How culture impacts management practices

Nov 10 2010 by Myra White Print This Article

The US is considered a world leader in management. International students flock to the US to study its practices and executives come for short-term training programs. But despite the popularity of "the American way of management", it is unclear whether it is effective in cultures that don't subscribe to the US model of individualism and aggressive capitalism.

Thus, it was with great surprise that I discovered on my recent trip to India that their business community has fervently embraced emotional intelligence. Business leaders with whom I spoke repeatedly stressed that they believe that everyone from the CEO to the lowest level manager needs to exercise emotional intelligence in the workplace.

The US, at least on the surface, is equally committed to creating emotionally intelligent workplaces. Human resource departments now measure emotional intelligence and training programs abound. However, in comparison to India it is unclear how deeply emotional intelligence has penetrated the US culture of individualism and self-celebration.

A number of aspects of US culture suggest that a disconnect exists between emotional intelligence and US values. For example, on any evening in the US one can watch television commentators stridently disregarding what each other have to say while everyone loudly talks at once.

A Newsweek testimonial for the book Emotional Intelligence 2.0 (Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves) further illustrates US cultural ambivalence surrounding emotional intelligence. It declared that the book is: "A fast read with compelling antidotes and good context in which to understand and improve your score."

The message appears to be that getting good scores on emotional intelligent tests is what really matters - almost as if it is a game. Actually learning how to be emotionally intelligence is an exercise for people with (too much) time on their hands.

At the leadership level there is even more ambivalence. People tend to be willing to look the other way when business leaders fail to exhibit qualities associated with emotional intelligence. Empathy, one of the core components of emotional intelligence, is not required for CEO's who make their quarterly numbers. They are still considered great business leaders as they lay off employees with one hand and collect millions of dollars in salaries and bonuses despite their lack of empathy for the employees they discard.

Moreover leaders who fall from grace because they exercise low emotional intelligence seem to continually rise from the ashes. In 2008, for example, Eliot Spitzer was forced to resign as governor of New York State due to his assignations with expensive call girls who were part of a prostitution ring under investigation by the federal government. This disgrace, however, has been short lived as demonstrated by the fact that he was quickly hired by a major television station to host a roundtable discussion program.

In contrast, emotional intelligence appears to resonate more with traditional Indian cultural values than US values. In India, intelligence is more than what the west calls IQ. It is conceptualized as a product of the unification of the body's emotional and cognitive energies which join to create a higher form awareness and consciousness that transcends the emotional and cognitive energies from which it originates.

A second factor contributing to India's embrace of emotional intelligence is the communitarian nature of Indian culture. In India the family and social groups to which people belong come first unlike the US where the "me" comes before the "us."

This placement of the family and others before self is seen in the role that the family plays in marriage decisions. In India marriage is a family matter. A person is not just marrying an individual but a whole family. While couples in India now have more opportunities to meet at work or through friends, they still are unlikely to marry without the approval of their respective families.

This strong sense of family and community cultivates a concern and awareness of the needs of others that starts at an early age. It is further reinforced by an educational system which stresses a personal discipline that involves respect for teachers and others and responsibility for those less fortunate.

At SCMHRD Pune, a top level business institute, students must do 25 hours of charitable work each semester. The director of the school proudly informed me that initially they required students to keep records of the time they spent but after the first year they discovered that this was not necessary. Students were eager to do this work.

The ease with which India has embraced emotional intelligence suggests that US management practices are transportable but the real story is that culture matters. Emotional intelligence has succeeded in India because many of its prescriptions fit with India's communitarian cultural values.

As US companies expand into countries around the world, they need to remember that their management practices primarily reward individual rather than group achievement. Thus, these practices may be a poor fit in cultures like India, China and Brazil where people believe that success depends on groups of people effectively linking their behaviors to achieve work.

To be a player in a global economy increasingly dominated by India, China and Brazil, companies from countries like the US may need to adopt management practices that fit more closely with the cultures of less individualist countries.

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About The Author

Myra White
Myra White

Myra White teaches managing workplace performance and organizational behavior at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Harvard Psychologist's Guide to Becoming a Superstar", a book based on her research into how over 60 well-known people became superstars.