Business activities today regularly reach across cultural boundaries, and collaborative work with people of different cultural backgrounds becomes an everyday normality. Alongside the increasing exposure to culturally pluralistic settings, the question of cultural identities and the process of acculturation also receives more and more attention. In fact, we increasingly see cases of people holding multiple cultural identities, and so can speak of different identity configurations. For example, an employee working abroad in a multinational team may simultaneously hold identities connected to his/her home country, to the specific host country in which the person is currently based, and towards an overarching global community (i.e., global identity). Potentially, each identity may have different degree of importance, or identification, which leaves us with different possible configurations of an individual’s identity.
Given the amount of previous research suggesting an impact of identity on various outcomes, such as attitudes, perceptions, motivation and behaviors, we can naturally assume that cultural identity will also influence work-related outcomes. However, there seem to be many more questions than answers in this respect. For example, how do the work outcomes of distinct identity configurations differ? Is it better to identify with the home country, as it provides security, safety and the comfort of familiarity? Or maybe it is more useful to identify with host nationals, as it may foster mutual liking, and might decrease out-group categorization? What happens if one does not identify strongly with any culture (thus feeling “culturally homeless”)? Is it sufficient to simply develop a global identity and let go of culture-specific identities?
To date, there are no answers to these questions, which inspired my colleagues and me to address them. Together with Yih-teen Lee, Aline Masuda and Fu Xin (2017), we set out to examine how individuals’ home, host, and global identities interact to predict such critical work outcomes as cultural intelligence (CQ) and leadership perception in the particular context of self-managed multicultural teams. In particular, we were interested in discovering which configurations of home, host, and global identities are most effective in this context.
In order to examine our research question, we collected data from experienced professionals involved in self-managed multicultural teamwork in the context of MBA and international master programs at two European business schools. In total, 196 participants representing 35 different nationalities participated in the study.
We found that when global identity is low, individuals with balanced culture-specific identities (low-home/low-host, or high-home/high-host) tend to show higher CQ and they are also more likely to be perceived as leaders, compared to their counterparts with unbalanced culture-specific identities. In the case of low global identity and unbalanced culture-specific identities, we found that the least favorable configuration is to have low-home/high-host identity, which resembles the assimilation orientation in the previous acculturation literature. Specifically, low-home/high-host identity had the lowest scores of CQ and perceptions of leadership. I would suggest that this result might be explained by a generally unfavorable view of individuals, who abandon their own cultural roots in an attempt to ‘fit in’. The finding that the low-home/low-host identity configuration generally has positive effects on CQ and leadership perception highlights that being “culturally homeless” is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, not strongly identifying with either home or host culture reduces the level of identity threats the individual may experience and it also enables the individual to better switch and mediate between different cultural perspectives.
Interestingly, we found that in the case of high global identity, the influence of culture-specific identities, both balanced and unbalanced, on the two outcomes becomes weaker. Thereof, we conclude that global identity moderates the relationship and serves to compensate for the possible disadvantageous effects of holding unbalanced culture-specific identities. In other words, global identity allows individuals to demonstrate high levels of CQ and be perceived as leader-like almost irrespective of their identity pattern at the culture-specific level.
First, as our study highlights the importance of an individual’s identity configurations on relevant work-related factors, such as CQ and being perceived as leader-like, we suggest to include identity assessment into talent management tools. Assessments of identity configurations may allow for more informed and suitable selection of candidates to be placed in international positions, including in multicultural teams. Second, given the beneficial effects of global identity irrespective of culture-specific identity configurations, we would suggest to explicitly foster the development of global identity, for example through exposure to global work settings and regular interaction with diverse cultural others. Finally, identity development and management are impossible without prior awareness of one’s current cultural identity. Indeed, amidst all the cross-cultural training, global leadership skills development and language learning initiatives, the focus on the self and one’s identities seems to be largely absent. Accordingly, we believe that introducing the topic of identity and helping individuals to makes sense of ‘who they are culturally’ may be a fruitful new direction for cross-cultural training, which will serve as a necessary base for introducing alternative identity configurations, developing one’s identity, or consciously managing it.
Lee Y-T., Masuda A., Fu X., & Reiche B.S. (2017) Navigating between Home, Host, and Global: Consequences of Multicultural Team Members’ Identity Configurations. Academy of Management Discoveries, forthcoming.