Acculturation
in any place, workplaces too, takes time
and often benefits from ongoing coaching
from a trusted advisor. One of the most
useful books I have read on this topic,
although it is not about cultural differences
per se, focuses on the art of giving and
receiving feedback (Seashore, Seashore, &
Weinberg, 1992).
As people become accustomed to their
work setting, they learn to engage in im-
pression management, and much of this is
actually emotion management. Proponents
of emotional intelligence tell us that a key
skill in being an emotionally intelligent
manager is being able to manage the emo-
tions we express. It is helpful to think of
emotion as a process and one that is heavily
influenced by culture, especially on the
front end. Figure 1 provides a simplified
synopsis of the process of emotion and
summarizes research psychologists’ con-
ceptions; it is based on Paul Ekman’s
scholarly and popular writing on the topic
for roughly 40 years (see Ekman, 2003).
The figure shows an emotion trigger as
some event that occurs typically in the en-
vironment and sets off the process. How-
ever, an emotion can be triggered by an
internal event, such as a thought or mem-
ory. It can even be triggered by a feeling
because we humans have affect about af-
fect (“I am embarrassed that I am so fear-
ful”). Some triggers are universal; they are
pan-cultural. For example, virtually every-
one becomes angry over the perception that
they are being manipulated, or that they are
receiving dismissive treatment. Those ones
are pretty sure bets. Yet some triggers are
culture-specific. In Thailand, our guide told
us about some tourists who were behaving
disrespectfully in relation to a statue of
Buddha; they were severely physically at-
tacked by locals who became enraged by
their pranks and apparent insensitivity. Still
other emotion triggers are person-specific.
What might make one person infuriated
will leave another unmoved. Triggers can
initiate the emotion process automatically
based upon both our biological inheritance
and who we are as individuals.
As an emotion trigger occurs, it enters
the appraisal process. The appraisal box
appears higher up in the figure as a re-
minder that this is what goes on inside the
head. These are the thoughts. Appraisal of a
trigger may be conscious or automatic and
unconscious. Is the event a threat? Might it
bring about loss? Is it exciting? These are
the questions we answer at this stage.
Again, the appraisal process may be cul-
ture-specific or person-specific. We may
make an internal attribution or an external
attribution to explain the trigger and its
effects. Or we may import a script from the
past. A script is essentially an expectation,
Figure 1. The emotion process (based on Ek-
man, 2003).
248 Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research
December 2007
based on our past experience, about the
goals, behaviors and outcomes likely to
occur in a particular setting (Shank & Abel-
son, 1977). Ekman explains that an earlier
experience in life (e.g., you were frequently
humiliated by older siblings) may be seen
as relevant to a current situation when it is
in fact not relevant. Your boss’s apparent
dismissive behavior may in fact result from
her struggling with a confidential crisis and
has nothing to do with you. Some uncon-
scious appraisals have to do with perceived
similarities of a current situation to a pre-
vious time when we were strongly over-
whelmed with emotion. This is essentially
the same idea as the psychoanalytic con-
cept of transference.
Now we are at the last box, the emo-
tional response. We experience an emotion
more or less as something that is happening
to us. Once we pass the appraisal stage,
there is a cascade of emotional responses
over which we have relatively little control.
The response package includes a lot of dif-
ferent components. When experiencing an
emotion we undergo physiological changes
(e.g., heart rate, respiratory rate) and
changes in facial expression and voice.
Even when we try to control the emotions
we feel or express, it is extremely difficult
when we feel things strongly. The face is
directly connected to areas of the brain
involved in emotion. Once we begin to
experience an emotion, nerve cells in the
facial muscles begin to fire involuntarily.
Changes in the voice associated with emo-
tion are also hard to conceal. Emotion can
cause verbal incoherence, in a slight way,
or in a great way. The message is that much
of what we do not intend to communicate is
actually communicated to others in subtle
ways. Some people are good at picking up
on indirect and nonverbal communications
while others are not skilled in this way or
are not in the habit of paying attention to
less direct communications.
