The ability to process complex information and synthesize opposing ideas is associated with creativity and, by extension, increased professional opportunities and better job prospects. A multicultural environment can help build it — but only if people engage psychologically with others. The capacity to ‘integrate’ differing perspectives comes from interaction not observation.
The next head of General Electric will be somebody who spent time in Bombay, in Hong Kong, in Buenos Aires. We have to send our best and brightest overseas and make sure they have the training that will allow them to be the global leaders who will make GE flourish in the future
Jack Welch, former General Electric chairman
The many benefits of multicultural experiences, which include increased ‘cognitive versatility’, improvements in creativity, and adaptation for the global economy, have been established in a host of recent empirical studies. The same studies suggest that they are dependent on active engagement by individuals. It’s not hard to see why. Mere exposure to different cultures is unlikely to provide opportunities to question long-held beliefs, practices and assumptions, and to absorb and assimilate new ones. Increases in the ability to demonstrate the creative skill of ‘integrative complexity’ — a willingness and capacity to integrate competing perspectives on the same issue — won’t come unless people interact closely with others.
Our understanding of the conditions for the ‘optimal outcome’, however, remains quite limited. It is, for example, unclear whether a general multicultural environment involving many different cultures, rather than a single and salient new culture, provides distinct benefits. Similarly, the ‘real-world’ impact of being ‘integratively complex’ — ie. whether it translates to better job prospects — is under-researched. While one study noted an association between bi-culturalism and managerial promotions for mid-career professionals, little is known about whether multicultural experiences help secure opportunities at the start of one’s career.
Recent work from INSEAD, Tel Aviv University and Columbia Business School helps fill the gaps in the literature by looking at the impact of a highly culturally diverse environment on MBA students.
All 115 participants in the research were on a ten-month programme at INSEAD. They came from 39 different countries, and most were living in a foreign country at the time of their MBA studies. They were tested for integrative complexity at the start and end of the ten-month period through analysis of essays they’d written on the pros and cons of multicultural teams. (Changes were correlated with survey responses on the degree of multicultural engagement during the programme, ie, the extent to which the students had adapted to and learned about new cultures.) A third study, carried out approximately six months after the programme finished, looked at official data from INSEAD on participants’ success in the job market.
The results, which held when controlling for personality and demographic variables, suggest clear links between psychological engagement with new and diverse cultures, integrative complexity and professional opportunities. The researchers found that the amount of multicultural engagement predicted increases in integrative complexity from the beginning of the programme until the end. They also found that this increase in integrative complexity had a positive impact on the number of job offers students received.
Why is integrative complexity so important for career opportunities? Many organizations now use recruitment and selection processes that involve not only multiple interviews but also simulations of the complex and dynamic modern business world. In these circumstances, the ability to combine disparate pieces of information and approach problems from different and sometimes contradictory angles can be decisive.
The research has obvious implications for people starting out on their careers: in today’s competitive job market, multicultural engagement counts.
It also has important implications for employers. The results suggest that:
Organizations might need to stress the importance of multicultural engagement to staff before sending them abroad. They might also need to make sure they test for multicultural engagement when faced by a well-travelled job candidate. (For smaller organizations lacking the time and resources for lengthy and sophisticated recruitment and selection processes, this would mean asking the ‘hard questions’ at interview. “What did you learn while there?” etc.)
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