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The Great Divide

5/12/2008 --

Americans’ unique work ways set them apart, says Ross professor.

In his research, Ross professor Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks documents unique American work ways and investigates the special challenges to intercultural business relations in the new global economy. His findings, discussed in the following Q&A, provide an understanding of how culture shapes fundamental assumptions about business relationships, and the implications for intercultural organizational behavior.

What makes the American workplace different from those in other industrialized societies?

In looking at intercultural business relations, we find the United States is somewhat of an anomaly—what Alexis de Tocqueville called American Exceptionalism—compared to Asian, European, and Latin American societies, in terms of how we make sense of social-emotional aspects of work, and how this varies across the work/non-work divide. In the United States, it is more common to have a deep-seated belief that emotional and relational concerns play less of a role in the workplace than outside work. Americans take a more task-focused, rational approach on the job, although outside work, we're very social, emotional and relational. The tricky part is that we don't think of this difference as a cultural effect. Instead, we assume it's just the way you do business. As a result, we try to come up with explanations for why the Japanese pay so much attention to saving face and why the Italians are so emotional. Rarely do we look inward to try to explain the unique, rich traditions of American business practices.

Why has America's business culture evolved this way?

German sociologist Max Weber and others have hypothesized, and our research has demonstrated to be true, that the early Calvinists left an imprint on Americans' approach to work. Although their imprint has lost its connection with religious ideology, it continues to this day for a number of reasons. First, when you put aside relationships at work, it allows you to do business with people, regardless of your connection to them. Your business transactions are not based on prior interpersonal history. You'll even do business with people you hate, and that opens up a host of opportunities. This approach is closely associated with the Protestant work ethic, which holds that work has value in itself. When you combine these two things, you get an image of what makes America unique in its approach to business.

How does this cultural variation in relational attunement impact communications in international business transactions?

There's a widely held stereotype that East Asians are indirect and pay attention to saving face, while Americans are direct. However, in comparing Americans' and Asians' communications patterns of indirectness and directness, both at work and outside work, my colleague Fiona Lee and I found there was no difference in levels of indirectness between the two cultures when we asked people to think explicitly about communicating outside the workplace. The cultural divide became very substantial and significant when we compared the patterns in the workplace. This has two major implications. First, where cultures differ the most is in the context of work. That is really important because work is where people from different cultures are most likely to interact. Second, culture shouldn't be thought of as a personality. It depends upon the situation.

What about trust?

In many parts of the world, cues of trust are based on cues that individuals pick up in an interpersonal context. Well, in the United States, we don't have that context in business situations. So, what do we do? It turns out we rely more on contracts rather than trust, and turn to the courts when contractual agreements are violated. Where this gets tricky for Americans doing business in a global economy is that the world court is not nearly as effective as the U.S. legal system, so there's not the same enforcement mechanism. This can put Americans who under-appreciate cultural differences in work ways at a disadvantage.

What about creativity and productivity?

It's really a double-edged sword. Being able to focus directly on the task provides many opportunities to get things done. Our latest research shows Americans have a very distinct optimism for being able to press on and succeed in a team, even when people hate each other. It's ironic, because all the published data suggest Americans are wrong—that teams actually do worse when they have relationship conflict. But we're starting to examine the possibility that this American optimism is a useful perspective for several reasons: first, people won't always be right about their predictions (of not being able to get along with others), and, second, a team in which such optimism is shared among the group just might be able to prevail against the odds. Americans invoke this wonderful cultural expression, "let bygones be bygones." It is a very foreign concept to people abroad to say, in a task-focused way, let's put emotions aside. I think people from other cultures get a distorted view of us when they only do business with Americans but don't socialize with them outside work.

Do you see a trend in the United States toward social isolation and a decrease in friendship ties between co-workers outside their work environment?

In other cultures, my colleagues Olenka Kacperczyk and Wayne Baker and I have found that the level of social-emotionality is more constant across the work/non-work divide than it is in the United States. To measure that divide, our new data looked at India, Poland and America to gauge how often people see their co-workers outside the workplace. Two interesting findings came to light. First, the United States is very low, compared to India and Poland. Americans literally have two different social worlds and networks, one professional and another personal. They want some aspects of their life to remain separate from work. Second, this pattern of disconnection between professional and social lives in the United States is getting stronger over time. Yet, interestingly, Americans are working slightly fewer hours, marrying later and waiting to have kids. All the demographic features that would make it easier to interact with co-workers outside the workplace are moving in one direction, while Americans are moving in the opposite. One way of interpreting this is negative. Another way is positive—how refreshing to have a world of work and a separate private world.

Is there a link to emotional energy?

We originally thought Americans would be more energized by maintaining two separate networks, which would be consistent with norms in the U.S. culture. As it turned out, that was not the case. Everybody we interviewed in the United States, India and Poland seemed to derive more energy from co-workers they see outside the workplace. So, there's a cost to this strengthening pattern of isolation.

Do Americans have to make major adjustments when they do business with people from other cultures or take job assignments overseas?

Again, I think it's a double-edged sword. There are aspects where Americans have a competitive advantage in a global economy, and there are aspects that can put them at a disadvantage, if they are not prepared. Americans can have an advantage because they are more willing to do business with people quickly rather than waiting to build long-term relationships. On the other hand, Americans face a challenge in trying to understand what aspects of our approach to business are unique to our culture versus more universal. I've spent time with executives from Lufthansa, Swiss Air, Fujitu, Panasonic and Deutsche Bank, and all of them had stories about doing business with Americans. Very few of those stories were flattering. These executives are a bit taken aback by Americans' inattention to the emotional and relational aspects of work. As a result, I think there's a lot that needs to be done to convince U.S. executives and American students how important this can be in a global economy.

What adjustments must a foreign company ex-patriot, global business person, or immigrant make when starting work in an American firm?

In a recent research paper, my colleagues Emily Heaphy and Sue Ashford and I looked at how American culture shapes the way we judge other people's level of professionalism. Americans have a common expression, "act professional," which is a culturally loaded term because the words themselves are defined differently in other societies. In the United States, the phrase implies that an individual is behaving too much like he or she might outside the workplace. We found one way people violate this taboo is by talking about non-work matters or by having too many artifacts in their office that reference their personal life. Corporate recruiters told us they shied away from hiring individuals who indicated they would try to build rapport with a prospective client by making slight references to that client's personal life. It's very subtle. Ironically, even though an individual is trying to build rapport, it is best to begin with a polite impersonality and then adjust based on the individual and specific cues in the situation. Learning these nuances is important for students and business people who come to the United States from abroad, if they want to succeed.

What, if anything, can American companies, managers, and workers themselves do to improve their satisfaction and effectiveness in cross-cultural business situations?

They can recognize the subtle ways in which culture contributes to the success and well-being of the relationships in the workplace. It's a diverse world, and Americans often become very frustrated in intercultural settings because they don't understand the fundamental differences between their work ways and those of people in other societies. Given our global economy in which companies are dealing with suppliers and customers around the world, this is a ripe time to try to understand and map these cultural differences, and to prepare for better coordination across these divides.

Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks is assistant professor of management and organizations at Ross.

Written by Claudia Capos

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