Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Bicultural Advantage?


Who or what is a “bicultural” and how important is biculturalism for organizations? Carlos Ghosn, Chairman and CEO of Renault-Nissan, seems to be the quintessential prototype of a bicultural (or in his case, a multicultural). He was born in Brazil, moved to Lebanon when he was six with his Lebanese parents, went to university in Paris, and had assignments with Michelin in France, Germany, South America and the United States. He led a successful turnaround of Nissan in Japan, and has been CEO of Renault since 2005. But what is it exactly that makes him bicultural? Is it the fact that he was born and raised in different cultures? Or is it his deep knowledge about these (and other) cultures? Or is it, in addition, his ability to adapt to many different cultures?

Research has shown that simply having been exposed to different cultures does not necessarily make one truly bicultural. According to studies by Schwartz and Unger (2010) and others, biculturals are those who are comfortable and proficient in one’s heritage culture and the culture into which he/she has settled. They don’t necessarily give up one cultural identity but are able to carry both, and they identify with two or more cultures. They have internalized two different cultural “schemas” and can switch from one to the other depending on the situation and the context. The term for this is “cultural frame switching,” and it refers to the ability to switch between language and social interactions in response to cultural cues (for which they are “primed” to respond).

Let’s take Divya, an Indian-American manager who works in the corporate headquarters of a U.S. global company and who had a short-term assignment to work in one of its subsidiaries in Bangalore. Most of the employees there were local Indians, so Divya was primed to switch to her Indian cultural frame. However, she was also very aware that she was there as a representative of her corporation, which primed her to switch to more of her American frame under certain conditions. In Divya’s case, while the local workforce knew that she was born and raised in India, they also expected her to behave more like an American since she had been in the U.S. for over twenty years. This dynamic between Divya and her environment played out almost daily, and in discussions with Dorothy, she has learned how to switch frames when needed, and is quite comfortable in doing so.

Molinsky (2007), who refers to this as cross-cultural code-switching, suggests that you need to be willing to try on new behaviors that may at times not be that comfortable, although he implies that you don’t need to be bicultural to do this. Having worked on assignment in many different countries, I can certainly attest to this. For example, I have met a lot of local Singaporeans who seem to be adept at cross-cultural code switching even though many of them have not lived or worked extensively outside Singapore. In fact, they are what Benet-Martinez and Haritatos (2005) would consider to be high in Bicultural Identity Integration (BCII), that is, they consider two cultures (i.e., in their case, Western and Singaporean) as complementary and compatible.

This view of the benefits of preserving and integrating two cultural identities differs from the traditional view that persons from other cultures need to “assimilate” to the mainstream culture. Individuals who have high BII view their mainstream cultural identity as compatible and integrated versus oppositional (and thus difficult or impossible to integrate). As Nguyen and Benet-Martinez (2013) describe it:
Bicultural individuals with high BII tend to see themselves as part of a hyphenated culture (or even part of a combined, emerging “third” culture), and find the two cultures largely compatible and easy to integrate. Bicultural individuals with low BII, on the other hand, tend to see themselves as living “in-between cultures” and report seeing the two cultures as largely conflictual and disparate.
Schwartz and Unger (2010) illustrate this with a hypothetical Chinese-American example: “The person might also feel an allegiance both to the United States and to China, as well as to the local Chinese community. She might feel Chinese in comparison to her American peers and feel American in comparison to her Chinese peers, but she can function effectively in both cultural contexts.” (p. 27) One clue for those high in BII is their exposure to “familial ethnic socialization” (Mistry and Wu, 2010), that is, “the extent to which parents teach their children about (and expose them to) the language, symbols, and traditions from the family’s heritage culture.”
A recent meta-analysis (Nguyen and Benet-Martinez, 2013) has shown that biculturalism is positively associated with psychological (e.g., life satisfaction, self-esteem) and sociocultural (e.g., academic achievement, career success) adjustment. Some studies have shown that individuals high in BII tend to be more creative but only when cues from both cultures are present. Benet-Martinez and Fabra (2016) suggest that “…organizations and settings where the development of blended bicultural identities is facilitated (e.g., schools with policies that foster harmonious intercultural relations and cultural hybridity) might also produce individual and organizational outcomes that are more creative.” (p. 27) 

Another supposed advantage that biculturals have is in their level of “attributional complexity,” or the ability to use differentiation and integration effectively in causal reasoning (Lakshman, 2013). The argument is that biculturals are somehow better able to figure out more accurately what might be causing or driving the behaviors of others and come up with a more holistic interpretation. In many cross-cultural situations where the cues might be ambiguous (e.g., are team members looking down because in their culture that is expected or because they don’t want to disagree with you? Is Helmut disagreeing with me because I’m from Corporate, or because he’s frustrated about his role?), this would indeed seem to be helpful.