There are often subtle forms of commu-
nication, frequently not under our control
or attention, and they can speak louder than
any words. Paul Ekman refers to this unin-
tended communication as “leakage.” Just as
some people are good at reading others,
note that some people are very smooth
communicators and have very little leakage
while other people are not, making it very
easy (or making it appear very easy) to read
them. The emotional responses (physiolog-
ical changes, changes in voice, facial ex-
pression, posture and verbal coherence) are
universal. These involuntary changes ap-
pear to be part of our biological inheritance
and they can prepare us for awareness, fo-
cus and action. In contrast to these univer-
sals, the triggers and appraisal processes
may be heavily influenced by culture.
There is an important cautionary note that
Ekman is always quick to make. Even though
we may detect signs of an emotion in another
person, we can never be certain of the source
of those emotions (Ekman, 1985, 2003). We
may incorrectly attribute someone else’s ap-
parent emotion to us when it is in fact not
about us. A person may experience emotions
about all kinds of private events that have
nothing to do with the situation at hand or the
person at hand. Readily interpreting the
causes of another person’s behavior is dan-
gerous for those who are apt to experience a
little paranoia in ambiguous interpersonal sit-
uations. Just as we should not necessarily
conclude that how we are feeling is how
another intended us to feel, we should also
avoid overpersonalizing others’ reactions.
They may be responding to something unre-
lated to us or responding to their own script of
the situation, which also is unrelated to us or
the current situation. There is no way to know
how others are reacting to us for sure but it is
important to be reminded that misperceptions
are more likely to occur when people are
from different backgrounds within a culture
or from entirely different cultures. The Senior
VP in that professional services firm was
expressing how much more comfortable he
felt being part of a leadership team where the
members are similar to one another.
249Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research
December 2007
The Self-Concept
Another way in which culture influences
emotion is through one’s view of the self or
the self-concept. A few years ago, I was
struck by a paper written by two social
psychologists who study culture from an
East–West perspective. Hazel Markus of
Stanford University and Shinobu Kitayama
of Kyoto University were asked to write
about how they came to study culture and
the self. They recounted a fascinating story
of experiences beginning in the 1980s with
a scholar’s exchange program where Hazel
visited and lectured in Japan and Shinobu
studied in Ann Arbor. The authors reported
(Markus & Kitayama, 2003, p. 227):
Why was it, Hazel wondered, that after three
weeks of lecturing in Japan to students with
a good command of English, no one said
anything. . . .What was wrong with these
Japanese students? Where were the argu-
ments, the debates, and the signs of critical
thinking?. . . .Shinobu was curious about
why students shouldn’t just listen to a lecture
and asked why American students felt the
need to be constantly active, to talk all the
time, often interrupting each other and talk-
ing over each other and the professor? And
why did the comments and questions of his
fellow students reveal such strong emotions
and have such a competitive edge?. . . . And
why do friends of the speaker gather around
after the talk and give hugs and say the talk
was “great” and “fantastic” and “the best
ever,” regardless of the quality of the talk?
While many of us do not like to divide
up the world into simply “East and West”
due to obvious concerns about generaliza-
tion, there has now accumulated a great
deal of research comparing differences be-
tween these two very broad cultural tradi-
tions (e.g., Nisbett, 2003). Research has
shown consistently that Asians and West-
erners are different in their views of “the
self” and this has a lot to do with how
people express emotion and how they relate
interpersonally. The topic of the self has
become an important one in cultural psy-
chology (Goleman, 2003; Heine, Lehman,
Markus, & Kitayama, 1999; Markus &
Kitayama, 2003; Tsai, Ying, & Lee, 2001).
