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Diversity downside: conflict between co-workers of different cultures plays havoc with creativity of those around them, new research finds

January 2, 2014

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz, 212-233-6170,

In a world economy increasingly dominated by multinational corporations, success depends more than ever on multicultural thinking, whether that means making movies that will draw crowds in New Delhi and Shanghai  as well as Miami and London or producing fashions or foods with universal appeal. Such endeavors, commonly requiring teamwork among people of different races and nationalities, can be a decidedly mixed bag: on the one hand is the potential for intercultural anxiety, tensions and conflict stemming from differences in worldview, values, and norms; on the other hand is the potential for an extra margin of creativity stemming from that very same diversity.

 

Which matters more? While not hazarding an answer, a paper in the current issue of the Academy of Management Journal, begins by noting that, when it comes to creativity, "conventional wisdom suggests that cultural diversity is generally a positive thing because it brings together people with different perspectives informed by their different cultural experiences and knowledge." The article then proceeds to suggest that this advantage is less than advertised: creativity in multicultural settings, it shows, is highly vulnerable to what the author calls "ambient cultural disharmony".

 

In three distinct studies, Prof. Roy Y.J .Chua of Harvard Business School finds that the presence of conflict or tension between two people of different cultures -- whether the cause of strife is culturally based or simply due to personal antipathy -- diminishes the ability of others to think creatively in multicultural ways. As the professor explains, "Creativity is not necessarily about producing a completely new idea or product that never existed before [but] oftentimes involves combining existing ideas in new ways that are useful toward solving practical problems. To solve problems creatively in a global multicultural context, problem-solvers need to first see non-obvious connections among ideas from different cultures...Ambient cultural disharmony motivates people to shut down the search for connections and patterns involving ideas from different cultures because they have come to believe that such intercultural connections are not feasible."

 

This effect does not require deep-seated beliefs that cultural differences are unalterable or that different cultures are incompatible. On the contrary, the strongest impact is seen on people who are generally open-minded about such differences, which leads Prof. Chua to observe that "individuals' cultural-incompatibility beliefs are more likely to be shaped (that is, increased) rather than activated by ambient cultural disharmony." He surmises that for persons who are firm believers in cultural incompatibility, ambient intercultural conflicts and tensions are expected, whereas for more open-minded persons they are "more likely to be experienced as a novel stimulus...and are hence highly salient." 

 

In a further irony, no effect on multicultural creativity is seen for the individuals who are personally involved in an intercultural conflict, only for the innocent bystanders who happen to be aware of it. 'When people experience direct intercultural disharmony involving themselves, they are more likely to make external and specific attributions that the other person is at fault," explains Prof. Chua. "As such, the individuals' own cultural background is unlikely to be featured as the only cause of the disharmony. Conversely, when people observe indirect intercultural disharmony, they are likely to make more dispositional and global attributions involving the protagonists, especially when the observer does not have private information about the nature of the conflict or when the conflict involves outgroup members. Consequently, observers are relatively more likely to attribute the disharmony to the protagonists' cultural backgrounds and form the general beliefs that cultures are not compatible."

 

In the three studies described in the paper, the professor used a variety of means to establish the presence of intercultural ambient disharmony. In one study he simply surveyed participants about the amount of it in their social networks; in another, he asked some subjects to recall a recent conflict between two contacts from different cultural backgrounds who disliked each other, while asking other subjects to recall either same-culture conflict or intercultural harmony; in the third study, participants viewed a short video that pictured one or another of these relationships -- intercultural conflict, same-culture conflict, intercultural harmony. He also measured creativity in a variety of ways -- either by participants' ability to solve word puzzles or by their creativity in generating ideas about a case study involving international fashion or their ability to think up novel products and services that could be implemented for both of two distinct peoples, one from Mongolia and the other from South America.

 

In all three studies, subjects who had a greater experience of ambient cultural disharmony fell short on one or another of these measures of creativity. For example, those asked to recall an episode of intercultural conflict had a mean creativity rating of 2.19 (on a scale of 1 to 7) on the international-fashion case-study exercise, compared with 3.17 for those asked to recall a within-culture conflict and 2.73 for those asked to recall an instance of intercultural harmony. Further the effect was quite specific for tests of multicultural creativity: participants who reported a lot of intercultural disharmony in their social networks had significantly lower scores than other subjects on a word-puzzle exercise involving knowledge of distinct cultures but not on a word puzzle without that emphasis.

 

Given the inherent challenges of intercultural endeavors of many stripes, how serious a problem is the effect uncovered by the new research?   If culturally diverse workplaces are particularly vulnerable to conflict and tension, wouldn't ambient cultural disharmony amount to a considerable handicap? Prof. Chua demurs. "It's not clear how serious a problem this is," he says,   "since this is the first work to show creativity loss resulting from ambient cultural disharmony. Yet, the fact that intercultural conflict affects so many more people than those directly involved and diminishes something as critical to organizational success as creativity suggests that what this research has uncovered is more than a minor drawback of diversity."

 

The paper, "The Costs of Ambient Cultural Disharmony: Indirect Intercultural Conflict in Social Environment Undermine Creativity," is in the December/January issue of the Academy of Management Journal. This peer-reviewed publication is published every other month by the Academy, which, with about 19,000 members in 110 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are The Academy of Management Review, The Academy of Management Perspectives,  and Academy of Management Learning and Education.

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