Why acknowledging our emotions helps us to reap the benefits of diversity

Key insights

  • Our emotion management style affects how we function in multicultural groups
  • People from individualistic cultures who habitually suppress their emotions tend to have smaller support networks.
  • Regardless of emotion management style, people from similar cultures (individualistic vs collectivistic) tend to reach out to each other more. The effect is stronger for habitual emotion suppressors.
  • Emotion management training is even more important than diversity training. 

We’re living in an increasingly multicultural society, but people still tend to seek out the company of similar others, resulting in de facto segregated monocultural groups in which stereotypes about the other remain unchallenged. Research suggests that this is linked to emotion management, or lack thereof. Together with two colleagues, professor Smaranda Boros examined the role of emotion management in a professional multicultural setting, and its implications.  

To suppress or not to suppress?

When people emigrate, for professional or personal reasons, they find themselves in a different cultural environment, which can be overwhelming – everything is new, and they don’t necessarily understand why the others behave the way they do. The same thing happens to anyone who ends up working in a multicultural team. How do people deal with emotions such as confusion, anxiety, sadness and frustration this experience brings about? The answer to this question is that this largely depends on their individual emotion management style.

“Some argue that it can be good to suppress emotions”, says Smaranda, “but others, like myself, believe it is better to deal with them as they arise, otherwise you risk shutting yourself off and becoming isolated.”

Why ask for advice?

“In our study we wanted to analyse the impact of an individual’s emotion management style on their functioning in a multicultural team. More specifically, we looked at the extent to which they habitually suppressed their emotions, i.e. in how far emotion suppression is a personal trait, and how that affected the way in which they form support networks or ask for advice.” 

Asking for advice is one of the easiest ways to connect with people, as Smaranda explains: “Most of us, if asked, will want to help. So, by asking for and giving help relationships are created. Research has demonstrated that asking and giving advice, both professional and personal, improves people’s networks within an organisation. Herminia Ibarra, for example, showed that having networks combining personal and professional advisers helps women and ethnic minorities to climb the organisational ladder. Reaching out to people for advice is one of the best ways for minorities to integrate, to get promoted at work, and to thrive. This is why in our study we used this as our dependent or outcome variable.”

Cultural differences

“We also wanted to explore the role of culture in all this”, she says. “How do cultural values, namely individualism and collectivism, influence the effect of habitual suppression on the way in which the individual in question forms support networks, or asks for advice?  And is there a difference between moderately diverse groups, i.e. with one dominant culture, and superdiverse groups, i.e. without a dominant culture?”

Individualistic cultures, such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and the US, rely on an independent self-concept emphasising personal attributes, aspirations and achievements. Research suggests that in such contexts, where self-expression is the norm, habitual emotion suppression is detrimental to one’s mental health and life satisfaction.

Collectivistic cultures, however, promote an interdependent self-concept by which individuals define themselves through their social role as a mother, a father, a son or a daughter and so on, and through their social relations. Because emotion suppression is considered to be in line with the collectivistic norms of self-adjustment to the higher good of the group, habitual suppression is not associated with mental or social health problems. Examples of collectivistic cultures are Asian and African countries and countries in South-America. Eastern-European countries are still rather collectivistic, but they are becoming more individualistic.

Study settings

The study used Vlerick as a model for a multicultural professional setting, following two groups of young professionals, i.e. marketing students and students from the full-time MBA programme. The marketing group was a moderately diverse group with 74% of the students being born in Belgium. The group of MBA students was superdiverse with only 12% of the students being born in Belgium, the rest coming from 26 different countries.
At the start of the academic year information was gathered about the participants’ emotion management profiles. At four points in time they were asked to list which fellow students they regularly relied on for advice and social support. Complex network analysis was used to process the data.

