Daily global interaction in the workplace is on the rise. In their search for capital, labor, and markets, a host of firms have established multinational operations. However, finding common ground, building trust, and sharing information without face-to-face contact may give rise to dynamics dampening the advantages pursued by such arrangements.
Among the tensions induced by these circumstances, the negotiation of status and its consequences for global interaction stands out as a central, yet underexplored, phenomenon. To learn more about these dynamics, we carried out an intense year-long observational study of crash-test engineers at International Auto Company (a pseudonym, which we abbreviate as IAC) in which engineers in the United States and Mexico outsourced design work to a captive offshore center in Bangalore, India.
As an illustration, take the following conversation one of us witnessed in the Mexican center of IAC. Two Mexican engineers (Mateo and Pedro) had been conducting two different crash tests for a car, all the while sharing computer-based simulation models and asking each other questions. Once done with the analyses, Mateo and Pedro sat down next to each other in a private conference room for a scheduled conference call with Bill, a U.S. engineer:
Bill: Walk me through the analysis. It looks like there are issues with the front bumper. Who have you been working with on this?
Pedro: No one. What do you mean about the issues?
Bill: I think you’re having problems because the different parts are connecting in a funky way. Did you look at the old model I sent over?
Pedro: [Pedro glances nervously at Mateo and Mateo shakes his head “no”] No. We just put this one together based on how we thought it would work best.
Bill: Well there’s definitely some problems with it. Let me fix it and I’ll send it back to you so you know what to do.
After the meeting, Mateo was asked why he shook his head “no” at Pedro when Bill asked if he looked at the older model when just the day before both he and Pedro were looking at it. He replied:
“They [U.S. engineers] are always asking things like that. They think we just copy old models without ever thinking about it. We have good reasons for building the models like we do and we know what the problem is here. But that’s why they ask if we look at the model because they think we don’t know how to do it ourselves so we need them to know that we can build good models without copying. But of course we look at the models. But we just say no we don’t. The irony is I’m sure he wouldn’t look at them if we sent them.”
This conversation is an instance in a communication and interaction pattern in which Mexican engineers attempted to correct and manipulate the (often pejorative) stereotypes they thought US engineers had of them. Mexican engineers did not do this when they communicated with engineers in India; instead, they proudly told Indian engineers exactly what they did. More explicitly, Mexican engineers’ actual and communicated practices were aligned when they talked with their counterparts in Mexico and in India, but were not aligned with what they told engineers in the United States they did to arrive at their results.
Mexican engineers seemed to seek advice from others to find solutions to problems more often than they decided on a solution alone; they built on others’ work by using their models and related simulation outputs more frequently than they started work from scratch. And they almost always followed the procedures recommended for model building and analysis in IAC’s standard work guidelines and rarely ever attempted to devise a new procedure on their own. Mexican engineers told other Mexican engineers and Indian engineers they worked in these ways.
However, they did not tell US engineers the same thing. Instead, they often told US engineers they decided on solutions to difficult problems on their own and started building and analyzing models from scratch. Most startlingly, they were twice as likely to say they attempted a new procedure instead of following standard work guidelines to arrive at their solution. Why did these dynamics unfold?
Given their need to garner a general understanding of US and Indian engineers, and in the absence of face-to-face interaction, Mexican engineers resorted to cultural and national stereotypes, which they fused with professional stereotypes. Mexicans saw US engineers as incarnating the features of pioneers and entrepreneurs building models from scratch and without consultation with others. On the other hand, Mexicans saw Indian engineers as in need of further training because of a deficient educational system, even though they had no first-hand experience of it.
If stereotypes provided the content of what Mexicans thought of their US and Indian peers, a perceived status order suggested how they should deal with those contents. The Indian research center, which was at the bottom of the corporate status hierarchy, did not pose a threat to the self-esteem of Mexican engineers, who invested no effort in exploring the stereotypes Indians had of them or in spinning their own work practices to make them appear closer to those they thought were prevalent in India.
Conversely, the perception that US engineers sat at the top of the status order prompted Mexican engineers to care for their opinions and spin their own work practices to present them as fitting the entrepreneurial/pioneering ideal. In the end, Mexican engineers worked to maintain the dominant stereotype they perceived about what made a “good US engineer” and show US engineers they actually embodied it. They attempted to reduce the status deficit by leading US engineers to believe they approached engineering work just as US engineers did.
These interaction dynamics led to clear consequences in interaction across centers. While the stereotype that Mexicans had of Indians favored cooperation by fostering a teaching attitude on the side of Mexican engineers, the stereotype Mexicans had of US engineers had far less salutary effects. As a result of reporting work practices that neither conformed to reality nor (inadvertently to Mexican engineers) to how US engineers worked, they came to be seen as incapable workers. On several occasions American engineers reported to us they did not understand why Mexican engineers ignored standard work practices and further, they had vowed not to work with them anymore. Subsequently, encouraged by their superiors, they would begin collaborating with peers in, for example, Australia or Brazil.
Our research provides surprising findings about the interplay between stereotypes and status differences in the global workplace. The first finding is that within a particular occupational community, individuals form stereotypes about the way their colleagues in other countries work, and of how they themselves work, that confound occupational and national culture membership identities. The second finding is that when individuals believe work practices are distinct across cultures, perceived differences in status can activate behaviors aimed at either reconciling those divergent stereotypes or maintaining them. The third finding is that pursuing strategies aimed at maintaining or correcting stereotypical work practices can have important consequences for attributions of competence and skill, and ultimately may affect the ongoing nature of global work.
These findings lead to several insights about how to manage a globally distributed workforce. First, and most importantly, leaders of global organizations must recognize employees perceive status differences that cleave along national country or cultural lines. In attempts to establish, increase, or defend their status when interacting with others, workers may present images of the way they work aimed at shaping the perceptions of their coworkers, not at accurately portraying how they actually accomplished tasks. Workplace leaders need to make sure they monitor these status differentials and encourage workers to communicate accurately despite them. Second, managers need to recognize workplace status is relational. In other words, workers perceive their status only when comparing themselves to their coworkers from across the globe. Formal training, informal workshops, and regular visits to other company sites may help workers to gain the perspective necessary to overcome their tendencies to dissimulate when communicating across national borders. Finally, employees in large global firms must recognize their unique ways of approaching work can add variety and innovativeness to organizations. They should not try to stamp out this variety simply because of inaccurate perceptions of status.