Collaboration + Ethnocentrisms* = Failure

*one’s culture/another’s ignorance

Ethnocentric? William G. Sumner defined it as “the technical name for the view of things in which one’s own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it…often leading to pride, vanity, beliefs of one’s own group’s superiority, and contempt of outsiders.

Ethnocentric? “Probably,” admitted the insightful, forward-thinking leader we exampled in September’s article on status hierarchy and collaboration. “Let me think about it.”

As this leader has a high level of metacognition, which is the awareness of thoughts, feelings, judgments and decisions, plus the ability to assess their accuracy and validity, s/he discovered unacknowledged prejudices about team members based solely on their countries of culture. Then, knowing biases are based on lack of knowledge and assumptions, s/he did some research (Heine 2007) (Chua 2011), then had a frank discussion with the five company experts from East Asia and Finland, brought in to get the project off the ground.

Two days later, when the larger team was assembled for the first formal meeting, the leader began by saying: “Before discussing our roles, I thought I’d better let you know that the American expert sitting beside me is going to out-talk or talk-over all of us about how great he and his ‘fullow Amurikins’ are (There was a collective gasp), plus he’ll fight like a dog if we push against something he’s said.”

“Some introduction,” the American said good-naturedly. “But it so happens your leader is right on both counts. You see, we Americans have a real fondness for achievers, and because achieving takes a whale of self-esteem, we talk-up our successes to ensure that esteem stays strong. And our dog-with-a-bone consistency gives us a sense of control which adds to it. In fact, our society probably puts a higher value on consistent words and actions than on being adaptable.”

The Chinese specialist spoke up. “It is my experience our American colleague is correct. Westerners think of themselves as unchangeable and consistent, and the world around them as something they can mold to fit their aspirations. However, East Asians, meaning the Chinese, Japanese and the Korean peoples, consider the world around them unchangeable and consistent, and themselves as malleable. This flexibility allows us to see neither a contradiction in agreeing with both sides of an issue, nor any need to choose between the two. We Chinese are also ambitious, but we must put family and society’s wishes first; then deal with the constant tension between attracting attention and fitting in.”

The team member from Japan nodded in agreement and added, “Too much attention means many witnesses to a mistake, which causes loss of ‘face’ which is loss of the good opinion of others. All Japanese are motivated to see their potential flaws and improve them before harm can be done to one’s social and workplace standing.”

“We Koreans,” the fourth expert commented, “regained our face by becoming a technologically advanced power after having been used as pawns of war by the Japanese, Chinese, Americans and Russians. Yes; we have too much pride about this success, but it will balance itself, for as children, we are taught to be humble rather than to experience the shock too much self-regard brings when things don’t work out well.”

“Finnish people also take pride in the kind of country we have created since becoming free,” the last expert concluded, “but it is a greater truth that during centuries of outside rule, we Finns created the trust in one other that was ready for this flourishing. Perhaps people in Canada have this trust between them, too, as both are among the five happiest countries in the world.” He turned to the American. “I have learned that Canadians are like us in another regard: we consider bragging insupportable, so I think we are very glad to understand your motivation is not to be better than others, but to have good self-esteem.”

“Understanding a motivation is key,” the leader interjected, “it lets us move away from differences-between-us thinking, into an awareness of, and trust in a person’s skills, abilities and commitment. When we display that trust, it’s a signal to the person they can safely develop the belief you and I are standing strong with, and for them … which is collaboration’s finest gift.”

Chua, R. Y.J. (2011) Collaborating Across Cultures: Cultural Metacognition and Affective-Based Trust in Creative Collaboration.  Retrieved from Harvard Business School.
Heine, S. J. (2007) Culture and Motivation: What Motivates People to Act in the Ways That They Do?  Retrieved from University of British Columbia.


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