Collaborating Across Cultures

Learning to collaborate creatively with people from other cultures is a vital skill in today's business environment, says professor Roy Y.J. Chua, whose research focuses on a key measure psychologists have dubbed "cultural metacognition."
by Michael Blanding

Working on a $30 million historical epic about the Tang Dynasty to be set in China, Hollywood screenwriter David Franzoni struggled to make the story appeal to Western audiences. Then Franzoni hit upon an idea: tell the tale through the eyes of a foreign-born general who served as the right-hand man to emperor Xuanzong and his consort.

“To the extent that creativity is about the recombination of existing ideas, then combining ideas that haven't been connected before creates the potential to produce something new and useful"

The plan didn't make it past Chinese government censors. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, the idea was nixed on grounds that the treatment was too sympathetic toward the general, An Lushan, portrayed in Chinese history as a villain who ultimately betrayed the emperor. The script was accepted after Franzoni rewrote it to portray the general as a "snake."

The story illustrates a common challenge to Hollywood filmmakers as they attempt to break into China's more than $2 billion-a-year film market—and to businesspeople in all industries as foreign markets become increasingly important to their business strategies. Cultural misunderstandings and different ways of operating (government control over filmmaking, for instance) can lead to unforeseen setbacks and delays, threatening the success of creative business ventures.

Vital Skill

Learning to work with people from other cultures in order to collaborate creatively is a vital skill in today's business environment, says Roy Y.J. Chua, an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavior Unit at Harvard Business School who has focused his research on exploring how such collaboration can effectively take place. A graduate of Columbia Business School, where he studied social psychology along with management, Chua was born and raised in Singapore, itself a multicultural society.

"I've always been fascinated by how culture changes the way people interact and innovate, and how collaboration is affected by intercultural relationships and intercultural trust," he says.

There's no doubt that the confluence of diverse cultures can create opportunities for innovation—think of the Crusades and the Renaissance, or of Japan revolutionizing the auto industry. "To the extent that creativity is about the recombination of existing ideas," Chua says, "then combining ideas that haven't been connected before creates the potential to produce something new and useful."

The question is how to reap the benefits of that while minimizing the inevitable misunderstandings.

"Trying to make a movie about the Tang Dynasty for a Western audience is a very refreshing proposal, but at the same time, many of the ideas from Chinese culture might not translate easily into a Western context," he says. "You have to find a way to generate a common platform to appeal to both sides."

In a forthcoming article in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Chua uses a combination of survey and experimental research to focus on a key measure psychologists have dubbed "cultural metacognition." The term refers to a person's reflective thinking about his or her cultural assumptions. It seems to have a strong effect on how effectively people collaborate across cultures, Chua says.

"I often compare it to the heightened awareness you have when driving in a foreign city, where you will pay more attention to the road signs and traffic signs. It's this kind of heightened awareness and reflection about what I think about other cultures and how other cultures think about me that helps cross-cultural creative collaboration."

Testing Cultural Metacognition

In the first of three studies, the researchers asked 43 middle-level managers enrolled in an executive MBA course to complete a questionnaire to rate their own degree of cultural metacognition. Statements to rate included "I am aware of how to use my cultural knowledge when interacting with people from other cultures," and "I adjust my cultural knowledge while interacting with people from a new or an unfamiliar culture."

Collaborating Across CulturesThe team then surveyed up to 10 former coworkers of each manager, whose cultural background was different from the manager's, asking how they rated the manager's effectiveness in creative collaborations. Managers with higher cultural metacognition scores on the questionnaires garnered higher ratings from their colleagues as well.

While such a result may seem expected, the bigger question is, how does cultural awareness lead to more effective innovation? Based on previous studies, the researchers focused on the role of trust in that equation, distinguishing between two kinds: "cognitive trust," an intellectual appreciation of another person's skills, abilities, and reliability; and "affective trust," an emotional belief that another person has one's best interests at heart.

"Affective trust is especially critical in creative collaboration because unlike collaboration that merely involves the sharing of labor, creative collaboration requires sharing of new ideas," Chua says.

"Given that new ideas are often undeveloped, they are risky to share," he continues. "Sharing a bad idea might cause one to be ridiculed. Conversely, a good idea might be stolen. Only when there is high affective trust would two partners be willing to freely exchange new ideas."

In their second study, the researchers found that affective trust was much more likely to stem from having high cultural metacognition than cognitive trust.

