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Diversity Difficulties

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The Complexity of Diversity

The 2010 holidays slowed things down enough for me to get back into the library, and I came across a set of studies on workplace diversity in the Academy of Management Journal. It’s a depressing topic for me. The most obvious reason is what it says about human beings, the mere fact that we are still having to discuss the issue in the 21st Century. Our inability to look past differences that genetically amount to a fraction of a percent of our genome and are literally skin deep is ridiculous. Whether biological, cultural, or learned, the average behavior and aptitude differences between men and women or blacks and whites are swamped by the differences caused by education. The behavioral differences between a Ph.D. and a high school graduate are far larger than those between the average white guy and black woman with similar education.

That said, diversity advocates have a problem in both over-reaching and, often, over-simplifying the effects. I consistently hear that diversity improves creativity, team performance, problem-solving, and so forth. Unfortunately, this is a bit of a myth, as there is no clear scientific evidence supporting this position. A “meta-analysis” of diversity studies in which researchers reviewed the results from studies over five years found that overall, personal diversity neither helped nor harmed team performance

From 1997-2002, 63 studies of business teams were published on the tangible effects of diversity on team performance. Three researchers reviewed these studies to see what we’ve learned, and found some patterns I found disappointing:

  • The only type of diversity that clearly improved team performance (as measured through financial indicators or manager/member ratings) was “functional/occupational diversity.”
  • Racial or ethnic diversity was more often found to hurt performance then help it.
  • Diversity did not appear to directly hurt group processes such as conflict or cooperation, however.
  • The results regarding gender, age, national, and personality diversity were too mixed to draw any firm conclusions.
  • The affect of diversity on team members’ liking for each other is not yet clear, but doesn’t seem as bad as some theorists expected (psychologists say people generally prefer those who are similar to themselves).

There has been very little research into the effects:

  • of status/level and skill diversity on team performance.
  • of team diversity on team members’ pay, individual performance, etc.
  • that leaders can have on performance of diverse teams.
  • that diversity has on other measures, such as knowledge flow.

So only functional diversity—having a range of educational specialties, skills, and tenure within a company or industry—usually helped team performance.

But those were averages. Other diversity studies show the answers are not that simple. And the two I came across on my holiday visit provided more context. One found that teams of people who like mentally challenging tasks did better when diverse, but age diversity hurt performance and educational diversity had no effect with people who didn’t. In another, diverse teams in industries that weren’t diverse tended to struggle. That’s not because the minority members aren’t as capable as the majority members. It’s because majority members don’t know how to work with the minority members.

This is not entirely, or mostly, their fault. In an industry dominated by one gender and race, one or two minorities on a team generally learn the unwritten codes of the majority and follow those to fit in. (I’m not saying they should do this, or that it’s fair, but merely that this is what usually happens.) The majority members never have to learn about the cultural norms of somebody else. When placed on a team where they are not the majority, not only do they not know how to act, they don’t know how to learn how to act, because they’ve never had to.

The authors suggested some applications of their research for managers:

  • Because of the power of peer pressure on attitudes toward people of other groups, “Training teams to manage and leverage their own diversity may prove more effective than training individuals.”
  • “…(M)anaging diversity effectively often requires pervasive changes in organizational policies, practices, and cultures.”
  • Key focal points of effective diversity training include:
    • “Learning about the other group(s)” to eliminate inaccurate stereotypes.
    • “Behavioral changes”—training on skills needed to interact with diverse others.
    • “Creating positive emotions associated with the outgroup” through, for example, informal mentoring programs pairing individuals from different backgrounds.
    • Gaining “new insight about their own ingroup,” showing that one culture’s approach is only one of many possibilities.
    • Social sanctions: “Diversity programs were… more successful in organizations that required managers to attend training programs and tied compensation and other rewards for success in meeting goals for recruiting, hiring, developing, and promoting people from diverse backgrounds.”

