Dealing with cultural differences is an inevitable part of every cross-cultural encounter and one that simply cannot be overlooked. In the workplace, this becomes easily evident when your foreign colleagues misunderstand your gestures, have a different view towards time schedules, do not share your preferred patterns of teamwork, or express their emotions in an unfamiliar manner. If these everyday examples are not convincing enough, brain researchers provide further insights on this matter.
For example, there is evidence that culture shapes the wiring of our brains. Behavioral research suggests that Westerners focus more on objects, whereas East Asians attend more to relationships and contexts. A study by Dr. Gutchess et al. of the University of Michigan evaluated the neural basis for these cultural differences through brain MRI scanning and found that cultural experiences subtly direct neural activity. However, there is also evidence that this wiring may change when moving between cultures – in fact, after having lived in the US for a few months, Chinese individuals showed no differences in brain activity compared to US Americans anymore. What do these results tell us? First, they imply that culture does matter, as there are very real differences in how people from different cultures process information. Second, although brain processing differs between cultures, it is not permanent, and cross-cultural experiences can change it. Therefore, we are in fact able to re-wire our brains for different cultural settings – and wire them back again.
So what does this mean for managing people across cultures? It is important that managers and leaders develop intercultural competences that can help them be more aware of their own culturally-based perceptions, norms, and patterns of thinking, and consequently adapt their behaviors according to specific cultural contexts. To help individuals develop these competences, my colleagues Yih-teen Lee and Carlos Sánchez-Runde are organizing a Short Focused Program at IESE Business School on the topic of Managing People across Cultures, held from June 5-7 2012 at IESE’s campus in Barcelona. Specifically, the program addresses various topics including:
• Cross-cultural communication and understanding at both the interpersonal and inter-organizational levels
• Leading multicultural and global virtual teams
• Cross-cultural leadership
• Managing cross-cultural joint ventures
• Transferring managerial practices across cultures
• Managing international assignments
For more details, please consult the following link to the program website: