Being a misfit at work or within the community: The importance of belonging

Managers are usually well educated (university of life included). For this reason, they have strong ideas about what works and how they should manage effectively. What often clouds our judgement is having the time and space. Despite our years of experience, we sometimes have the inability to take a moment and think why the other is so ‘difficult’, ‘stupid’, or ‘unable’. We assume everybody does ‘organisational professionalism’ and speaks ‘business English’…

It takes two to tango. When we interact, we are dealing with someone else who may perceive the situation differently. Therefore, we’re dealing with a (mis)match. You may find that in books, workshops and other media different terms are used for disagreements in perception: e.g, (non) allignment of practices, value (in)congruence, person-organisation (mis)fit, harmony/dissonance in cross-cultural interfaces.


When we asked people to talk to us about their perception of their ‘fit’ with the organisation, it generated
several domains: Work-Life Balance, People (team, supervisor), Organisation (mission, values, reputation), Employment (conditions, personal development), Job (nature, own skills and achievements) (Billsberry et al., 2006). In several workshops, when I repeated the exercise, some people realised there and then that they were a misfit according to their own assessment of how they fitted in (or not) (van Meurs, 2007). The exercise identifies areas for development or a need for change.

          An American approach to fitting in is known as ‘Person-Environment Fit’ or ‘Person-Organizational Fit’. Researchers looked at the average ratings of work values by people within the organisation and compared that to the ratings by another set of people or, for recruitment purposes, one individual. Sometimes they fit, which is considered desirable, sometimes they don’t, which is indicitive of a bad recruit. This has caused some controversy, and I believe that such measurements and results may be helpful for research but should be discussed on a one-to-one basis in real life. In fact, any psychometric test, especially those assessing personality traits, should be used as a diagnostic tool only. Differences can be a wealth that should not be underestimated, as creative stagnation may occur if only clones are recruited.

               That said, fitting in and our sense of belonging are important within organisations but
also within society. ‘Us vs. Them’ talk is powerful because we are social animals and it makes us happy to belong to a group made up of people who think similarly to us. Yet, this is deemed as politically incorrect and we are told we should be someone who can live and work peacefully within a community that is diverse. In a discussion about mixed neighbourhoods, an executive told me that he used to live in a diverse neighbourhood that was friendly and cooperative, ergo, arguing that people from different backgrounds can get on with others different from themselves. This is a nice example, because it is likely that, despite the differences in national and ethnic backgrounds, the people in this community were like-minded about how to create a good community, which became the core feature of their common identity.

It doesn’t matter where you came from, but it does matter where you think you’re going and that, together, you have this common goal in mind. Teams within Google and other modern companies are made up of people from different backgrounds, however their common cosmopolitan identity is highlighted, which gives them a sense of belonging and advances Google’s success. It may be unreasonable to expect people to supress a core human trait such as wanting to belong to a group similar to ourselves. It may be time to drop the political correctness manuals and be mindful that, with good communication, education and training, diverse communities and work teams can establish a common goal without denying anyone membership based on their cultural or biological background. This way, diversity enriches but the acceptance of it is not enforced.

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Saying sorry

Saying sorry is closely related to identity (image) management. It also so happens to have been a theme in my personal and working life this week, hence the blog entry.

In the course of my work related to cross-cultural differences and conflict management, I’ve been particularly interested in perception. My PhD thesis evaluated not only how managers perceived their own conflict management strategies, but also those of the other party. On average, they’d evaluate themselves as problem solving and the other as more dominating (out to win). Obviously, if both parties feel this way, there’s a dissonance in the interpretation of a situation. There are a few key questions that have kept me occupied throughout the years since my PhD research. If there’s a conflict,  whose interpretation of the situation is correct? And if you didn’t intend to upset the other but he/she obviously is, then should you apologise for your actions or for the fact that they’re upset? Moreover, if you find you’re constantly apologising, what does this imply about the relationship?

At a global level, there are many historical conflicts for which a government may choose to apologise, sometimes decades later. The case in point is Russia’s apology this week for Katyn’s mass murder of 20,000 Polish officials, including generals, teachers, diplomats and artists.  Although Russian leaders have acknowledged the issue, an official face to face ‘sorry’ had not taken place.

On the other hand, the media has covered the Catholic church’s response to the child abuse scandal. Although many Catholic priests and officials apologised for what has happened, Pope Benedict XVI ignored the issue in his Easter Day address. Such a tactic has been employed by other leaders too, who refuse to acknowledge mistakes, perhaps viewing it as a sign of weakness or perhaps because they’re ashamed.  Or it could be a move to manage one’s image by covering up for mistakes and then denying or ignoring them when these mistakes have become public.

