Thinking Differently

The Boston Globe published an interesting article yesterday about brain research on the differences in perception between Westerners and Asians.* The article cites several examples of differences in perception from earlier experiments, and then talks about recent research with brain scans that show differences in the way we actually use our brains, even in very basic activities.

The experiment asked Americans and Asians to do two tasks: estimate the length of a line, and evaluate the length of the line relative to a square. It turns out that first task is easier for Americans, while the second is easier for Asians, and the researchers could see the relative effort involved in the brain scans. The results line up with other research that shows that Westerners are consistently more likely to focus on a central or key item in a picture, while Asians are more likely to take in the whole context and background in a picture.

While it’s fascinating to see the differences in the actual brain scans, I don’t think it comes as a surprise to any American who’s lived in Asia, or vice versa! And just because we can see the differences in the brain scans, doesn’t mean that we know why we think differently, whether the source of these differences is nature or nurture. Yet the research does validate significant differences in eastern and western cultures, and gives use some insight into how these differences may show up in everyday interactions between people. As the author, Carey Goldberg, notes: ‘On a broader scale, researchers say, it might be useful in business schools for students preparing to work in East-West trade, to help clarify culture gaps. “Understanding cultural differences in the mind is really important as the world globalizes,” Park said.’

This is the most interesting part to me. What are the implications of differences in perception for how we work together in global businesses?

Awareness of the significant differences in thinking among people from different regions of the world leads me to think again about the importance of having a human “bridge” in cross-border business operations, someone from one culture who works in the other culture’s location or team, and helps people from both cultures to understand the other, and to work together more effectively. In the past, this was usually an expat manager sent from company headquarters to lead a new country operation; today, this is more often an Indian account manager or team lead who works at a client site in the US or Europe to manage outsourced IT or BPO services.

The research also highlights for me the importance of building relationships between people in both countries, to make it easier to learn about and work with the different patterns of thought and communication. While we often think of this as something individuals do, businesses can build in processes and infrastructure that increase the likelihood of individual relationships developing. Creating organizational structures that align goals and activities among individuals in different regions, such as the “two-in-a-box” model used by many Indian IT services, incents individuals to work together on a daily basis, for mutual benefit. Planning for (and budgeting for) face-to-face meetings in each country at the beginning of a new operation, and on an ongoing basis, is also key, not just a nice thing to do. Cross-cultural training and regional education materials are also useful, especially when a company is just starting to work in a new region, and everyone needs to get up the learning curve quickly. Businesses can also make it easier for individuals to work together with simple tools that make it easier for employees who are widely dispersed to find and access each other: online team portals, employee profiles, internal directories, and international calling capabilities. When employees talk to employees in another country frequently, as part of their daily work, understanding of the cultural differences in perception and communication grows quickly, and it becomes much easier to work together effectively. And as businesses globalize, this becomes an increasingly important factor in our success.

*I use the terms here the way the article did – loosely – referring to Americans and Europeans with the former term, and Japanese, Chinese and Koreans with the latter. Obviously this excludes large portions of the human population.

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