Across the Great Divides: How do gender dynamics influence intercultural conflict and creative collaboration?


Finding out why some collaborations are more successful than others is complex, and includes factors of culture, gender, and attitudes to conflict and creativity.


Associate Professor Roy Chua of Singapore Management University and Assistant Professor Mengzi Jin of Peking University have been investigating the way that men and women interact with people from other cultures when they face creative challenges.


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Hello and Welcome to Research Pod!  Thank you for listening and joining us today. 


In this episode, we will be looking into the research of Associate Professor Roy Chua of Singapore Management University, and Assistant Professor Mengzi Jin, of Peking University, who have been investigating the way that men and women interact with people from other cultures when they face creative challenges. 


Working with a partner from another culture can often be a way to spur people to finding creative solutions to tasks or problems.  But that doesn’t always happen, and finding out why some collaborations are more successful than others is complex.  Men and women may interact differently when conflicts arise, and this could be part of the puzzle about why intercultural working sometimes, but not always, generates creativity. 


Creativity is often social, rather than solitary.  Within the business world, profitable businesses like Google, Instagram and Skype have been founded by two men working collaboratively together.  In today’s multicultural, global world, these partnerships are increasingly likely to be between people who come from different cultures. 


A collaboration can be enhanced by people with different cultural backgrounds generating novel ideas or solutions jointly.  The diversity can be very successful when it results in productive debates, exchange of information, and integrates different perspectives. It is possible to generate ideas that would not be created by a person working on their own by increasing the variety of ideas and perspectives that are shared.   Intercultural interactions therefore have the potential to be beneficial to creativity.  


But intercultural interactions are not always beneficial for creativity, and creativity can even be impaired by having people from different cultures working together.  So, why are some intercultural interactions fruitful, generating creativity and solutions, and others not?  What is it that makes some intercultural collaborations positive and others negative? 



Although working with people from a different cultural background might improve creativity, it is also possible that it could increase conflict.  Task conflict is a disagreement about ideas and how to accomplish work.  Relationship conflict, however, is interpersonal tension and incompatibilities.   Ideally any creative friction will be handled with social sensitivity, resulting in productive debates and exchange of perspectives leading to better outcomes. Talking things out in civil discussions, or ‘information elaboration’, requires a willingness to share information, such as a dissenting opinion, to listen to partners and co-workers, and to integrate divergent perspectives. 


Generally, relationship conflict has a negative effect on information elaboration.  When the quality of a relationship is low, people are less psychologically safe and less likely to share, discuss, and integrate ideas.  This relationship conflict disrupts information exchange, and has a negative impact on creativity. 


Gender affects how people manage conflicts.  Social role theory suggests that gender expectations are developed through socialisation to create gender roles and ideas about how men and women handle conflict differently.  A key way in which most cultures create different expectations for male and females is in relation communal and agentic behaviour.  Frequently, women are associated with co-operative domains, including collaboration, attention to relationship, agreeableness, and devotion to others.  Men are more associated with dominant domains including hierarchy, competition, and controlling behaviour.  These stereotypes create expectations for conflict situations.     


When working in a group where there is conflict, gender is an important factor to consider.  Where group participants have multiple identity relationships, such as both gender and cultural identities, their gender is usually a more important clue to other participants about what kinds of behaviours to expect than factors such as culture, ethnicity, and race.  People selectively attune to the features that are useful for inferences about likely behaviour and the gender of group participants is salient information.  This is likely to be especially the case in intercultural interactions. 


Gender is therefore an important reference for conflict management behaviour, due to the role expectations and social cues formed through socialisation.  Cultural background may be less important than gender, because participant’s gender is a more familiar social paradigm.   Specifically, women tend to be communal and cooperative, and men, agentic and competitive, in conflict management. 



Social role theory therefore suggests that intercultural female collaborators are likely to engage in idea sharing and listening, resulting in enhanced information elaboration, with a positive impact on task conflict.  Whereas, male intercultural collaborators are more competitive and less likely to harness task conflict to generate creativity. 