In considering what biculturals bring to global teams, Thomas et al. (2010) suggest that they have important roles as boundary spanners and conflict mediators. For example, Max, a Dutch expatriate who spent part of his high school and university education in the United States, works for a Dutch multinational and has had assignments in different parts of the world. He leads a global marketing team where he has to network with Dutch executives in corporate headquarters in Amsterdam (his boundary-spanning role) as well as work with the non-Dutch members of his team some of whom perceive the Dutch members as arrogant (his conflict mediation role). Max, and others like him, have learned to switch frames depending on the cultural context.

L’Oreal, the global beauty company, has in fact been focusing its recruitment for product development teams on “multiculturals,” those whose family backgrounds are multicultural and/or who have lived in different countries. Hiring individuals who are bicultural seems like a winning strategy for global organizations.  However, successful execution of this strategy poses some challenges. First, identifying who they are is not simply a matter of demographics (that is, whether they have been exposed deeply to two different cultures). Take these two examples. Kathy has an MBA from a leading business school, and has been working as a junior staff consultant with a prestigious management consulting firm. Her parents are Ukrainian, and while she was raised in the United States from the time she was eight years old, she has continued to identify with her Ukrainian cultural heritage. When working with corporate clients in the U.S., she is careful not to display any of her Ukrainian heritage, and in fact, comes across as very “corporate.” However, her heritage is very much a part of her identity; she enjoys going to Ukrainian events, and has visited her home country several times. At the same time, she also identifies very much with being an American.

By contrast, Liu, Kathy’s classmate in B-school, has struggled a bit more. She grew up in China, but did her undergraduate and graduate work in the Midwest. She still speaks with a strong accent even though her facility with English is strong. Although she has lived in the U.S. for over ten years, she does not quite feel at home in Boston (her current residence). While she enjoys living in America, there are several aspects of living there that bother her, especially the strong individualism of her colleagues in the workplace and the lack of respect for authority. Both Kathy and Liu might on the surface be considered biculturals; however, while Kathy seems to have high bicultural identity integration, Liu does not yet seem to have a high level of integration.
In fact, some researchers have suggested that biculturals low in BII may “disidentify” with cultural norms and want to avoid conforming to expectations. As Mok et al. (2010) suggest: “Integrated biculturals can match cultural norms because they do not feel that they undermine their other cultural identity in doing so. Conversely, less integrated biculturals may render following cultural norms as threatening their other cultural identity, spurring an impulse to retreat, or affirm that other identity to restore equilibrium in their bicultural identities.”
A second challenge is the climate or culture of the organization and its practices. Researchers have pointed out that in general biculturalism thrives best in a multicultural environment, such as in cities like New York, Toronto, Sydney, and Manila. Biculturalism is not necessarily an advantage in monocultural areas such as parts of rural Japan, Mexico and even some U.S. Southern cities. A bicultural who demonstrates heritage cultural behaviors even in an appropriate setting (for example, being deeply respectful to a Japanese government official visiting the corporate home office) in a corporate environment that does not value such displays might feel out of place. Biculturals will thrive best in organizations that support and encourage multicultural or global perspectives.
For managers who have been exposed deeply to two (or more) different cultures and who would like to leverage these experiences, here is some advice. First, do a “current state analysis” by asking yourself the following questions. Towards which of your two cultures do you feel a stronger identity or a stronger preference, or do you identify almost equally with both? Why? Are there aspects of each culture that you prefer over the other, and aspects that you dislike? Be aware of the extent to which you view the two cultural values you have as compatible (high Bicultural Identity Integration) or oppositional (low Bicultural Identity Integration) as this might have implications for some of your preferences. For example, a fascinating study by Friedman et al. (2012) showed that Westernized Taiwanese professionals who viewed their Taiwanese and American identities as compatible preferred using an equity-based rule in employee pay allocation in an American setting (where this type of rule is more consistent with Western management practices) and an equality-based rule in an Asian setting (where this type of rule is more consistent with Asian management practices). However, those who viewed their two cultural identities as oppositional preferred using an equality-based rule in an American setting and an equity-based rule in an Asian setting.
Second, do a “future state analysis” by asking yourself the following: given your professional and personal goals, what aspects of your current cultural identity would you like to change, if any? For example, in Liu’s case, after some discussions with her business coach, she has decided that to succeed in her workplace, she needed to show more assertiveness. She began to recognize that questioning her boss and others in authority did not mean she lacked respect for authority. In fact, she values being able to contribute her ideas even though these may not align with those of her superiors. And third, consider initiating two to three short-term actions to get you closer to your goal. Again, in Liu’s case, one action she decided on was to make sure to have a question or two ready to ask during meetings.
There are some interesting questions that perhaps further research will shed more light on, especially as they have implications for individuals and managers working globally. For example, what aspects of the context (for example, peers speaking a different language) trigger a person to switch frames? How does a person know what behaviors are appropriate when switching frames? And does the degree of difficulty of switching frames increase the farther away the person has been from one of the cultures? For example, there are many biculturals who have lived away from their heritage cultures for some years. How effective are efforts to preserve their cultural heritage (such as staying in touch with friends and relatives from the home country, going home to visit, listening to their heritage country’s music or watching films)? How much of an impact do factors such as linguistic challenges (e.g., having a thick accent), the acceptance of diversity in one’s immediate environment, and experiences of being mistreated because of one’s ethnicity have on one’s bicultural identity integration? And how do similarities between cultures affect cultural integration and identification? Would someone who is bicultural due to having been born and raised in Mexico but now living in Peru have an easier time with identity integration than someone who was born and raised in Russia and is now living in Australia?