On a personal level, we may have encountered the situation that someone made a mistake and then, in the aftermath, regrets talking about it. ‘I should’ve not said anything’ could be the response to the hurting party’s anger about a confession. That reaction is a bit like a teenager who admits to crashing his mum’s car and then thinks that next time they’ll just shut up instead of owning up when they get berated. The act of telling becomes the issue, not the actual offence. Or, they’ll stare at the floor, mumble a “yeah, I’m sorry, whatever”, which leaves mum feel unheard and disrespected.

As adults, we’re supposed to know how to manage guilt and deal with apologies.  Some of this is cultural,  for example, in Britain saying sorry is the norm, even for acts that are not your fault. Walk along a British high street and if you bump into a Brit, they’ll likely say sorry. Question is whether the act of saying sorry then becomes meaningless. As a society, we take remorse very seriously: criminals guilty of the same offence may get different punishments depending on the level of regret shown. Much of being able to apologise is personal. It’s indicative of a level of (emotional) intelligence because you are able to acknowledge the other’s upset, even if you a) didn’t intend to upset them or b) don’t quite understand why they’re upset.

Both point A and B are important. As a Dutch person, in my communications I can be very direct, for which I’ve learned to apologise if I see the signs in the other person’s face (usually raised eyebrows and a wry smile). Sometimes though, I tire of this and feel I just can’t get it right. Ironically, when I travel back to Holland I can be quite perturbed about people’s rudeness! It seems that when and to what extent we’re offended or hurt is thus socialised and changes over time.

In terms of learning to manage apologies, the apologiser needs to be ‘forgiven’ and this can be as simple as a ‘thanks, that means a lot’. A hurt party must be wary of playing the victim role continuously and sometimes ‘needs to get over it’ to get things moving along. If you find yourself constantly apologising for yourself, would you consider leaving that relationship if changing it is not possible?

Perhaps this is a controversial viewpoint, but this can also apply at a cultural level. If there’s not a ‘fit’ between your ways and the ways of the group, would you consider leaving if no compromise can be established? I’ve been observing the dynamics between groups of people with differing values and norms – such as strict religion vs secular humanism. On a personal level, I’m intrigued why one would choose to live in a community that does not represent one’s values. I’ve travelled to many places and also lived in a few and in some I feel at home and in others I don’t. I am quite happy to adjust to the ways of a place when I visit it (my friend C and I were appalled at the insensitivity of some European visitors in Zanzibar, seemingly completely unaware that a cropped tank top, bare feet and mini skirt was inappropriate in a restaurant). But if I choose (again, being able to choose is the operative word here) to make a place my home, harmony would be important. Van Vianen and colleagues found that expats adjusted better in terms of interaction when they have Self Transcendent values (universalism and benevolence), which, according to the theory, is in direct opposition to Self Enhancement (power and achievement).

The power of an apology, when sincere, can be tremendous, even after decades after the offence.  Saying sorry is not indicative of a weakness, moreover, it shows maturity, intelligence and character. However,  those on the receiving end of a sincere apology should accept it graciously and express that it makes them feel respected/heard/acknowledged. Finally, if you find that being apologetic has become (part of) your identity, and the other is not acknowledging this passive power trip, would you say it may be time to move on?

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Baseline, benchmark, bottleneck: Why cultural self-awareness is crucial.

I just had a chat with a Dutch teacher to discuss the materials that I will present to a team of European teachers at a workshop for the Virtex4all project in Estonia in June 2010. The aim is to give them some ideas that they can pass on to their students about cultural differences. During the briefing conversation, she mentioned that it’s not so much about a list of do’s and don’ts but about awareness of cultural differences.  I agree but think it’s more than that. It’s about awareness of our own culture and identity and understanding that we use these (subjective) norms to evaluate a situation and decide what to do next


how often does someone look up the ‘why’ of their own way of doing things before they travel for business or pleasure?

Being aware of your culture is key to understanding the other 


Cultural self awareness sounds psychological, which may put some people off. This is unfortunate, because even basic business, sales, good management and governance is all about psychology. Social psychology deals with the behaviour of people in social situations. By default, management (be it in business, governmental, non-governmental sector) concerns dealing with people; i.e., social situations. It pays to know your psychology.

As much as we’d like to view ourselves as superior intelligent beings, we are only human and with that come certain behavioural and cognitive traits. For example, we learn how to do certain things (like eating with knife and fork) and take that with us on journeys. We may learn to eat different things in different ways, but, on average, we have a preference to which we stick. I once asked my Chinese students how they eat (with chopsticks) and what they eat (Chinese food). To the question ‘Do you eat European food?’, the answer was ‘yes, but with chopsticks’. It had not occurred to me that the tool is separate from the substance. It’s a nice example that indicates that our reality is seen through cultural lenses that are part of our identity, but with which we also evaluate someone else.