However, I don’t think diversity education is the first step. As with personality tests, there is little support in the independent scientific literature to suggest these are cost-effective practices. Put in place the proven best practices of high-performing teams first, because they place the focus on the similarities between humans rather than the differences. Every group in every culture works better if it has clearly articulated goals, rules, and procedures, for example. A Harvard study at a U.S. bank found that training to develop good procedures was more effective at improving team performance than was diversity training. In fact, diversity training had no effect at all on performance (good or bad), contrary to what the Harvard researcher thought would be true.

In short, contrary to what some managers and those who sell to them want to believe, both teamwork and effective diversity require fundamental changes in the way people interact on a daily basis. And that takes more than a seminar or two.

Sources:

  • Ely, R. (2004), “A Field Study of Group Diversity, Participation in Diversity Education Programs, and Performance,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 25:755.
  • Jackson, S., A. Joshi, and N. Erhardt (2003), “Recent Research on Team and Organizational Diversity: SWOT Analysis and Implications,” Journal of Management 29(6):801.
  • Joshi, A., and H. Roh (2009), “The Role of Context in Work Team Diversity Research: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Academy of Management Journal 22(3):599

Do Team Factions Hurt Performance? It Depends

Depending on your corporate environment, having factions in your team based on work skills and background may make team members more productive—or less so. Science again brings us a warning that issues like diversity are far more complex than consultants want us to think. It also provides a way around the problem, however.

As reported above, diversity based on factors like race, age, or gender can help or hurt team performance. Which impact it has on a given team depends on such a wide range of circumstances, a team leader cannot predict the result. For example, diversity by itself may not be as important as how that diversity clusters within your team. A generally diverse team faces fewer potential problems than a team that has a “faultline” between obvious subgroups of demographically similar people. I walk into a team meeting and see a rainbow, and no changes are required in how I coach the team. If instead I see a group of Native American women, another of Asian-appearing men, and a third of Martian unisexuals, I get worried (especially if ray guns are visible).

There is another kind of diversity that might help teams, though the scientific evidence is not yet conclusive. Teams made up of people with different skills, from different industries, and with different lengths of time in their company or industry seem to make better group decisions. They are able to leverage a larger range of information than can teams of more-similar people. Better-informed decisions are better decisions (up to the point of information overload, of course).

Another trend in the research suggests strongly that diverse companies with a laser focus on results outperform their competitors. You may think all organizations have that. But do you personally have measurable tasks that everyone knows you have, aligned with the team goals, division goals, and organization-wide goals? If not, I’d argue your company has a “weak emphasis on results,” to quote a recent journal article.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of “ifs” related to each of these research trends. Psychology researcher Katerina Bezrukova and three business school colleagues decided to nail down some of those issues in a real-world setting. Their article in the Journal of Applied Psychology describes a study using various methods “at a Fortune 500 company in the information-processing industry. The organization is well established in North American and Western European markets and is a leading outsourcing provider for corporate and governmental e-mail services involved in the creation, development, and marketing of technology products for information processing and mail outsourcing.” Now I’ll mention that Bezrukova was at Santa Clara Univ., in Silicon Valley. Let the identity guessing begin.

This company had a lot of good internal data allowing measurements on these variables:

  • Whether a group had faultlines based “on employees’ level of education, functional background (i.e., administrative, marketing, finance, and engineering), and tenure with the company.”
  • How strong the subgroups were—that is, did everyone fall into two or three subgroups, or were there a bunch of smaller subgroups or unique individuals?
  • How results-oriented the group was.
  • How results-oriented the group’s department was, and thus, whether there was a difference between the group and department orientations.
  • Bonuses and stock options given to team members based on team performance, which the researchers used as the measure of productivity.
  • Personal diversity measures such as age and race.

Bezrukova’s team looked at the results for a sample of 757 employees in 138 groups in 47 departments. It found that “groups with strong informational faultlines had performance problems (i.e., lower group stock options and bonuses).” However, if both the department and the groups had a strong emphasis on measurable results, faultlines actually helped performance. Bezrukova and her colleagues suggest that having people on your team you easily identify with—the clear subgroups, in this case—might help you withstand the pressures likely in results-oriented organizations.