To differentiate cultural views of the
self, Markus and Kitayama (2003) have
described the independent self and the in-
terdependent self. The independent self is
defined in terms of one’s own values and
beliefs, in short, one’s internal attributes. It
is separate from one’s family and social
context. Western societies tend to have an
“independent self” as they are individual-
ists. We see ourselves as having personal
control over what happens to us. When I
was in graduate school 20 years ago, we
thought social psychological principles that
were based on Western views of the self,
such as those derived from cognitive disso-
nance and attribution theories, were univer-
sal. To the contrary, in recent years, we
know for sure that the original findings do
not replicate to the same extent in the Asian
countries. What we were learning as uni-
versal social psychology was as Western as
steak and frites or apple pie.
The more Eastern, interdependent self is
defined in terms of social relationships.
Some of the research shows that members
of Chinese culture focus more on their fam-
ily relationships, whereas members of Jap-
anese culture seem to focus on both family
members and coworkers (Hsu, 1985). In
order to stay connected with others and
maintain relationships, Easterners are
thought to minimize the importance of one-
self in comparison to other people. Re-
search reported by Heine et al. (1999)
shows highly significant differences in
mean self-esteem scores from Canadian
and Japanese participants, with Canadians
scoring much higher on self-report mea-
sures of self-esteem frequently used in
North America.
Consider items like “On the whole I am
satisfied with myself” and “I take a positive
attitude toward myself.” There are very sig-
nificant differences in terms of how East-
erners and Westerners score on these types
250 Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research
December 2007
of inventories. Japanese respondents appear
more self-critical on these inventories,
which to them seems normal. To have such
high regard for oneself, as expressed by
these statements, is seen as problematic.
However, responses to the same inventory
look very different after people immigrate
and become acculturated; there are fewer
differences between immigrants and na-
tives. In fact, after a couple of generations
in the new country, the differences in self-
reported self-esteem almost disappear. Psy-
chologists interpret these self-esteem
scores as having to do with cultural identi-
ties, values and norms, which can change in
response to the social environment (cf.
Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs,
2005).
What these scores on self-esteem inven-
tories (and other psychological inventories)
really mean is an important subject. Given
the patterns of cultural differences that we
see, it is essential to be aware that tradi-
tional interpretation of such measures is
likely to be inaccurate. The scores reflect a
cultural orientation in thinking about the
self vis-a`-vis others. We can say that one’s
cultural background plays a highly signifi-
cant role in how the self is presented. It is
reasonable to have a preference for one
orientation over the other. But, when we
have such preferences, it is prudent to be
aware of them so that when they influence
our decisions in business and professional
settings we can think critically about what
we are gaining and what we are losing in
carrying out those decisions. Furthermore,
it is useful to be aware of what our organi-
zation is gaining or losing when our deci-
sions are made on the basis of cultural
preferences.
Another case example may be illustra-
tive. A while back, I was contacted by
someone in a large company saying that he
was referring a manager who had recently
been promoted. People were having a hard
time dealing with his style. Clearly, he was
brilliant but was not good with people and
had no awareness of the impact he had on
others. If things did not change, he was
afraid this man would get the boot. The
manager did finally, hesitatingly, call me
several months afterward, but his descrip-
tion of his possible interest in coaching was
completely different. It was very specific.
He said that there was only one problem
and that was “icebreakers.” Icebreakers?
He was born in and grew up in an Asian
country, but for some reason had a superb
ability to speak English and spoke it with
only a very slight, almost undetectable ac-
cent. This was a problem, he said. Because
he sounded American, everyone expected
him to act American in various informal
situations, like during icebreakers. He
hated that. He had a great command of the
technical aspects of his job but the grueling
part was elevator conversation, informal
conversations, and worst of all—you go to
a meeting, sit in a circle, and invariably,
they want to do icebreakers. They go
around and everyone says something
funny, clever, or self-revealing. He felt in a
state of dread when this happened.
This was an interesting case because he
called with the idea that this was a cultural
dilemma. Sometimes people have no idea
that their challenges in a given situation
may stem from a clash between cultures
and expectations. I believe that he did not
want “the self” or his personal presentation
of himself to loom so large. He felt that
icebreakers were embarrassing, culturally
inappropriate, and out of character. There
are many ways to deal with this on his part.