This time, 60 managers attending another executive MBA course were asked to complete a network survey listing up to 24 of their primary professional contacts and asked the extent to which they were able to rely on them professionally (cognitive trust) and the extent to which they were able to share their personal hopes, dreams, and difficulties (affective trust). Next, they were asked to rate how willing they were to share new ideas with each person. When dealing with someone from their own culture, the managers' cultural metacognition had no effect on either types of trust. For contacts from another culture, however, those with higher cultural metacognition developed higher affective trust in their partners and were more willing to share new ideas with them; cognitive trust, meanwhile, had no correlation with cultural metacognition.

In order to put these findings to a further test, the team designed a third, more hands-on experiment involving 236 undergraduates. First, each participant was asked to come up with a new chicken recipe from a list of ingredients from different cultures. Each person was then paired with someone from another cultural background and asked to collaborate to produce a recipe different than those either had created individually. These recipes were then rated on creativity by two independent chefs.

Here's the catch: Half of the teams were allowed 10 minutes to talk and get to know one another before they were presented with the task—a simple way to develop affective trust—while the other half weren't. Once again, the researchers found links between cultural metacognition and creativity.

"When working with a stranger from a different culture on a task that rewards creative collaboration, high cultural metacognition in one of the two individuals gives the pair the potential for affective trust and creativity," Chua says. "This potential, however, is only realized if the partners have a personal conversation to build affective trust. Pairs that didn't have the chance to build trust did not become more creative as a result of their cultural metacognition."

Interestingly, in each of the pairs that had a personal conversation, it was the higher of the two cultural metacognition scores that seemed to drive the creativity effect.

"As long as one person is able to connect and adjust to the other party, then that is sufficient for them to collaborate," Chua says. In other words, if one person is able to grapple with his or her cultural assumptions, then that person can spur a fruitful collaboration without the other person necessarily even realizing it.

A Learnable Habit

The good news is that cultural metacognition is not fixed, but rather it is a mental habit that can be learned over time and through different circumstances. "People who have a culturally diverse social network tend to have higher cultural metacognition," Chua says. "The fact they have to deal with people from different cultures more causes them to question their own assumptions more."

For those who don't have a culturally diverse network already, he recommends consciously seeking out new cultural experiences. However, such activities need to be genuine to work.

“You want to deeply involve yourself in cross-cultural interactions"

"It's not just going to a foreign movie or eating culturally different food," he says. "You want to deeply involve yourself in cross-cultural interactions."

Chua stresses that it is important to always engage in active inquiry and observations, and be mindful that your assumptions or interpretation of a given culture might not be accurate or applicable in a given context.

One way to do this is by keeping a journal and writing down thoughts after each interaction with someone from another culture. This can help people see patterns in their interactions with culturally dissimilar colleagues, eventually leading to more mindful interactions. That, in turn, can lead to enhanced affective trust that makes cross-cultural creative collaboration more effective, whether the goal is to sell a product overseas or launch the next Chinese-American blockbuster.

Readers: What are your experiences when it comes to doing creative work with someone from another culture? What are the key challenges? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

About the Author

Michael Blanding is a writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts
    • Richard Griffith
    • Director, Institute for Cross Cultural Management
    Great article. Cultural metacognition, or mindfulness, is a skill that is sorely lacking. The good news is that it is a malleable skill that can be acquired with practice. The key is that the person in the novel culture must find a balance between noticing cultural differences and opportunities to identify similarities. Finding common ground is the key to establishing trust. This balance can be tricky in cultures that have a tough time holding two competing thoughts.
    • Ramaseshan
    Thought-provoking article and interesting experiments. In the current flat world setting, the convergence of two or more cultures is inevitable. As rightly pointed out, innovation thrives at the intersection of entities.
    • Anonymous
    Discussion of diversity and inclusion with our clients often prompts an interesting discussion about how younger generations in cosmopolitan environments are less adveresely affected by bias of racial and ethnic diversity, given the context of their global work environment. A most relevant follow-on question, then, is which cognitive filters and biases most get in the way of trust for them? Certainly gender is still in the mix.
    • Loraine Antrim
    • Co Founder, Core Ideas Communication
    Communicating effectively in a multi-cultural workforce is now a "must have" skill. But so much of inter-cultural communication is just common sense and courtesy. Slow down and listen. REALLY listen--to what others are saying, and to what you are saying and how you are saying it. Putting yourself in the shoes of others can be a big first step in bridging cultural communication challenges.
    • Wolfgang E. Schr?der
    • Linguistics Teacher, UNAP - Chile
    The fields of both Linguistics and Language Teaching have been dealing with this issue for a few years now (linguistic competence and cultural competence).