If both the group and department had a weak emphasis on results, faultlines neither hurt nor helped performance. When one level had a strong emphasis and the other a weak one, however, faultlines hurt performance. “In fact, the highest performing groups were those with weak faultlines in misaligned cultures…” the article says. “One explanation is that weak faultline groups may have cross-cutting ties that enable effective information sharing and are unlikely to have strong subgroups that can potentially cause process losses.”

By the way, including personal diversity measures in the analysis did not change the results one way or the other, supporting the contention that on average this diversity can help or hurt depending on other factors.

Despite all the factors this study looked at, there were several critical ones I wish they had included. Team identity, how important the team is to the individual, and team potency, how capable the members feel the team is to accomplish its tasks, could very well eliminate the impact of faultlines in either direction. The study also did not separate structured teams that are highly self-organized from typical teams with little organization. Teams structured in a way that encourages healthy group psychologies would almost certainly overcome the difficulties highlighted by these results.

That’s good, because you as a team member or leader have little control over the departmental environment. Besides, emphasizing measurable results is a best practice for team and corporate performance, so you don’t want to abandon them just because you don’t have the “right kind” of faultlines. In the U.S. and other countries you can’t hire based on factors like race, and the requirements of your team may demand clusters of skill sets or backgrounds, so you have little control over faultlines. This means you have to find a way to overcome the dangers this study points out. Fortunately, team structures are a likely fix; solve many other teamwork challenges; and are entirely within your team’s control. You should start building one right this second.

Source: Bezrukova, K., S. Thatcher, K. Jehn, and C. Spell (2012), “The Effects of Alignments: Examining Group Faultlines, Organizational Cultures, and Performance,” Journal of Applied Psychology 97(1):77.

Cultural Communication Gaps Widen in Meetings

Cultural differences in communication are hard to deal with as a team leader, especially when everyone is sitting around a table together (literally or virtually). It turns out there’s a bigger reason than you might expect. A study showed that American-born and East-Asian MBA students moved further apart in communication style when meeting together.

On average, folks from China, Japan, and Korea test out as being more oriented toward maintaining harmony than do Westerners. Americans in particular generally report being more “individualistic,” more focused on what is important for “me” than what is important for “us.” One of the most obvious ways in which these differences play out is how people talk to each other. Yet there hasn’t been a lot of research into intercultural communication in live group settings, because the process is time-consuming. The study by Univ. of Southern California communications scientists Jolanta Aritz and Robyn Walker shows why. They put together teams in various cultural arrangements and gave them a problem to solve. In some teams there were more Americans, and in others more East Asians. After videotaping each team’s meeting, transcripts were prepared, and the researchers “coded” the transcripts looking at each person’s:

  • Contribution:
    • “number of turns taken”
    • “number of words spoken”
    • “average turn length”
  • Participation:
    • “number of conversational overlaps”
    • “number of interruptions”
    • “number of backchannels” (brief statements to show the person was listening)
    • “frequency of latching” (starting to talk the instant another person seemed to finish)

As you might predict, Americans did more of everything except interrupting, which neither side did much of. Aritz and Walker call this an “involvement” style of communication. By keeping their inputs shorter and waiting until they were sure the previous speaker had finished, the East Asians gave more priority to being considerate than to getting their points across. I don’t say this with any judgment against either group. Both niceness and involvement are important to effective teamwork.

These cross-cultural differences are troubling enough to the international facilitator, but it gets worse: Each group shifted away from the other’s style when they were in the minority. East Asians did even less of everything, as if they were trying to be model East Asians in the face of the other group, the researchers say.

Americans mostly did nothing different when in the minority, which says something in itself. This made me think of the “Ugly American” type of traveler who expects people in other countries to act like Americans, or at least abide our culture-based behaviors, rather than conform to the norms of their hosts. The Americans did, however, “latch” more when in the minority. The researchers speculate this is because they were trying to force the East Asians to adopt a more American style, presumably by trying to pick up the pace of the conversation.

Curiously, even though the East Asians reported in surveys after the meetings “that they did not feel as included, valued, or supported as their American counterparts,” they were no less satisfied with the process than were the Americans. I’m not sure what to make of that. Was it a matter of them having studied in the U.S. long enough to know how Americans are, and thus to have accepted it? Or did they recognize they had stuck to their cultural values and that was enough for them? Your speculation is as good as mine.

