By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Cooperation is in the eye of the beholder

I recently read a fascinating study in the scholarly journal "Organization Science" that found similarities and differences between American and Chinese cultures in workgroup settings.

The authors — Joshua Keller of Nanyang Business School in Singapore and Jeffrey Loewenstein of the University of Texas at Austin — set out to study behaviors that people interpret as showing cooperativeness. Broadly, the responses are more similar than different. Situations in which teams were rewarded as groups rather than individuals or where members are willing to give up their lunch breaks for an important group activity, for example, were seen as signs of cooperation to about the same extent in both countries.

Some of the differences fit with common views of differences between U.S. and Chinese cultures. For example, American respondents said openly discussing a team member’s mistake shows more cooperativeness, while the Chinese said the opposite.

But two of the differences were puzzling.

On a question about the willingness to drop one's own activity to help another group member with a different task, Americans said the faster that people do that, the more cooperative they seem. But the Chinese said a situation in which several members of the group help with the other’s task as soon as they're done with some of their own — rather than putting their own tasks aside immediately — showed greater cooperation.

Another difference was even more unusual, at least from an American perspective. Subjects were presented with the following two kinds of groups: "Members try to outperform other members" and "members don't try to perform better or faster than other members." Americans felt the second group displayed greater cooperation. But the Chinese felt that the competitive group displayed more cooperation than the noncompetitive one!

That result is particularly strange because cultural stereotypes might suggest, if anything, the opposite — that Americans would be more willing to accept competition among group members as not damaging the group’s spirit of cooperation.

In this multicultural world, more and more of us are finding ourselves in work situations with people from different cultures, including immigrants to the United States who haven’t been here long enough to absorb the nuances of American culture. We tend to assume that people will interpret behavior the same way we do. We need more studies like this to open people's eyes to when this is so and when it's not.

By the way, I know this blog has Chinese and Taiwanese readers (including perhaps Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants inside the United States). I would be grateful for any reactions to the two differences I mention above. I am particularly intrigued by the second one, which suggests that Chinese workers view people trying to outshine others in their workgroup as an example of cooperation. Is it possible that anything that improves the overall performance of the group reflects favorably on the group as a whole?

I would love to hear thoughts about these differences.

Posted on May 25, 2011 at 12:09 PM


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