After all the positive press that diversity in the workplace has been getting over the years, including here at HRE, a surprising study published in a recent issue of the Academy of Management Journal presenting an actual negative caught my eye.
Conducted by Prof. Roy Y.J. Chua of the Harvard Business School, it suggests — make that shows — that creativity in multicultural settings is highly vulnerable to what Chua calls “ambient cultural disharmony.”
In three distinct studies, the overall research finds that the presence of conflict or tension between two people of different cultures — whether the cause of strife is culturally based or simply due to personal antipathy — diminishes the ability of others to think creatively in multicultural ways, according to the research report. The paper, “The Costs of Ambient Cultural Disharmony: Indirect Intercultural Conflict in Social Environment Undermine Creativity” (subscription/registration required), appears in the December/January issue of AMJ.
“Creativity is not necessarily about producing a completely new idea or product that never existed before [but] oftentimes involves combining existing ideas in new ways that are useful toward solving practical problems,” Chua says. “To solve problems creatively in a global multicultural context, problem-solvers need to first see non-obvious connections among ideas from different cultures … . Ambient cultural disharmony motivates people to shut down the search for connections and patterns involving ideas from different cultures because they have come to believe that such intercultural connections are not feasible.”
How much of a problem could this be, going forward, in the global marketplace?
“It’s not clear how serious a problem this is,” Chua says, “since this is the first work to show creativity loss resulting from ambient cultural disharmony. Yet, the fact that intercultural conflict affects so many more people than those directly involved [a key finding of the research] and diminishes something as critical to organizational success as creativity suggests that what this research has uncovered is more than a minor drawback of diversity.”