In order to study this in more detail, Professors Chua and Jin conducted two empirical studies.  Both the studies focussed on creativity, looking at how pairs of people, or “dyads”, worked together.  The reason for looking at a dyad is because two people working together is relatively common in organisations, but under researched in the literature.   Dyads are a clean setting for studying collaboration dynamics.  A dyad contains many of the same phenomena as a group, such as disagreement, and all intragroup conflict is built on dyad conflict.   


The first study was conducted at a Singaporean University.  Business students were paired strategically by the researchers using self reported demographic information and asked to work together on a task in a video taped laboratory setting.  There were 111 intercultural dyads, and they were not known to each other prior to the study; their average age was 21.4 years old.  Participants were asked to spend about an hour creating a poster, which was judged by a local art school for creativity.  Although the short nature of the task meant that relationship conflict was unlikely to meaningfully arise, it was anticipated that it would be possible to observe fine detail around task conflict. 


The videos of the dyads were then assessed by research associates who were blind as to the hypothesis.  All discrepancies in coding was resolved by absolute agreement about the nature of the observational data. 


The second study was a field study of US citizens who worked in professions such as accounting, healthcare, media, and IT.  Their average age was 39 years old, and they were asked about a creative collaboration experience with a colleague from another ethnicity; the coworker named was also asked to participate in the survey.  On average, participants had known each other for 6.19 years, and 85% interacted daily at work.  This generated data from 50 female intercultural dyads, 40 male intercultural dyads, and 49 mixed gender intercultural dyads.   



Taken together, these two studies are helpful for understanding how intercultural interactions and creativity are impacted through the lens of gender and conflict management.  It shows how the gender of participants is important for both conflict and creativity, which has previously been studied for individuals and groups, but these studies add information about how dyads work on these issues.   


In these intercultural dyads, there was evidence of task conflict in the laboratory study and both task and relationship conflict in the field survey. However, this task conflict was better harnessed for creativity benefits by the women dyads.  Drs Chua and Jin noticed that information elaboration was an important mediator for task conflict in the laboratory for men but not for women dyads, and it was an important mediator for the negative effects of relationship conflict in the field study for female, but not for male dyads.    Both male and female dyads were impacted by relationship conflict, but the women were especially derailed by it.  The time that this took to resolve had a impact on performance of the task and distracted from other creative discussions.  So women were more negatively impacted by relationship conflict, but harnessed the task conflict for positive creative impact. 


The interpretation that Drs Chua and Jin draw from this is that information elaboration appears to play a critical role in intercultural conflict situations.  Where male intercultural dyads are experiencing task conflict, information elaboration is reduced which dampens the effectiveness of the creative collaboration.  For women dyads, relationship conflict can be a distraction from the task, and thereby reduce effectiveness.  It appears that women dyads are better adept at translating intercultural task conflict into creative benefits, but they are also especially likely to be derailed by intercultural relationship conflict.   


Women may find that they see benefits from developing good relationships with intercultural colleagues prior to engaging in creative collaboration, as this may mitigate the downsides of relationship conflict.   


Men may find that although they are less distracted by relationship conflict, a more cooperative approach to conflict management would enhance intercultural creativity tasks. 


Research into intercultural creativity has highlighted other factors as well as conflict management.  Issues such as how open participants are to new experiences, cultural intelligence, and the degree of cultural difference are all relevant.   Future research could also look at the issue of trust, as well as the degree of conflict and how conflict can feedback and spiral which can exacerbate it. 


The gender of participants in intercultural collaborations is important for social dynamics.  This research shines light onto the importance of conflict management and how gender interacts with intercultural partnerships to both enhance and restrict creativity. 


That’s all for this episode – thanks for listening, and stay subscribed to Research Pod for more of the latest science.  See you again soon. 

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