The great advantage of this study design is it points out specific behaviors both sides should look for. I find myself thinking about a story my brother-in-law Brodie Brown told me during his days at Xerox. (He spent thirty years, his entire career, with the same company—hard to fathom these days.) The company formed a joint venture with Fujitsu, and Brodie participated in some meetings in Tokyo. When his boss asked the Japanese whether they understood what the boss thought was an agreement between the two sides, the Japanese all nodded their heads yes. The boss thought that meant they were saying, “Yes, we agree.” Brodie knew, and could not convince the boss, that they were only saying, “Yes, we understand your position.” This may have been a simple “lost in translation” moment, but I think the higher-on-average level of politeness in Japanese society may have contributed. Sure enough, weeks later it became clear the two sides did not, in fact, have an agreement.

The more important question for a team leader is what to do about these differences. The authors say simply that the behaviors should be pointed out. I’ll go with that. If you’re facilitating these two groups, point out the specific ways the groups behaved in the study. Ask the Americans if they will agree to slow down and allow you to remind them. Ask the East Asians to be more outspoken than they might normally be, and facilitate that behavior the way you would with a introverted American. Getting the fullest possible participation and contribution from all individuals is the point to having a team.

That said, I will issue my usual warnings about stereotypes. Even when there is some basis in fact for them, they are only averages. There are millions of East Asian individuals as aggressive as the most aggressive Americans. There are also millions of Americans far more reticent to speak in meetings than the average East Asian. Recognizing that an individual might match a group norm is prudent, but assuming they do is prejudice. Early in the remake of “The Karate Kid,” the American kid turns to a guy on an airplane to China and haltingly tries out his Chinese. The guy looks at him and says, “Dude, I’m from Detroit.”

You can’t go wrong by meeting people where they are instead of where you expect them to be.

Source: Aritz, J., and R. Walker (2010), “Cognitive Organization and Identity Maintenance in Multicultural Teams: A Discourse Analysis of Decision-Making Meetings,” Journal of Business Communication 47(1):20.

Study Finds Good, Bad News for the Gender Wars

Here’s a little good news from the gender wars: In a study from Quinnipiac Univ., gender had no impact on the ratings students gave each other on group projects.

However, the study also adds fuel to the gender wars. Females earned higher teamwork ratings overall than males regardless of the gender of the rater.

That first finding was reassuring. It discounts one of the concerns raised about schemes in which team members have a say on each others’ performance ratings. I believe 360-degree assessments are a far fairer way of evaluating performance than relying on one person. If nothing else, other sets of biases can balance out the supervisor’s set (we all have them, after all). At least one source I’m aware of found zero correlation between supervisor ratings and 360s of the same individuals. The phenomenon of “crowd-sourcing” suggests the value of multiple perspectives, and plenty of studies show that over time, decisions made by a group are better than those by a single person. Or a married person. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Reassuring, too, to read that in this context people were able to overlook whatever issues they have with people of the opposite sex and rate folks based on their behaviors. The researchers, Accounting Professor Janice Ammons and Marketing & Advertising Department Chair Charles Brooks, suggest that their study’s method might have had something to do with that:

“The composition of the teams did not change over the semester… and the data was drawn from the third set of evaluations. By this point, students were more familiar with group expectations, characteristics of team members and their contributions, as well as the evaluation process itself… Some have suggested that reliability in scoring increases when evaluations take place at multiple stages.”

A lesson here is that having only one peer-assessment per year, and constantly fiddling with the content or format year-to-year, are poor practices. I’ve long advocated for multiple evaluations within the year in companies that insist on having formal appraisals, for reasons that ought to be obvious but apparently are not given how many companies ignore them. If you only evaluate once a year:

  • You get behaviors you don’t want for months more than necessary.
  • You treat employees unfairly by punishing them without giving them a chance to correct their behaviors first.

