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Study reveals the challenges of collaborating across cultures

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Study reveals the challenges of collaborating across cultures

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I’ve written a few times about the importance of culture for a social business.  Whilst many of these pieces have been focused on organizational culture, there have also been some exploring international cultures.  Geert Hofstede is arguably the authority on such topics, and he has done an awful lot of work on explaining and understanding the way international cultures operate together.

With global organizations attempting to collaborate more effectively, this is inevitably a topic of great interest.  A recent study highlights some of the challenges that we can face.  The research asked participants, selected from India and the United States, to play an online strategy game whereby coooperation and collaboration were desirable strategies.

Each participant played the game with an online partner.  They were required to choose from one of three scenarios.  The first scenario would see each partner rewarded with an equal sum.  The second and third would see unequal rewards given to each player, with weighting given to one player or the other.  The catch was that if the players didn’t select the same outcome as their partner, then both would get nothing.  This resulted in the majority of players selecting the equal option.

Interestingly however, more Indian players would select the unequal option than their American peers.  The researchers report that they believe this shows how the cultures of each country underpin the different strategies and expectations of both themselves and the other player.  Players in India were more likely to choose an unequal option, sometimes even when it left them with less money.

“You realize that if you don’t coordinate you’re going to get zero, and if I think that the other person might be really going for an unequal split I’m willing to settle for the 20,” the researchers say.

It emerged that Indian players could usually predict that fellow Indian players would also choose the unequal reward, but they incorrectly assumed the American players would do the same.  Likewise, the Americans would wrongly assume that their Indian peers would play just as they would.

“They weren’t necessarily aware of the differences and they would project their own culture onto the other culture,” the researchers reveal.

It’s all rather symptomatic of the Hobbesian trap of looking at the world through our own eyes, and not through those of the people we work with.  What is normal and expected behaviour in us, is often not so in other people.  Might this effect how and when we collaborate with international colleagues in our own organisations?

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