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Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks and Fiona Lee
  Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks and Fiona Lee

Cross-Cultural Success: Work American-Style

12/12/2007 --

U.S. managers are more successful in cross-cultural business interactions when they use Protestant relational ideology.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Many multinational firms provide cross-cultural training for employees working overseas, but up to half of managers assigned to work with colleagues abroad curtail their assignments because of an inability to manage cultural differences, say researchers at the Ross School of Business.

Recent advances in cultural psychology theory are now taking cross-cultural training to the next level, say Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks and Fiona Lee, who teach in the Management and Organizations department at the Ross School.

In a journal article appearing in Basic and Applied Social Psychology, Sanchez-Burks and Lee, along with University of Michigan colleagues Richard Nisbett and Oscar Ybarra, report success in developing and utilizing a new type of cross-cultural training program, based on the theory of "Protestant relational ideology," to improve task performance and relational adjustment among people working across cultures.

"Protestant relational ideology refers to a deep-seated belief that affective and relational concerns are inappropriate in some contexts and should be given less attention in work than in nonwork settings," Sanchez-Burks say. "This characteristically American ideology has been shown to influence perceptions, memory, judgments and behavior in work-focused social interactions."

American managers, for example, are less likely than Latino and East Asian managers to think about a subordinate's personal motivations, preferring instead to focus more exclusively on salary and other work-related incentives, the researchers say.

Americans also are less inclined than other cultural groups to believe that relationship conflict can diminish task performance or that improving interpersonal dynamics can bolster success on a team project. Furthermore, Americans are more apt to perceive "professionalism" as a rationale for restricting relational and socio-emotional expressions in the workplace, thereby maintaining a clear divide between work and nonwork life.

Relational ideology (RI) training, they say, differs in certain respects from cultural assimilator (CA) training, long considered the benchmark for effectiveness in cross-cultural intervention. Most CA programs present participants with a collection of cross-cultural "critical incidents" that occur between an expatriate in a foreign country and a host national. These incidents highlight unique cultural concepts, as well as key dimensions along which cultures vary. In short, the purpose of the CA program is to train participants to make responses and interpretations similar to those of people from the host culture.

In contrast, RI training seeks to introduce trainees to the notion that cultural differences in relational attunement and social-emotional sensitivity often operate outside one's awareness and arise in part from cultural variations in people's perceptions and behavior in work and nonwork interactions. It also emphasizes that cross-cultural misunderstandings can be alleviated if one recognizes these underlying dynamics.

What truly sets RI training apart, however, is the program's experiential exercises, which reflect the legacy of Protestant relational ideology and reveal its subtle influence on culturally shaped perception and behavior, the researchers say. Trainees gain insight into their own and others' cultural styles by completing self-assessments and participating in facilitator-directed discussions. They also have an opportunity to practice their understanding of cultural variations and their handling of cultural differences.

Sanchez-Burks and colleagues compared the effectiveness of RI training against CA training using a group of 79 MBA students who were engaged in international consulting projects in either China or Chile. The projects lasted six weeks and included a 10-day visit in country, with the balance of work being completed in the United States via overseas phone calls and electronic mail. Before they left for their assignments, the participants received cross-cultural training and were randomly assigned to either an RI or CA session.

Although all participants rated both programs as similarly useful, the results show that RI training was more effective in improving managers' task performance and affective adjustment in cross-cultural ventures. Compared to CA trainees, RI trainees reported being more successful in eliciting responses from host company contacts and obtaining information necessary for success on their consulting projects. Moreover, RI trainees said they experienced less awkwardness and more positive interactions with their foreign colleagues than CA trainees.

Written by Claudia Capos

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847,