Birds of a feather …

The study found a similar pattern in the two groups: students from individualistic cultures tend to mainly reach out to others from individualistic cultures, while those from collectivistic cultures tend to prefer to seek advice from fellow students from collectivistic cultures. The effect is stronger for habitual suppressors than for non-habitual suppressors.  “The cultural dimension of individualism versus collectivism appears to be one of the most powerful as it is about how we define ourselves and how open our boundaries are in relationships”, Smaranda comments. “So, this result is not surprising as people from similar cultures, even if they have different nationalities, have shared beliefs about identity and associated values, such as how much you should give or sacrifice in a relationship.”

Besides the cultural segregation the study noticed that habitual suppressors from individualistic cultures tend to reach out less than habitual suppressors from collectivistic cultures. “Again, this is easily explained”, Smaranda says. “The essence of individualism is that you bear your misery alone – I’m exaggerating a bit – and try to figure out things on your own. In collectivistic cultures, the effect is less pronounced. People from collectivistic cultures on average tend to reach out more because they need more contact with each other.”

Bring emotions back in the workplace

The implications of the study are particularly relevant for the many multinational organisations with headquarters based in the individualistic cultures of the West. If emotion management is neglected, people tend to get isolated – either alone or with similar others. As a result, both individuals and organisations will miss out on the benefits of diversity, i.e. the confrontation of different points of view, leading to creativity and innovation.

“In order to learn how to better work in multicultural groups, people often go through diversity training courses” says Smaranda. “But our advice is to first take an emotion management training. You need to improve your emotional competences before you can deal with other people sensitively.”

This advice is in line with other research calling for a revaluation of the role of emotions in the workplace. “Pretending that organisations should be emotionless is not only unrealistic, it’s also counter-productive as it jeopardises creativity and innovation. Allowing emotions into the workplace doesn’t mean that you should be punching the wall, let alone your colleague, whenever you feel frustrated. It does mean that you need to acknowledge your frustration and learn to work with it in a way that is helpful to you and to others. If you feel a emotion, and you can’t deal with it then and there, you need to make sure that you systematically set aside time to work with your emotions.” And she warns: “If you don’t deal with things, they’ll bite you in the neck.”

Safe spaces

As mentioned previously, on a personal level, the effects of habitual emotion suppression are different for people from individualistic and collectivistic cultures. Given that the general wellbeing of habitual suppressors coming from collectivistic cultures does not seem to be negatively impacted, how can they be persuaded to suppress less and reach out more? “The argument is quite simply this: if you don’t, you’re going to miss out on cognitive innovation, you will not be as creative, and you won’t feel integrated”, Smaranda answers. “Looking at the current migration patterns, we see more people from collectivistic cultures migrating to individualistic cultures than vice versa. Now, integrating means reaching out to people who are very different from yourself, and to be able to do that you need to work with your emotions. In order to support or encourage them to take the plunge we need to create safe environments. Collectivistic cultures are based on relationships, and precisely because we tend to keep our personal and professional lives separate – at work it’s strictly business – collectivistic people will have difficulty expressing their emotions because they need a safe space and trusting relationships to do so.”

This study was undertaken in an individualistic cultural context. It would be interesting to repeat it in a collectivistic cultural context. In general, research is fairly skewed, i.e. there is a lack of studies in non-western, collectivistic contexts. Be that as it may, Smaranda is adamant about what we need to do: “Make room for each other and show an interest. This will help to build trust, contributing to a safe environment in which everyone is able to deal with their emotions as they occur. As a result, our advice networks will grow, improving integration, creativity and innovation.”

Source: The paper “When Holding in Prevents from Reaching Out: Emotion Suppression and Social Support-Seeking in Multicultural Groups” is published by Frontiers in Psychology.

About the authors
Smaranda Boros is a Professor of Cross-Cultural Management and Organisational Behaviour at Vlerick Business School.  Lore van Gorp was a PhD researcher at Ghent University and is currently an HR Generalist at the Flanders Information Agency. Michael Boiger is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Psychology at University of Amsterdam.

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