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Intercultural conflicts may implicitly affect bystander beliefs

Datum:06 maart 2018
Auteur:Yan Shao
Intercultural conflicts may implicitly affect bystander beliefs
Intercultural conflicts may implicitly affect bystander beliefs

Many organizations pride themselves on having employees from diverse cultural backgrounds. A diverse workforce would facilitate the merging of disparate ideas from different cultures, in this way enhancing creative solutions to complex problems in the global market.

While positive effects are found indeed, the creativity benefits of culturally diverse workforce are not always realized. Because of different values, beliefs and goals, tensions and conflicts between people from diverse cultural backgrounds can easily arise. If not well managed, those intercultural tensions and conflicts will undermine the creativity of employees (e.g., Giambatista & Bhappu, 20101; Swann, Kwan, Polzer, & Milton, 20032)

But there are more issues with diversity conflicts. Intercultural tensions may even spill over to bystanders. Recent research suggests that the damaging effect of intercultural tensions and conflicts may even affect uninvolved observers. Specifically, Chua (2013)3 proposed that when people observe conflicts among people from different cultures in their immediate social environment, they tend to develop an implicit belief that ideas and values from different cultures are incompatible. This implicit belief reduces the ability of those individuals to draw knowledge from representatives of different cultures, thus undermining the potential of connecting ideas from different cultures to form novel solutions.

Chua’s thesis was tested and confirmed by three complementary studies. Particularly, in his first study, it was found that when individuals’ social network contained more negative interaction (e.g., dislike) between people from different cultures, they became less able to make connections among disparate concepts from different cultures. The second study showed that even simply recalling a recent conflict between two contacts from different cultures activated people’s belief that ideas from different cultures are incompatible, which further undermined performance in creative tasks. Chua’s third experiment replicated the finding, concluding that the negative effect of intercultural conflicts on uninvolved observers’ creativity was explained by the implicit belief that ideas from different cultures are incompatible.

What do the results imply for managerial practice?

First, managers should be aware that cultural diversity must be carefully managed in practice in order to exploit the potential of enhanced creativity and innovation.

Second, managers should also realize that tensions or conflicts between culturally different employees can spill over to the people around those employees and implicitly affect their beliefs.

Third, employees should realize that conflicts in their immediate social environment will affect their performance in creative tasks. Thus, investing in helping their peers from different cultures to get along better with each other, will also have a positive effect on the bystanders’ performance.

1Giambatista, R. C., & Bhappu, A. D. (2010). Diversity’s harvest: Interactions of diversity sources and communication technology on creative group performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 111(2), 116-126.

2Swann Jr, W. B., Kwan, V. S., Polzer, J. T., & Milton, L. P. (2003). Fostering group identification and creativity in diverse groups: The role of individuation and self-verification. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(11), 1396-1406.

3Chua, R. Y. (2013). The costs of ambient cultural disharmony: Indirect intercultural conflicts in social environment undermine creativity. Academy of Management Journal, 56(6), 1545-1577.


Yan Shao (y.shao is PhD candidate at the Department of Human Resource Management & Organizational Behavior, Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Groningen. Her dissertation is about “The paradox of creativity”.