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The Link Between Cultural Conflicts and Workplace Creativity

The Link Between Cultural Conflicts and Workplace Creativity
Conflicts are never beneficial for a working environment – cultural conflicts are one of many challenges that need to be avoided at all costs. A recent study, however, revealed that avoiding cultural clashes in the workplace does not only result in a more peaceful environment, but can aid the creative process within companies as well.

In his article on the website of Forbes Magazine, Michael Blanding stresses that it is important for companies to have employees from different cultures: many studies have already proven that cultural diversity will help the creativity with which problems are solved.

However, he says, this can only happen if all employees are in sync with one another. In what way, Blanding then asks himself, can cultural conflicts influence a company? And how do they affect innocent bystanders?

Cultural Conflict at Chinese Luxury Brand


These are exactly the questions Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Roy Y.J. Chua asked himself when he wrote a case about a Chinese company dealing with luxury apparel. This Chinese company had called in the help of people from overseas to add a touch of Western fashion to their Chinese fashion. When Chua investigated the business, however, he noticed that the cultural clashes led to tension and miscommunication among the workers.

Chua compares cultural conflicts with sexual harassment or racial discrimination, as these all lead to a downfall in the morale or performance of the entire company. Last September, Chua’s paper called “The Costs of Ambient Cultural Disharmony: Indirect Intercultural Conflicts in Social Environment Undermine Creativity” was published in the magazine Academy of. In this paper, Chua mainly discusses the effects cultural conflicts have on employees that are not directly involved in the conflict. These employees also suffer from the “ambient cultural disharmony” that can arise from cultural differences.

Experiments on Cultural Differences


To measure the effects of cultural clashes, Chua held a number of experiments.

First, he asked people to make a list of the important people in their social networks and in addition state their cultural backgrounds and opinions about each other. Then, the participants had to perform a word association exercise in which they had to connect disparate ideas from several cultures with on another. Chua discovered that people that had culturally diverse friends who disliked each other executed the exercise 23 per cent slower than people with friends from different cultures who all got along.

In the next study Chua performed, Blanding says, people first had to think of two friends who did not get along with other cultures and were then asked to read Chua’s business case on the previously mentioned Chinese company. After reading this, they had to think of new ways to mix the Asian and Western style of clothing. These were then judged by fashion designers, who found that participants who has thought of two friends of separate cultural backgrounds had the least creative ideas. An interesting outcome of this experiment was that having culturally harmonious friends did not necessarily result in more creative ideas. Chau believes this has to do with human nature: negative information is regarded as a signal of danger, which mean people will act upon it more strongly than on positive info.

 In Chua’s last experiment, people had to watch a clip of two people in a business situation. These people were either of the same or a different culture and communicated in a positive, neutral or negative way, resulting in six different videos. After they had seen the videos, the participants received a little more information about the cultural background of the people in them and had to think of new business ideas that would aid the displayed cultures. These were then judged on creativity by a number of entrepreneurs. After seeing the videos with cultural disharmony, the ideas were again less creative, but surprisingly, same-culture harmonious videos also resulted in less creative ideas. According to Chua, this might have to do with the fact that ingroup harmony subconsciously signals that people do not want to step out of the comfort of their own culture.

Culture and Creativity at Work


Chua believes his tests show how important it is that a culturally diverse work force works together as a team. In addition, they also shed a light on the problems that can occur when working with different cultures. Chua says cultural conflicts simply cannot be avoided in a multicultural workplace, but that it is vital that these conflicts are handled properly.

  • According to Blanding, previous research by Chua revealed that companies can also boots their overall creativity by employees making aware of their own cultural biases.
  • He believes ambient cultural disharmony can be decreased if employees think about their views on other cultures.
  • Another great tip for managers of multicultural workforces by Harvard Business School Associate Professor Tsedal Neely is to initiate “cultural awareness moments” where employees from different cultures get into contact or are encouraged to cooperate to see how their cultures influence their work.
  • Blanding says this will give rise to a more harmonious working environment, but will help them get the most out of their multicultural work force as well.
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