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See Inside July / August 2011

Who's the Boss?

A supervisor's feedback may affect identity more in certain cultures

Most people spend a major chunk of their waking hours at work, where often the boss looms large. Just how influential the boss is on an employee’s self-image might depend on culture, a study in the February 16 PLoS ONE reports.

Teams of researchers in California and China showed a rapid series of photographs to student volunteers, sometimes asking them to press a button when they saw themselves and other times to press it when they saw their boss. People usually recog­nize themselves in images much more quickly than they recognize anyone else. But the scientists found that Chinese students pressed the button in response to their boss’s face more quickly than to their own face. Amer­ican students showed this “boss effect” only when they perceived their boss as socially influential and able to help or hinder their climb up the career ladder.

Lead author Sook-Lei Liew, a psychology doctoral student at the University of Southern California, believes that strong cultural differ­ences between China and America may help explain these findings. In East Asian cultures, Liew says, individuals think of themselves as interdependent with their families and colleagues. They “are more prone to take their boss’s feedback as a part of themselves,” she says. Americans tend to view themselves as more autonomous, making a supervisor’s feedback less important to self-image.

As more and more corporations cross international lines, under­standing how diverse cultures affect cultural differences in the roles and influences of management will be crucial to success, Liew says.

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