Some of you won’t like that word “punishing.” Like it or not, most employees who get lower ratings will consider it punishment, especially if performance ratings are tied to salary. Or maybe you don’t care whether people who aren’t “stars” feel punished. But the reality is that every company relies on a significant number of non-stars (see “Are You Supporting Your B Players?” under “Sources” at the end of this topic). Ammons and Brooks suggest another reason, that having multiple evaluations may reduce the impact stereotypes will play in people’s ratings.

I’m scared to wade into the other finding, but I guess I have to. Females received higher ratings from both genders in two ways. Every team member was given 100 points per person to divide among all the members, including themselves. That is, if the student had four teammates, she was given 500 points to distribute. “If everyone contributed equally and did his/her fair share of the work, then each member of the team should receive 100 points,” the evaluation cover sheet explained. Someone who did less should have been given fewer than 100.

The average score for females was 100.44, and for males 98.83, which was a “statistically significant” difference (greater than mere chance would suggest). As you would probably guess, the average person rated themselves above average. The mean for all self-ratings was 103.52. Males and females did not differ in those self-ratings, defying popular concerns about the self-esteem of female students.

The professors also requested ratings for a set of individual behaviors, and females came out on top in each of the six behaviors:

  • “Prompt in attendance at team meetings”
  • “Delivered agreed-upon parts of project in a complete fashion”
  • “Met deadlines”
  • “Volunteered appropriately during team meetings when tasks need to be accomplished”
  • “Pulled fair share with regard to overall workload”
  • “Showed enthusiastic and positive attitude about team activities and fellow team members”

The students had the option to add comments. Females were both more likely to comment and more likely to give positive comments, which I consider two more signs of good teamwork. Again, these figures were not affected by gender differences between the commenter and the commented-upon.

I am too cowardly to comment on why the females were better team players. I will point out that these numbers were averages, meaning there would have been some excellent male team players and some terrible female team players.

Focus instead on the list of behaviors. Ammons and Brooks drew them from interviews with students in previous classes, and the list certainly fits both the research literature and my team-coaching experience. Because they are behaviors, you can ignore the gender issue and use them to improve your personal teamwork. Discipline yourself to get to team meetings on time. Give worst-case estimates for deadlines, and then come up with a system to make sure you beat them. Make yourself take at least one team task per month that you do not really want to do. Keep a list of team action items and use simple math to see if you are doing your part: eight items divided by four team members means two items for you. Try to keep your comments mostly positive.

Behaviors, not gender, make the difference. Anyone can do those things, be they male, female, or some combination thereof.

Sources:

  • Ammons, J., and C. Brooks (2011), “An Empirical Study of Gender Issues in Assessments Using Peer and Self Evaluations,” Academy of Educational Leadership Journal 15:49.
  • Lagace, M. (2003), “Are You Supporting Your B Players?” Working Knowledge: The Thinking that Leads, Harvard Business School: http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/3558.html.

Teams can Learn to Overcome Cultural Differences

“Us” versus “them.” Most of us like to think we’re better than people who think that way. Of course, in doing so, we categorize ourselves as part of one group superior to another group: The “us” who don’t engage in “us versus them.”

It is okay to have these thoughts, because our brains are hard-wired to create them. Thousands of years ago, when a group different from yours appeared on the horizon, trouble was likely brewing. The issue is not how to stop these thoughts, but what you do with them when you work in a diverse group. As Japanese Zen Master Muso wrote in the 14th Century, “Rather than try to refrain from discussing judgments of others… turn around and reflect, ‘Who is it that speaks of others’ right and wrong?’”

Unfortunately, lots of people don’t manage those thoughts well. “Team diversity offers a complex challenge because it has the potential to both benefit and disrupt team performance,” say three organizational behavior professors at Erasmus Univ. in the Netherlands. Along with all the potential benefits diversity can bring, “cultural diversity may also engender intergroup biases that invite a closing of minds to the contributions of culturally different others,” write Anne Pieterse, Daan Van Knippenberg, and Dirk Van Dierendonck in Academy of Management Journal.

This is well documented, and scientists have been trying to work out when diversity helps and when it doesn’t. For instance, “diversity is more likely to yield performance benefits the more a task is complex and has strong requirements for creativity, problem solving, and decision making,” the Dutch team writes. Scientists are also looking for factors managers can use to fix the downsides of diversity. This team decided to look into “goal orientation,” which is known to impact how we go about learning.