Although tensions around assimilation and integration will continue in part because of protectionist and nationalistic trends in some nations, most companies will continue their efforts at globalizing – whether this is through different products or services for different markets, new consumers or expanded supply chains. Talented individuals who successfully address their bicultural identity should have a competitive edge over others, and firms would do well to seek out and develop such talent.

Benet-Martinez, V. and Fabra, U. (2016). Multicultural Identity and Experiences: Cultural, Social, and Personality Processes. To appear in K. Deaux and M. Snyder (Eds.), Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology, 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Benet-Martinez, V. and Haritatos, J. (2005). Bicultural Identity Integration (BII): Components and Psychological Antecedents. Journal of Personality, 73: 1015-1050.

Friedman, R. et al. (2012). Cross-Cultural Management and Bicultural Identity Integration: When Does Experience Abroad Lead to Appropriate Cultural Switching? International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 36: 130-139.

Hong, H. (2010). Bicultural Competence and Its Impact on Team Effectiveness. International Journal of Cross-Cultural Management, 10 (1): 93-120.

Lakschman, C. (2013). Biculturalism and Attributional Complexity: Cross-Cultural Leadership Effectiveness. Journal of International Business Studies, 44 (9): 922-940.

Mistry, J. and Wu, J. (2010). Navigating Cultural Worlds and Negotiating Identities: A Conceptual Model. Human Development, 53: 5-25.

Molinsky, A. (2007). Cross-Cultural Code Switching: The Psychological Challenges of Adapting Behavior in Foreign Cultural Interactions. Academy of Management Journal, 32 (2): 622-640.

Mok et al., A. (2010). Matching Versus Mismatching Cultural Norms in Performance Appraisal: Effects of the Cultural Setting and Bicultural Identity Integration. International Journal of Cross-Cultural Management, 10(1): 17-35.

Nguyen, A. and Benet-Martinez, V. (20). Multiculturalism: What It Is and Why It Matters.

Nguyen, A. and Benet-Martinez, V. (2013). Biculturalism and Adjustment: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 44: 122-159.


