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Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks

American Cultural Ideology Continues to Shape U.S. Business Practices

12/21/2004 --

America's reliance on polite but impersonal work styles can lead to cultural miscommunications and performance roadblocks in diverse work groups.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – The preference of American business organizations for a polite but impersonal work style contrasts sharply with business customs in Latin America and Asia where a task focus is combined with a strong emphasis on establishing and maintaining social-emotion ties.

Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, assistant professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business, suggests that America's low attunement to social and emotional cues in the workplace deviates from the norm found in many other societies and can lead to intercultural miscommunications and performance roadblocks, particularly in work teams composed of people from diverse backgrounds.

As the globalization of the work force continues to spread through international mergers, joint ventures and outsourcing, company managers will likely be faced with a wider set of organizational behavior issues related to what has been termed "American exceptionalism."

"In most cultures, sensitivity to affective and relational concerns (i.e., relational attunement) is tightly woven into the social fabric of virtually all relations, and some evidence suggests these concerns become more, not less, important within the workplace," Sanchez-Burks said. "In contrast, American culture can be depicted as having the prototypical independent, individualistic and low-context relational style. It's ironic that within a society most pressed with coordinating across an increasing mosaic of cultural diversity, there is a relational ideology that works against the very process necessary to achieve this coordination."

Sanchez-Burks traces America's views about the nature of work relationships back to the ideology and practices of the early communities of people who settled the country–the Calvinist Protestants. This cultural construct, called Protestant Relational Ideology (PRI), reflects a deep-seated belief that feelings of friendship and camaraderie ought to be put aside at work in order to direct attention to the task at hand. To be productive and efficient requires leaving personal issues and emotional sensitivity at the office door. No intimacy, affection, brotherhood or rootedness is supposed to disrupt the world of work.

"Explicit and implicit messages in the culture foster lower levels of relational attunement and a drive toward an exclusive focus on the task," Sanchez-Burks said. "Such cultural imperatives are relatively unique to mainstream American culture."

However, the low relational attunement that characterizes PRI runs against the grain of many cultures and their work practices, he says. Chinese, for example, prefer to conduct business through a web of loyal interpersonal networks, and Koreans maintain the familial bonds of business relations in their chaebols. In Mexico, work relations and most other relationships are guided by the cultural tradition of simpatia. Similarly, people within Japanese and Indian organizations place great importance on the creation and maintenance of highly personal relationships.

In contrast, members of independent cultures such as America emphasize individual happiness and focus on how relationships can serve their own needs, desires and goals rather than those of other people.

The impact of PRI is most noticeable in workplace settings where cross-cultural differences come into play, Sanchez-Burks says. For example, Americans, who are not attuned to subtle interpersonal cues, are likely to misinterpret messages conveyed indirectly by Asians, who feel culturally obliged to save face for others and preserve interpersonal harmony.

This relational incompatibility also can lead to conflicting ideas about professionalism and team identity and can affect minority access to jobs and career mobility. Mere differences in the cultural mindsets used by an Anglo-American interviewer (PRI) and a Latino candidate (simpatia), for instance, can adversely influence the performance, hence the success of the Latino candidate.

Sanchez-Burks suggests the solution to the problem may require increasing corporate America's awareness of this deep-seated nature of core cultural differences in relational attunement and how these divergent approaches to work relationships impact the behavior and effectiveness of individuals within organizations and the performance of diverse groups.

Sanchez-Burks is also the Stanford R. Robertson Assistant Professor in Business Administration at the Ross School. His article, "Protestant Relational Ideology: The Cognitive Underpinnings and Organizational Implications of an American Anomaly," appears in this year's annual research volume, Research in Organizational Behavior.

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