Studies have found we all fall somewhere along two continuums, which I’ll illustrate with two questions:

  • Do you learn just for the sake of learning, or primarily to master a specific task or skill?
  • Are you motivated to learn because you like to learn or be skillful, or more because you are afraid—either of losing skills, or of looking bad compared to other people?

Most of us are a mix of these that may change given the situation. But some people fall into distinct sets, like people who learn a range of stuff because they don’t want to look stupid, or people who develop specific skills just because it gives them joy. The Dutch team figured based on earlier research that teams of people interested in general learning for reasons other than fear or competition, or not afraid of losing specific skills, would leverage diversity to perform well.

They used the easy sample population of university students—who might have provided different results than a more age-diverse group, mind you. The professors conducted a survey to identify learning orientation and other factors at the start of a business simulation done in teams of three or four. Though 75% of students were of Dutch descent, “5 percent had a Surinamese background; 5 percent, Chinese; 3 percent, Indonesian; 3 percent, Antillean; and the remaining 8 percent, various other cultural backgrounds (e.g., Moroccan, Serbian, Vietnamese).”

The simulation results were graded by teachers not familiar with the study. When these were compared to results from the questionnaire, only the familiarity of the members with each other predicted better performance. On average, diverse teams did no better or worse than non-diverse teams. But if members liked to learn in general for internal reasons, diversity helped performance. If they focused on retaining skills so they wouldn’t fall behind others, it hurt the team’s grades. But how did this happen? What behaviors resulting from learning orientation impacted grades?

In a second study with the same set-up, the researchers added another survey at the end of the simulation with team communication questions like, “Team members discussed the rationales underlying their ideas and viewpoints.” Consistent with lots of other studies, this study found that better discussions led to better performance. And sure enough, if people learned for their own reasons or did not care about protecting their skills compared to others, their teams had better communication and performance. These studies do not prove learning orientation caused better performance. But the facts that orientation was measured at the start of the studies and “predicted” both the grade results and the communication behaviors suggest causality.

Happily for us managers, while people have natural tendencies toward certain traits, relevant behaviors can be changed by changing the work environment. The Dutch team has a number of suggestions along those lines. They write, “leaders may instigate higher learning approach or lower performance avoidance orientations through goal setting or creating learning… oriented work group climates or preventing performance avoidance climates,” especially if these are tied to rewards like bonuses. Other ideas include, “emphasizing the importance of team and personal development, de-emphasizing competition, and creating an environment where employees feel secure and mistakes are seen as learning opportunities and are not punished. This can be highlighted by training and appropriate compensation and feedback systems,” the scientists write.

Zen masters might also suggest addressing the illusion of difference our hard-wired brains foist upon us. One of the meeting rules I enforce is, “Everyone is equal,” stressing that job function or title are irrelevant during group decision-making. All we care about is who has the best evidence and logic. This rule is directed primarily at job title differences and the subcultures of, for example, software testers versus hardware designers. But it also subtly addresses other differences like ethnic background, age, or gender.

There is at least one way you are no different from those you see as different and—admit it—slightly inferior to you. Most of them see you the same way: slightly inferior. Force yourself to listen to others’ perspective without regard to where their parents’ parents came from, and you might just learn something.

Source: Pieterse, A., D. Van Knippenberg, and D. Van Dierendonck (2013), “Cultural Diversity and Team Performance: The Role of Team Member Goal Orientation,” Academy of Management Journal 56(3):782, http://dx.doi.org/10.5465/amj.2010.0992.

Across Cultures, We Look Down on Ourselves

In an earlier topic I asserted that people are more alike than different. Imagine the grin on my face when I came across a study less than a week after first writing that article that piled on more evidence. It turns out there are patterns to how people view themselves versus how others view them, and those patterns hold true across 20 countries from around the globe. Knowing that pattern could be very useful to you whether leading or on a team, and should be downright reassuring if that team has cross-cultural issues.