He might rehearse doing icebreakers and
develop this behavioral skill. Or he might
start his icebreaker by saying that he is
terrible at icebreakers because it is a for-
eign concept to him and then recount some-
thing about his culture that invites others’
interest and curiosity. But, most impor-
tantly, he has to confront the fact that,
perhaps due to cultural differences (or per-
haps in part due to these differences), he is
perceived as harsh toward others at work
251Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research
December 2007
and this may put his job in danger or, at
least, lessen the chances he will be pro-
moted to the level he desires.
I have heard a number of men and
women who appear to be from the domi-
nant American culture say exactly the same
thing about introductions and icebreakers.
They say they do not like to be in the
spotlight and hate having to explain “who
they are” in a group setting. They find this
type of activity superficial or much less
comfortable than talking shop. As soon as
you talk about culture and speak of it as
meaningful, the construct can fall apart be-
cause there are always regional differences
and individual differences that do not fit the
cultural prototype. I believe though that
there is value in considering what contribu-
tions culture (using the term broadly) may
bring to a situation, what dilemmas and
misunderstandings it can create, and how to
work more effectively with people who are
different from us. Given how frequently we
have neglected differences, and specifically
cultural differences in management psy-
chology, organizational psychology and the
social psychology of small groups, there is
less harm in being aware, inclusive and
curious about differences.
Conclusions
Corporations have been using a lot of
tools, including much of the work from
social psychology and anthropology, to
give people a framework for thinking about
how things can go wrong in cross-cultural
situations, such as international mergers
and acquisitions and in the worst case sce-
narios that lead to culture wars. Some com-
panies have taught the cultural theory of
Hofstede and others in the field (e.g.,
Schwartz; Trompenaars), in order to edu-
cate and increase awareness. They want to
ensure that managers are aware that com-
munication problems and other problems of
compatibility within and across teams may
stem from differences in values that are
shaped by cultural factors. There is an ef-
fort on the part of many companies to en-
courage managers to communicate differ-
ently rather than to dominate, dictate or
overrun. Some use case studies and ask
small groups to work together to come up
with solutions that are win-win and aimed
toward respecting cultural dilemmas. But,
there are no quick fixes to these cultural
dilemmas.
How do we keep making progress and
increasing diversity in leadership roles
when we are suffering from diversity fa-
tigue? The field of psychology has a tradi-
tion of studying cultural influences on in-
terpersonal communication, emotional ex-
pression, and self-presentation. We still
have work to do in terms of translating
what we know about people and culture
into organizational applications for train-
ers, coaches, and consultants. We need to
focus on the fact that how people present
themselves may be different from one cul-
ture to the next and that our methods of
assessing person-job fit may be short-
sighted if these differences are not taken
into account. Problems in managers’ skills
may be related to cultural history, individ-
ual scripts and display rules, among a host
of other things typically discussed in this
arena. Coaching may be effective if there is
a trusted relationship but these relation-
ships may take longer to develop and re-
quire special knowledge, skills and experi-
ence in cross-cultural situations. Culturally
aware coaching will be important for re-
taining a diverse and global workforce.
Finally, we need to look at the bigger
picture to consider to what extent a specific
organizational culture is accepting of dif-
ferences and able to facilitate growth for
everyone. The larger organizational culture
can be supportive of a diverse and global
workforce and be inclusive in its leadership
ranks or it can be subtly undermining of
these same goals. Due to the progress that
has been made over the last decade and
longer, it is easy to think that the previous
shortcomings are no longer relevant. How-
252 Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research
December 2007
ever, the case examples provided in this
paper are very recent and real (other than
the disguising of identity). We may con-
tinue facing these challenges in the foresee-
able future so it is best to be continually
working on “getting there”; that is, moving
not just toward globalization but toward
global perspectives.
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