Schwartz, W. and Unger, J. (2010). Biculturalism and Context: What Is Biculturalism, and When Is It Adaptive?  Human Development, 53: 26-32.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Promises and Risks of Psychological Safety

Several years ago, I was working with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company to organize a task force of senior executives on a special short-term project. At the kick-off meeting, the CEO explained the purpose of the task force, why each of them was selected, and his expectations of the project. He was making some observations about the state of the business and the industry when John, a Vice President and one of the task force members, raised his hand to express his point of view about a business issue that was at odds with what the CEO had stated. As far as I could tell, John made his point respectfully and politely. Yet the CEO (who was known to have a temper) bristled at the comment and pretty much shut John down. John remained quiet for the remainder of the meeting. An hour later, I visited John to check in on him. He was still visibly upset, and told me that he half expected his computer to be shut down and for Security to walk in to escort him out of the building – all because he dared to disagree with the CEO!

As those of you working in organizations are aware, and as the research indicates, getting employees to speak up is a challenge for many companies. At Wells Fargo, many workers were fired for raising questions about the legality of its practices for signing up customers for credit cards. In his terrific book about Alan Mulally and Ford’s turnaround (Hoffman, 2012), the author describes a meeting between Mulally and his executive team where Mark Fields, then head of the Americas, admitted that there was a problem with the pending launch of the Ford Edge. Prior to this meeting and under previous CEOs, no one would ever admit to anything going wrong within their business or function. At the next meeting, when Fields showed up, the other executives were stunned (p. 125):
“The truth was that many of the other executives were surprised to see him at the meeting. They assumed he had been taken out back and summarily executed when no one was looking. Some expected the ax to fall during this week’s session. But when that meeting ended with Fields still in charge of the Americas, most of his peers had reached the same conclusion he had: Mulally was true to his word. He said he wanted honesty and he meant it. It was not a trap.”

One of the most important ingredients for having a speak-up culture, and effective teams, is to build psychological safety, where employees feel safe in offering ideas and are not afraid of taking risks. Many executives I have interviewed believe that encouraging employees to speak up is vital to creating a healthy organizational culture. As reported in the New York Times (Duhigg, 2016), Google embarked on a study in 2012 to understand what makes great teams. Their researchers reviewed academic studies and groups within Google – over 180 teams in all. What did they find? First, the composition of the team (in terms of skill mix, personality type or level of experience, for example) did not seem to matter for team effectiveness. They concluded that understanding and influencing group norms were the keys to success, and that the most important of these norms were around creating a climate of psychological safety. There were other important behaviors critical to team effectiveness, such as having clear goals and “creating a culture of dependability.” But psychological safety norms trumped everything else. The Google researchers pointed in particular to a study by Williams et al. (2010) that found two behaviors indicative of psychological safety: conversational turn-taking and average social sensitivity.

It is somewhat ironic that Google is currently grappling with this issue in its firing of one of its engineers for expressing his point of view. However, psychological safety does not necessarily mean that individuals can express any opinion, regardless of its content and its potential impact on other members of the team. To take an extreme example, a worker who advocates at a meeting to do something illegal, immoral or unethical (such as maiming another employee or bribing a government official), or that goes against the company’s core values and code of conduct, should be held accountable and face consequences. A team member who disparages and insults other team members should be confronted. The leader’s responsibility is not only to encourage and role-model behaviors that are conducive to psychological safety but also to make clear what the boundaries are. As most of us know, a firm is not a democracy, and rules around freedom of speech are more restricted in most companies.

In her now classic article, Edmondson (1999) points out that psychological safety is not the same as team cohesiveness since members of cohesive teams might be hesitant to disagree with others for fear of rocking the boat. Although cohesion is different from safety, there might be a contagion effect among cohesive groups, where all members feel they belong to the same in-group. Research by Gino et al. (2009) suggest that the behavior of one or more in-group members has a strong influence on other in-group members; these “microelements” might even be stronger than “macroelements” such as organizational policies. As Edmondson explains: “The term (psychological safety) is meant to suggest neither a careless sense of permissiveness, nor an unrelentingly positive affect but, rather, a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. This confidence stems from mutual respect and trust among team members.” (p. 354) She has developed a scale to measure psychological safety; sample statements include the following: "If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you" (reverse scored), "It is safe to take a risk on this team," and "No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that would undermine my efforts."

