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  • Claire Le Compagnon

Fascinating old study

Following a recent discussion with a leader at Nike on the Asian leadership style, I spent some time digging and reading thru a fascinating study done by Richard E. Nisbett and Takahiko Masuda ( Department of Psychology, University of Michigan) in 2002.


The study focused on East Asians and Westerners's perception of the world and how they think and approach it in different ways. Which, no doubt has an impact in the workplace, when complex problems are presented to multicultural teams for example.


In their research they show that Westerners tend to focus on object, analyzing its attribute, and categorizing it in an effort to find out what rules govern its behavior ( eg, formal logic). East Asians on the opposite, are more likely to attend to a broad perceptual and conceptual field, noticing relationships and changes, interconnections between objects and pay a great deal of attention to the context. They live in complex social networks with prescribed roles, which therefore need to be taken into account when analyzing a situation.


And that approach might be anchored in their ancient philosophy different approaches. Ancient Greeks were relatively independent, having fewer and less complex social relations than did the Chinese. They also valued individualism and autonomy. Whereas the Chinese were engaged in multiple, complex role relations with other individuals, with the extended family, the village. It developed an acute sense of coordination between individuals to minimize friction and preserve harmony.


I'll focus on two examples that I found fascinating in that study.


Which two go together?

Chinese and American children were asked to group two items from the drawing (on the right) together. Americans grouped the cow and the hen together since they categorized those as "animals". While the Chinese kids grouped the cow and the grass together, because the cow eats the grass. What they valued here was the relationship between the two items, more than the fact that they would fall into the same category.



Importance of the context



Japanese and American students were asked to take a picture of a young lady. The Japanese showed the lady sitting on a chair in a room, when the Americans took a close up picture of her face.





Is there really a "correct" way to take this picture, or to associate the 3 drawings above? Or should we learn and understand that our view of the world is heavily influenced by our education, culture, history, social and economical context?


So next time I interact with Asians, I'll remind myself that while I logically get to a simple and categorized view of things ( from my referential), my counterparts might be processing a completely different set of information...


This is what cultural intelligence is requiring. Not the capacity to know everything about every culture since it's impossible. But anticipate, plan ahead as you interact with other cultures. And reflect on what happened, iterate and get better.


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