Researchers in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Germany used the Revised NEO Personality Inventory (a “Big Five” test) to compare a person’s ratings of their own personalities to ratings by people who knew the person well. Consistently across those four countries, people saw themselves as more neurotic than their friends or family members saw them. They believed themselves less competent, self-disciplined, and giving, and more open to fantasy. “Even this short list of disparities suggests that in general, people do not view themselves more favorably than how they are viewed by others,” the study team says in a Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article. Contrary to the idea that we build ourselves up in our minds, these studies show that deep down more of us think worse of ourselves than others do.

You might think the difference would be bigger for traits that are easy to observe in action, like altruism (selflessness), versus something like fantasizing that occurs mostly in someone’s head. You can see whether someone is acting selfish, but have to rely on their words or make assumptions about their thoughts. However, the article says a recent review of 170 studies found there is little evidence this is true, “counter to what textbook descriptions and commonly held beliefs suggest.” This study found the same thing. As I have warned before, question your sources.

In a second study, the research team compared its results to studies using the same test everywhere from Burkina Faso to Hong Kong, Malaysia to Peru, Turkey to the United States. With one exception so glaring it almost has to be a mistake in that study, the findings lined up with the European data. Even when two countries were very different on various economic measures such as the average life expectancy, levels of corruption, or amount of bureaucracy, the overall pattern of self-view versus other-view held consistent.

The differences weren’t all self-critical. “It seems that in all places, people tend to think that they are more curious and their lives are experientially richer” than an outsider perceives, and that they are more open-minded and not as assertive as others rate them. (It is possible not to be assertive enough, so maybe that is self-critical for some people.) A couple of patterns that held across cultures differed by demographic traits:

  • Women across cultures see themselves as more neurotic, agreeable, warm, and open to feelings than do men, and men self-rate as being more assertive and open to ideas.
  • “In every human society explored thus far, individuals become less extraverted and open to new experiences and more agreeable and conscientious with age…” the article says.

For me, these studies bring into sharp focus an incident years ago when I was managing a work group (as opposed to a “team”[1]) of about 20 people. One person clearly had some self-esteem issues and felt beaten down by previous managers. I thus made the conscious decision to find something to genuinely compliment her on, no matter how trivial, every time I saw her. She worked in another building, but I used “management by walking around,” so this averaged a couple of compliments a week. If you’ve read Covey’s Seven Habits, you recognize that I was trying to build up her “emotional bank account,” too.

It didn’t work. After at least a year of nothing but positives, I had to gently question how she had handled a customer request. The next thing I knew, she had even gone over my boss’s head to file a complaint with the Ombuds Office. Fortunately my boss knew how my employee was and reacted appropriately, but I was deeply hurt. After calming down, I approached the woman, apologized for having upset her, and learned something stunning: She said I never gave her any compliments. Her self-image was so low, she had zero recall of my having said a positive thing to her.

Granting this is an extreme case, this incident points out that if you are a fair-minded person, most of your employees and teammates think less of themselves than you think of them—or than you think they think of themselves. This explains, in part, the need to show appreciation regularly, even if it doesn’t seem like people need it, or in that employee’s case, notice it. If you can specifically call out when they have been competent, conscientious, or giving, that should add impact. The self-image finding also says it isn’t necessary to berate people when they make mistakes. Most are already beating themselves up more than you could.

On the other hand, most of your colleagues probably think they are more open to new ideas than you do. This helps explain why so many leadership experts emphasize the importance of persuasion inside a company. You have to be ready to convince internal folks in the same way you would try to sell your product or service to a customer.

But mostly for me, these studies reinforce the idea that cultural differences can be overcome by focusing not on those differences but on personality similarities. Almost everybody on your team feels vulnerable in some way. Empower them, have them talk in a safe setting about how they want to interact with each other, and facilitate agreements on how they will do their work and measure their performance. Based on my teambuilding experiences, I predict you will see personality and cultural differences become irrelevant without even mentioning diversity.

Source: Allik, J. et al. (2010), “How People See Others is Different from How People See Themselves: A Replicable Pattern Across Cultures,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 99(5):870.

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[1] See “What is a ‘Team?’ The Answer Matters to You.”