    It is interesting to notice that affective and cognitive trusts here relate closely to the affective and cognitive domains in language learning (Bloom's Taxonomy), especially when the author mentions that the experiment on students who had the chance to talk to each other, i.e., to actually put language to use, reported links to metacognition and creative thinking, elements that are key to language acquisition and cultural competence.

    I am happy to see these theories applied to management and business and - as Ms. Antrim says, a bit of common sense and courtesy seem to be the first steps to open the business world to a plethora of opportunities for growth in markets elsewhere.
    • Mark Calonico
    • Director, Sacramento County Office of Education
    I can see applications for teachers in classrooms, journaling their responses to interactions with students and/or parents from cultures different from their own in order to illuminate the cultural assumptions that influence teacher, student and parent responses. Thanks for such an intriguing article!
    • Haiwen Zheng
    • Project Manager, Ericsson AB
    Very interesting article! At Ericsson we have been promoting diversity as one key component for a good team. As a project manager, the challenge is to see beyond the diversified elements such as different cultures and background, and to search for similarities and common values. And that process is necessary so as to help to build up the base of trust to call for more effective ways of communication.
    • Florence Macdonald
    • Sr mngr aviation, Indian oil corporation
    Greetings!! From my experience I wd like to share a few:
    1. Firstly in any relationship or just a connect,
    we shd not take any person for granted. So it involves humility, the moment of truth, and accepting people as they are without ascribing any meanings to what the other person says or does.
    2. Observe the critical behaviours in situations and the responses we receive. Reading Just books on crosss cultural collaboration will not suffice. It must have effective and personal interactions. It goes without saying that we should never be manipulative in our interactions. This is dooms day!!
    3 all the above implies that it shd be mutual respect and not going overboard to the extent that the other person feels that we are only a Yes person. What needs to be told needs to be told without any frills attached. This goes a long way in establishing personal image and personal branding,
    4. Once the ice is broken, everything else follows seamlessly.
    5. Consistency and being 'there' especially in times of trouble, wins the confidence of the other person immensely.

    Rgds, Florence MacDonald
    • Carole Diamante
    • Research Faculty, Assumption College Makati Philippines
    It is truly an Oriental paradigm to look at things with sincere and respectful mindfulness. This is the way we do things, almost second nature to Asians. " ... the researchers focused on the role of trust in that equation, distinguishing between two kinds: "cognitive trust," an intellectual appreciation of another person's skills, abilities, and reliability; and "affective trust," an emotional belief that another person has one's best interests at heart.' by Ron Chua" is indeed the sure way to go.
    As a Filipino, I appreciate articles, research like this because such findings confirm the cultural geniuses of every cultures. Let us then trash the ideologies of imperialism especially in the academic circles (moreso in business cliques).
    The intellectualization of the languages of cultures must be furthered in researches so that there becomes a meeting ground and a neutral playing field where cultures dialogue and enhance each other.
    Cross cultural creative collaboration can be achieved when "trust" is indeed employed. This is the new metaphor for this generation.
    • Bindu Venkatesh
    • Gneral Manager
    There is a lot written on Collaboration in the last decade - corresponding to the maturation of the globalization process. Lets not forget that artistic collaboration has existed since the advent of colonization and the 16th century trade process began across the world. Writers, musicians and poets have collaborated to create great works of art and pieces of music even before "collaboration" became fashionable. If there is a common purpose, collaboration is vastly supported by the participants. I have collaborated across Asia, Europe and with Americas as well. I find that a common cause and the fact that it has significant impact on the Organization always creates the energy to galvanize the team to collaborate.
    • Katherine Crumb
    • Unilever
    Very interesting article! I feel fortunate to have opportunity to work with colleagues across the globe, observe and appreciate the concepts of "cognitive trust" and "affective trust".

