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Wednesday February 2, 2011

Exploring Eastern and Western Creativity: Q & A with Michael W. Morris

Jennifer Olayon, Contributing Editor , Photography by Francis Lee

Michael W. Morris is the Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership and Director of Program on Social Intelligence at Columbia Business School and leading expert on relationships, conflict resolution, decision-making, and creativity, with a special interest in the role of culture. He edited the November 2010 Special Issue: Editors' Forum: Creativity East and West by Management and Organization Review of The International Association for Chinese Management Research.

Michael recently caught up with AsianLife Magazine Contributing Editor, Jennifer Olayon, after his keynote address at the 2nd Annual National Association of Asian MBAs Conference held in New York, August 2010. Edited excerpts of their conversation are below.

 Tell me about Editor’s Forum on ‘Creativity East and West’.

This special issue follows a creativity and innovation in global business themed conference sponsored by Columbia University and City University of Hong Kong. It brings together different kinds of social science and business research to address whether culture influences creativity and through what means.

The five papers and commentaries come from different scientific disciplines. One of the papers uses historical data to examine creativity in the East and West and looks to consequences of creativity within. Some of the papers, based on organizational studies of innovation behaviors, look at management. Some of the research includes psychology experiments involving creative problem solving tasks in lab settings examining various factors that hinder or support creative performance.

  (Author’s comment: The special issue is free for download at:

As a researcher, how do you define creativity in a cultural context? 

Researchers define creativity just like patent law defines it as a solution that is both novel and useful. Much of the difference across cultures seems to be the weight placed on these two factors. Westerners emphasize novelty and Easterners stress usefulness. The research in our forum suggests that this difference is a matter of different social norms; it’s not a difference that comes from anything innate or even anything that is imprinted in people’s character or mentality as children. Western social norms center on individualism (distinguish yourself from others) versus Eastern norms centered on social harmony (do not make waves). Novelty helps one stand out.  Usefulness helps in making your solution work easily for other people. Eastern and Western creative problem solving differ in this way, but only in contexts where people are adhering to social norms.  The difference disappears or reverses in other contexts where people are not following social norms.

Is there a stereotype, subtle or overt, in which there is bias about creativity between East Asians and Westerners?

There is a popular stereotype that Easterners are less creative; that they are imitative rather than inventive. While this stereotype is heard in the West, it is heard even more so in East Asia, which surprised me when I first began studying this topic. The creativity problem is a central topic in the social discourse of many East Asian nations, worried about making the transition from manufacturing economies to design and innovation-based economies. In bestsellers with titles like Can Asians Think? Asian polemicists have advanced theories about ways that Asian culture, language, socialization and schooling stunt creativity through hindering abstract critical thinking and molding conformist characters. This sells books, but I think it’s inaccurate. 

There are many examples of areas in art and science where East Asians have led the world’s innovation – for example, Japanese New Wave architects like Tadao Ando, Hong Kong directors such as Wong Kar-wai, contemporary Chinese artists like Cai Guo-Qiang. Who wasn’t blown away by his fireworks extravaganza at the 2008 Beijing Olympics? Also let’s not forget many inventions of antiquity from paper, printing, and gunpowder (which Cai Guo-Qiang incorporates in his pieces) occurred first in China.

Let’s talk about your paper, Asian-Americans’ Creative Styles in Asian and American Situations: Assimilative and Contrastive Responses as a Function of Bicultural Identity Integration. For the non-academics in our audience that may sound like a mouthful. What is the scoop?

Sorry about the title.  You know how we academics love our jargon! This research paper argues that bicultural individuals, those steeped in both Eastern and Western traditions, are able to exhibit either the Western bias toward highly novel/original solutions or the Eastern bias toward highly useful/acceptable solutions depending on the cultural context and whether their personal orientation works toward either following contextual cues or reacting against them.

In other words some Asian-Americans are chameleons who exhibit a creative style that meshes with the cultural expectations of the setting. Others are contrarians who defy expectations by exhibiting an opposite style.  Our studies show that this depends in part on whether they feel integrated as an Asian-American or whether they have a divided self identity. The larger point is that all biculturals have flexibility and can be creative in the American style or the Asian style.  There used to be an assumption that biculturals were just people whose style was half-way in between that of the two cultures.  Now we see that biculturals can switch between the modes of their two cultures.  This research shows that they are capable of fluently enacting either of the cultural styles and which cultural style they exhibit at a particular time depends on the combination of their situation and their personal motives.

If you could sum up an important takeaway from your work on harnessing Asian-Americans’ creativity in organizational settings, what would that be?

Firms have realized the value of hiring biculturals like Asian-Americans but they need to realize that there are different kinds of biculturals. Our research on bicultural psychology shows that Individuals with integrated and divided identity structures are best suited for different kinds of organizational roles that involve working between two different cultures. Firms should consider whether they want a cultural chameleon or a cultural contrarian. 

To illustrate these types, I like to give examples of artists and performers where you can see these tendencies in their work. For example, Jackie Chan is a chameleon—he plays his roles in a more traditionally Chinese way when making films in Hong Kong and a more Western way when making films in Hollywood. If a firm wants to hire a bicultural so that this person can bring an opposing perspective, they should look for a divided-self bicultural who will respond to audiences in a culturally contrarian way. The director Ang Lee comes to mind -- he challenged Taiwanese audiences with Western themes in movies like Eat Drink Man Woman and then brought an outsider’s eye to Western themes in movies like Sense and Sensibility.  Or the architect IM Pei who challenged France with pyramids at the Louvre and challenged Hong Kong with the (Feng Shui violating) Bank of China building – both designs were initially resisted but became cherished innovations.

If a firm wants a bicultural to be a cultural ambassador, they should find an integrated-self bicultural, a cultural chameleon.  For example, if an American firm is sending someone to Korea to seek out joint venture partners, they should send an integrated-self Korean American who adapts to Korean norms to mesh with local cultural expectations and build rapport. If the firm is sending someone to China to audit procedures at a local plant, they should send a divided-self Chinese-American who will resist adapting to local norms and assert their American perspective. 

So, we are sitting on George Nakashima woodwork on Columbia University’s campus, would you describe him and his work say, chameleon or contrarian?

I’d say contrarian!  When in Japan as a young man he worked for an American architect.  Then during WWII, when in a US internment camp, he learned traditional Japanese woodworking. He worked the rest of his life in rural Pennsylvania working primarily in a Japanese style.  To me, this suggests he had a motivation to contrast against his environment rather than blend into it.

That said, while chameleon and contrarian styles are valid statistical patterns, I don’t want to reduce any individual to purely one of these types. His career shows a contrarian pattern, which suggests a divided bicultural identity.  At the same time, some other aspects of his work, like the fusing of Japanese and Shaker styles, show a willingness to integrate the Eastern and Western traditions.

In any case, Columbia University is very fortunate to have his beautiful Peace Altar and the stunning furniture in this East Asian studies conference room.  

Your streams of research have practical implications for diversity and inclusion in the workplace since your seminal research in 2000 on examining employees of Citibank and cultural influence to this recent work. Where are you in the journey and what is next?

I started my career studying cultural differences in psychology and organizational behavior. That research was comparative. For instance, we would often compare a sample of students or employees in Hong Kong to a matched sample in New York.  From this research we learned that much of what psychology had called “human nature” was really just Western culture.  However, for the last decade, rather than focusing on these differences, I’ve primarily studied bicultural individuals so as to understand how people draw on dual cultural legacies. Today my students and I are studying individuals who have grown up around multiple cultures.  We are finding that people with multicultural experiences, and cosmopolitan global identities, have advantages in managing diverse teams.


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