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American Workways: How They Sabotage Cross-cultural Communications on the Job

8/6/2003 --

ANN ARBOR, Mich.---Staying on task and impersonal at work may actually be a barrier to productivity in today's multicultural business environment, a University of Michigan researcher says.

According to Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources management at the Michigan Business School and psychologist at the University's Institute for Social Research (ISR), a widespread American belief that personal relationships and emotions in the office are inappropriate and unprofessional may interfere with communication and ultimately with productivity.

"East Asian, Latin American and Middle Eastern cultures tend to believe that social and emotional relationships are just as important at work as a relentless focus on the task at hand," Sanchez-Burks said. His most recent study is on what he calls Protestant Relational Ideology or PRI–an affliction related to the Protestant work ethic, characterized by the expectation that one should be more impersonal and emotionally detached at work than in social situations. It appears in the current (August 2003) issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Cultural differences in PRI play out at the office in ways that are as pervasive as they are subtle, Sanchez-Burks explains, and they often involve indirect communication. Being indirect to save a colleague's feelings demonstrates a personal relationship. A blunt, say-it-like-it-is approach puts content above concern for a co-worker's emotional reaction.

With colleagues at the University of Michigan, Seoul National University in Korea and the International Business University in Nanjing, China, Sanchez-Burks has conducted a series of experiments showing how cross-cultural communication styles can fuel conflict and misunderstanding in a diverse workplace. Much of the research was supported by a grant from the Russell Sage Foundation.

In one study, for example, the researchers found that European Americans were less attentive to indirect cues at work than they were in social situations, while East Asians were equally indirect at work and in non-work settings.

"Despite enormous differences in the nature of social relations across societies as diverse as Mexico, Japan and India, the U.S. may differ from each of them in reduced social emotionality in work settings," said Sanchez-Burks, noting that the present research findings have several implications for improving cross-cultural working relationships. By creating informal environments where employees from different cultures can relax and socialize with each other in the office and by offering plenty of chances for employees to get to know each other away from the office, organizations can help to reduce cross-cultural misunderstandings at work, Sanchez-Burks says.

These kinds of changes may be tough for hard-charging, all-work-and-no-play execs to swallow. "For a very long time, PRI has been seen as essential to the success of Western business organizations," he said. "So it's difficult to accept that staying on-task may actually be a barrier to productivity in today's global business environment." For more information, see

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat
Phone: 734.936.1015 or 647.1847