    I'm pondering on the idea of applying these concepts to the practice of hiring. More often, the decision of hiring someone to an existing team weights on a candidate whom appears to be "fit in" with the existing group, hence, leans toward affective trust. I think organization can benefit much more if this paradigm would change to give the cognitive trust more weight.
    • Biswanath
    • Bhattacharya
    When two or more people from different countries or regions collaborate, the country or region specific cultures - and their distinctions - may not be the only ones in play. The collaborators may be, and often are, members of groups, organizations, or communities that have elements of a sub-culture that these collaborators share. When an Indian, a German and an American, who all belong to a global MNC, are working towards developing a new product for a global market - their interactions, trust and effectiveness of collaboration also depend on the particular sub-culture and demonstrated values of the company they work for. Similarly, when contributors on a knowledge sharing free website collaborate, their interactions are also influenced by the sub-culture of the community of contributors to that specific site, and more generally, the community of 'open source' knowledge contributors. Thus, it may make sense for the research to cons
    ider a multi-dimensional definition of culture, and recognise the possibility of collaborators belonging to a common sub-culture, even as they live in different countries or geographies, when analyzing the effectiveness of cross-cultural collaboration.
    • Tom Verghese
    • Director, Cultural Synergies
    Metacognition is a key component of Cultural Intelligence - that ability to be observant, to be mindful and to be able to pick up both the verbal and non-verbal cues in intercultural communication. The challenge then becomes 'converting' metacognition to culturally appropriate behaviors that build affective trust.
    • V Turner
    Growing up in an multi-cultural environment from a young age and exposed to a large tourist population of diverse cultures in Singapore - I like to quote, Stephen R. Covey's 7 Habits of Effective People - in particular, the 3rd Habit "Seek First to Understand And Then Be Understood." This works with everyone especially anyone other than oneself. We have become world citizens by living, experiencing, observing, learning and teaching cultural diversion and differences dramatically in our daily interactions. As more integrate and assimilated themselves to various cultural differences. It has come to a point where now it is getting exceedingly difficult to detect in terms of an individual's refined cultural veracity. It calls for an open mind and take each interaction as a new learning experience. Americans called it, Band-Aid - English - Plaster. Both are correct from their own perspective although easily assumed otherwis
    • Anita Punamiya
    • CEO, CompreCultures Ltd
    Excellent article. I liked how the issue of trust was explained - not many people understand the factors that help build trust and the role of cultural intelligence / cultural metacognition.
    • Dr.Priya M Vaidya
    • Assistant Professor, Guru Nanak College of Arts, Science and Commerce,Mumbai, India
    Enlightening article. Cultural meta recognition experiments are essential for peace,progress and prosperity to prevail in this world. This exploration can be initiated through education to make life more meaningful with others.
    • Raji Gogulapati
    Interaction is a journey which enables partners/ teams to evolve as better selves with genuine efforts. Journal keeping and self awareness that leads to self adjustment helps. However, there is more to the environment that nurtures the traits of creative collaboration.

    Clarity in roles and the purpose of collaboration matter. While the human traits such as praise and trust enable conversations, there are finer areas to address and place a check on one's own perception about self and the other.
    The role of organizations is to cater to the needs of diverse cultures with a universal code of conduct in the professional environment.
    We are used to experiencing building products of such diverse interactions especially in the "software" world where it is common to work across geographical boundaries and cultures.

    The "means" to achieve "universal, creative" exchanges of ideas and products require efforts focused on a matured enviroment re-thinking and refining the processes and policies followed at all levels of the involved partners/organizations.
    • Jill Sheldekar
    • Director, Ethnosynth
    What a fabulous series of examples of research done to identify the relationship between innovation and collaboration across cultures. A question on my mind and the mind of my clients that requires continuous investigation. The section on trust reminds me of a construct I use to build trust in intercultural environments - this is Dr. Duane Tway Jr.'s model which includes three key components. Capacity for Trusting, Perception of Competence (cognitive trust) and Perception of Intentions (affective trust). Capacity for trusting is based on individuals past experiences. Example: an individual growing up in a multicultural society with close friends of different nationalities might have a higher capacity for trusting in an intercultural work environment.

    I look forward to reading more about the work being done by Chua.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    India presents a rich cultural heritage having various cultures between states and also within each state. We often refer to India as representing " unity in diversity". Religions, social customs, attires, food, attitudes, beliefs, etc., vary and widely too. Thus, when one has to interact/live/work with an Indian from a different zone, it is as good ( or bad !) as dealing with a non-Indian. Thus, this presents challenges which, however, are not unsurmountable if each one meets the other without any bias and their thoughts are positive.
    Metacognition - knowing about knowing- is a skill success of which primarily depends on one's knowledge concerning one's own cognitive processes or anything related to them. The level of thinking involves active control over the
    process of thinking that is used in learning situations. Thus, it is essential the in our cross-cultural interactions we should start with an assumption that every human being is composed of the same basic traits and the differences in their cultures would not be bottlenecks in the progress of their joint/common endeavours. Empathy and understanding are essential for success. We have to appreciate why there are certain contrary (to our) working styles in the others and not feel uneasy at any stage. Successfully working with others is a working style that can be developed with patience. And then creative work can be accomplished.
    My experience in travelling far and wide in India and working with persons from heterogenous groups has been good after an open heart discussion to learn as much as possible to begin with. The only challenge, at times, was to decipher the speech ( style of language delivery varies - a lot at times ). With some, it also becomes a little inconvenient to share the eating habits. But, these issues are not difficult to be resolved.
    • Maureen Bridget Rabotin
    • Global Executive Coach, Effective Global Leadership
    Great insights in this article as key challenges in working effectively and creatively across cultures are trust and communication. Interesting to distinguish between affective and cognitive trust. With my clients, I use a 4R model based on Respect, Relationships, Recognition and Rewards. Following research across social media, I learned that feeling respect in most cultures was having the feeling you had been listened to (and heard), Relationships - we are social beings and need to be Recognized for our contributions. Rewards are not monetary but intrinsic satisfaction when the 4R principles come together leading to creative and collaborative work.
    • Project Manager (Global Programmes), Royal Bank of Scotland Group
    Great article. Metacognitive knowledge on cross-cultural have not been studied throughly and is still a lacking skill that one should look into. In this article "Testing cultural metacognition" section is really a good.