In a recent review, Edmondson and Lei (2010) state that “…across decades and levels of analysis … (psychological safety) facilitates the willing contribution of ideas and actions to a shared enterprise.” (p. 24) In other words, “People are more likely to offer ideas, admit mistakes, ask for help, or provide feedback if they believe it is safe to do so.” (p. 36) They are also more likely to speak up at work. The evidence of its positive impact seems strong, although Edmondson and others do acknowledge that the impact of psychological safety may vary with contextual factors, such as the degree of teamwork required or the size of the group. Effective team leader coaching and context support (such as access to information and resources) are two other factors that might impact psychological safety.

Does psychological safety have a downside? As Edmondson and others have suggested, there are certain conditions in which creating psychological safety might not be as important or as relevant. In highly constrained teams (e.g., when the work is very routine, where performance measures are very specific), safety might not have as much of an impact since the task is well structured and the processes are explicit.

Another of these conditions might be the level of belief about hierarchy or power distance. In an interesting set of studies, Anicich et al. (2015) analyzed data from over 30,000 Himalayan mountain climbers from 56 countries on over 5,000 expeditions between 1905 and 2012. They created an overall index of hierarchy for each expedition based on its country of origin and controlled for such variables as climber age, number of climbers, country GDP per capita and mean elevation of the expedition’s native country. They predicted that climbing teams from more hierarchical cultures would be more successful, that is, more likely to summit. On the other hand, because hierarchical cultures are less likely to encourage others to have a voice, and since member perspectives are important to avoid any disasters, they predicted that teams from such cultures would also be more likely to suffer fatalities. Their analysis confirmed their predictions: expeditions from high power distance cultures were more successful in reaching the summit, but they also had more climbers die while climbing.

And then, some would argue, there is the reality that in many organizations, you can never let your hair down completely. Many individuals, particularly bosses, are living in fishbowls where their behaviors are continuously being observed. Sutton (2010), for example, writes that he has seen three reactions by bosses to failure by subordinates: 1) remember, blame, humiliate or expel the culprit, 2) forgive and forget, and 3) forgive and remember (the most effective of the three, according to him). In one organization, I asked several executives what would happen if a manager failed in an assignment. Their response was uniformly similar, indicating that there were very clear messages on the consequences of failure. You had two chances, they all said (of course, depending on the magnitude of the assignment or failure). If you failed the second time, your career would be over. In another organization, senior executives were puzzled as to why many candidates were turning down opportunities to accept overseas assignments in several emerging markets. As it turned out, many of these assignments were very high-risk, and the company had a reputation of not tolerating failure.

As a manager, you can create your own mini-climate of psychological safety by considering these two recommendations. First, examine your own behavior and style and make the appropriate adjustments, especially in building your empathy and social awareness. Here are some questions to reflect on. What is your reaction to those who disagree with you? When subordinates make mistakes, is your first instinct to blame and berate, rather than understand and listen? Do you ask “information-seeking” questions before stating your opinion? Do you welcome disagreements from your team? Do you make sure that everyone gets a chance to have a voice in the team? Second, remember that psychological safety cannot be established unless there is trust. Learn how to build trust, keeping in mind two different approaches to building trust across cultures. In many Western cultures, trust is built through the task (showing that you are competent, reliable, that you keep your word, and that you are consistent in your words and actions). In other cultures, trust is built through building interpersonal ties and relationships. Both can be effective, and learning when to use one or the other, or in what sequence or combination, will help you create your own mini-climate of safety with your team.

Duhigg, C. (February 25, 2016). What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html?smid=pl-share
Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44 (2) (June 1999): 350-383.
Edmondson, A. and Lee, Z. (2014). Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct. In The Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior: http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-031413-091305

Gino, F. et al. (2009). Contagion and Differentiation in Unethical Behavior: The Effect of One Bad Apple on the Barrel. Psychological Science, 20 (3): 393-398.

Hoffman, B. (2012). American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company. New York: Crown Business.

Sutton, R. (2010). Good Boss, Bad Boss. New York: Business Plus.

Williams, A. et al. (2010). Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. Science, 29 (330): 686-688.