Unleashing Creative Collaboration Across Cultures
Recent research claims that short personal conversations stimulate creative exchange during the workplace.
Cultural diversity is often trumpeted as a key driver of innovation. In theory, cultural diversity should lead to diversity of insights and, in turn, greater innovation. However, in practice the promise of cultural diversity is largely unrealised. In reality, cultural diversity can lead to miscommunication, distrust and even outright antagonism. Therefore, what can organisations do to ensure that cultural diversity is an asset rather than liability?
A study by Dr Roy Y. J. Chua, Michael Morris, and Shira Mor provided insight on how leaders can better achieve creative collaboration across cultures. Creative collaboration in business often involves the exchange of unconventional and seemingly unrelated ideas. Such collaborations are enhanced by feelings of openness and empathy. People will only share their inchoate — and often risky — ideas with those they believe will not put them down. This feeling of openness and empathy is termed by psychologists as “affective trust”. Compared to “cognitive trust” (which is based on perceptions of the other’s competence and reliability), affective trust is all about emotions, and involves feeling confident and secure about the other party. When collaborating with colleagues from a different culture, the key to building affective trust is something termed “cultural meta-cognition”.
According to Dr Chua, the lead author of the study, cultural meta-cognition is “a mental habit to enhance inter-cultural interaction”. This involves increasing one’s awareness of the cultural assumptions of others as well as updating these assumptions as they learn more about other cultures. In a series of studies, Dr Chua and his team found support for the idea that cultural meta-cognition can fuel creative collaboration across cultures.
And, in an experiment they found that participants high on cultural meta-cognition tended to achieve better creative outputs with a partner from a different culture, when they were asked to spend as little as 10 minutes having personal conversations with these partners before beginning a creative task. Such 10-minute conversations could potentially be replicated countless times in your company pantry, or around the water coolers. These seemingly trivial, non-work related discussions could help form a foundation for affective trust and set the stage for creative collaboration.
The three As
As with any other business practice, cultural meta-cognition can be learnt, developed and implemented company-wide. In an exclusive interview with HQ Asia, Dr Chua outlined a three-step process to help develop cultural meta-cognition:
To enhance cultural interactions, we first need to know what our assumptions and theories about other cultures are. Identify a person of a different culture you are about to meet, and spend a few minutes writing in a small notebook. Answer the following questions: “What are the things that you know about the other person’s culture?” “What do you not know about their culture?” And, “What do you suppose they think about your culture?
Engage a person of a different culture in a short and personal conversation. Find time for such non-work related conversations and use these casual chats as a chance to learn and refine your cultural assumptions. Answer the following questions: “How different is this person from what you wrote about in the notebook?” And, “What does she or he think about your culture? Following this, how accurate were your assumptions?
Find time for reflection. Perhaps on your commute home from work, spend a few minutes mulling over your notebook again. “How has this person changed your impression of their culture?” And, “Have you developed a more layered and nuanced view of their culture?” No culture is one-dimensional. The purpose of this exercise is to get you to view every individual and culture as multidimensional, complex, and evolving. Record your thoughts in the notebook and spend some time reflecting. Arrange for another coffee date with the same person, or identify the next person of a different culture you can speak with, and restart this process.
A few conversations later, and you will realise that your understanding about another’s culture has become more refined and nuanced. This is the essence of the cultural metacognition strategy. Dr Chua likened cultural meta-cognition to “the heightened awareness you experience when driving in a foreign country. You watch out for road signs, directional boards, adjust speed limits, and even constantly remind yourself which side of the road to drive on.” Driving in a foreign country can be an exciting and enriching experience. But it can also be a stressful and frustrating one. Practising the three As described above can help you stay on-track.
Some might suggest that personal conversations distract employees from business tasks. Others — especially in Asia — have a contrary position. The common view is as follows:
“If I do not know and trust you as a person, why should I trust and work with you in the complex world of business?”
This is especially true in cross-cultural creative collaborations. It is the short 10-minute conversation you have with your colleagues before meetings that stimulates creative exchange more than anything that happens during the meeting itself.
When was the last time you had a personal chat with a colleague from a different cultural background? Now might be a good time to put down this publication and invite a colleague for coffee!
HQ Asia in collaboration with Dr Roy Y. J. Chua – an Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviours & Human Resources and Director, PhD Programmes at Singapore Management University. Dr Michael Morris is Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership at Columbia Business School and Dr Shira Mor is Assistant Professor, Departments of Labor Studies and Public Policy at Tel-Aviv University and a WAPPP Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School.