    Geert Hofstede's theory of cultural dimensions are very much valid in today's world. The five dimensions; Power Distance, Individualism Vs Collectivism, Uncertainty Avodiance Index, Masculinity vs. femininity and Long term orientation vs. short term orientation should be considered while collaborating arcoss cultures.

    Global Culture is a system with diversified shared norms, beliefs, values, and customs that joins people together, forming shared meaning and a unique identity. In ethnocentric perspective where some people belief
    that their cultural values are superior to others; it is important to understand and then be understood.

    On the other hand, communication plays a vital role in business. Professionals working in multinational companies who interact with people from diversified cultures should create cross-cultural communication model. This is very important because the communication strategy what is accepted in one country differs or confusing others and sometimes even it may be an offensive in another. Language, Time-zones, Innovation and Creativity, Global Team Commitment are some of the key dimensions that should be considered while dealing with teams across borders. Building trust among the people is equally important.
    • Fabienne Tailleur
    • Coaching Across Borders
    Great read! I'm always thrilled to discover the latest research carried by Roy Y.J. Chua, and I love this continuous, systematic and nuanced investigation he and his colleagues are carrying around the creative potential that working across borders can unleash.

    As a coach for many global leaders, I was particularly happy to read that creativity aligns with the highest level of cultural metacognition - this is a great encouragement for collaboration, and for anyone who's preparing themselves to work across borders: it's clearly empowering and rewarding to know that one's efforts will have positive consequences!

    One question that came to my mind relates to how cultural metacognition might become a habit. Michael, you use the expression "mental habit" in your article. However, I understood something slightly different and broader. Indeed, later on, you mention that in order to develop cultural metacognition, a person needs to be truly "genuine", and really willing to "engage" in cross-cultural experiences.

    I thought this indicates a willingness to go beyond a purely "mental" experience. To actually dare to be emotionally involved: to take the risk to be touched, surprised, excited, etc. The very wording of "affective trust" makes me think that one should go through a "real human experience", involving both heart and mind, to actually reap the fruits of such cross-cultural experience.

    But I am over-interpreting? I'd really love to read your clarifications as this certainly has an impact on how best to coach someone working across borders.

    Many thanks in advance, and again - thanks a lot for the inspirational sharing of these research results!

    Fabienne Tailleur
    Coaching Across Borders
    • Anonymous
    Awesome Issue:
    Skill to know others cultures thorughly is some thing that needs a feeling heart ,not only brain.Bussiness word is lacking these kind of few more skills.High level applcation of cultural metacognition can enhance the output.When two hearts are bonded the result is senrgised to its hight.your own culture can only be well executed on others by knowing best of the their culture.
    • Anonymous
    For more global metacognition, can be helpful to have some speaking fluency in a 2nd language where either the language is one's mother tongue or acquired after several years of formal study.

    Learning and speaking a second language forces your brain to step outside the framework of the first language and underlying its cultural assumptions in words. The 2nd language will give you a 2nd or alternative set of cultural assuptions and norms, that are expressed in that tongue.

    I worked in a Canadian construction engineering project where I did require to a bilingual Canadian French-English engineering mangaer from Quebec. The company we worked for was a global German engineering firm. He worked previously on several projects in Asia. He was well respected by hard-nosed German engineers directly from Germany and Asian engineers directly from the Philippines and China.

    He had a style of knowing how manage culturally the ex-pat German engineers as well as the ex-pat Asian engineers without insulting, demeaning either group.

    And I know with chats among the Canadian engineers, they found the German style of management overly militaristic and overbearing from some individuals. It was very noticeable from German engineers who had very little/no previous international work experience vs. German engineers who worked internationally for several decades.