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Processing consequences

The last 10 days, for professional and personal reasons, have been about processing consequences and how this affects one’s identity. Coming from a country that prides itself for its tolerance yet independence, the cultural values that are about individualistic thinking sometimes battle it out with more collectivistic values that motivate me to think about others and evaluate what will happen next. So, if others do not do that, it can be frustrating.

Such cultural value differences can occur at individual, team, organisation and national level. If you are a perfectionist, who likes to deliver good work it can be awkward and frustrating when the teams around you have a slightly more ‘relaxed’ approach. It could be that the infrastructure or IT facilities within your country or organisation fail you, which affects your professional identity. It could also be that an individual does something that affects you directly. Perhaps a conflict ensues and you need to manage this. What can you do when the other really cannot understand your issue with what they’ve done? The other can say they’re sorry and your view on things may have changed forever, but is moving on the only option left?

Processing consequences is a form of emotional intelligence that is key to successful (cross cultural) management and good leadership. I am monitoring what is happening in The Netherlands, currently an interesting case study in terms of the rise of right wing extremism. What does it mean when a party like the PVV, which has strong policies on the maintenance of the Dutch identity, is so popular? If we vote for parties like that, are we processing the consequences properly or are we protesting against the status quo, not thinking about the future state of affairs if this party comes into power? And if it all does turn sour, what is the meaning of saying sorry, like so many leaders have done (and some still haven’t – left or right wing) for the mistakes they’ve made? In short, what are the consequences for those who do not process consequences?

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Cultural Intelligence

Discussions with students in the last couple of weeks have centred around the issue whether Cultural Intelligence exists and whether it can be tested through a test as developed by Christopher Earley, for example.

Chris Earley and colleagues focus on 4 aspects of Cultural Intelligence (CQ): meta cognitive, cognitive, motivational and behavioural. It is a self reported instrument, that has been tested by other colleagues (e.g., Ward et al 2009). Ward and colleagues concluded that the self reported bias and the fact that the concept is not different from emotional intelligence creates problems for CQ as a tool, although as a concept it is interesting.

Harry Triandis (2006) likes the idea of cultural intelligence but doesn’t actually mention the tool. He talks about 5 things that ‘cultural intelligent people do’ – like suspending judgement, paying attention to the situation, be trained to overcome ethnocentrism, choose to work for organisations with similar values and, finally, not make assumptions about organisational practices. Others, like David Thomas and Elisabeth Plum have also been working on cultural intelligence. Thomas has dived into the cognitive aspects of it, whereas Elisabeth approaches it from a pragmatic but perhaps slightly PC point of view (focus on ‘understanding each other’).

As far as I am concerned, I’d argue that Cultural Intelligence does exist and that it is different from emotional intelligence because it requires the insight on how cultures work, which is different from good social skills in general. For example, what would you score on the following statements (1= strongly disagree, 2= disagree, 3= don’t know, 4 = agree, 5 = strongly agree):

If someone foreign does not understand me then they are a bit ignorant or I didn’t explain it very well


If someone foreign is agreeing with me then this is because both of us are on the same wavelength on this occasion


If someone foreign is polite and kind to me this is because I earned their respect or they are a nice person


If someone foreign is in conflict with me then this is because one of us differs in opinion from the other in this situation


If someone foreign is offended because of what I said or did it’s because they’re a bit sensitive or I was a little tactless

If your answer hovers between the 4 and 5, you’ve missed out on a crucial component: culture. It may be that someone agrees with you to save face, as is part of their customs. Or, a person may seem offended but they’re actually neutral about the issue, it’s just a hot headed culture they’re from. Have you ever been abroad and asked for directions. Did you get an answer you KNEW was wrong and were you confused why someone would do that? In some cultures it is more important to be helpful than accurate.

My students from China gave me a wonderful example of Chinese feedback. If a lecturer would ask “did you like my lecture?” A Chinese student’s comment may be: I liked your seminar, which comes across as irrelevant and confused. However, the student is trying to save your and his/her face: instead of commenting on what was not good, he/she highlights what was. As a Dutch person (direct!), this was a wise lesson to learn.

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A focused read for busy people

I developed a report that summarises the knowledge that I acquired over the years and have taught to (MBA) students as a researcher in Cross Cultural Management and Psychology. The report was developed with the aim to inform decision makers in businesses and organisations, who work in an international context. The Financial Times, in fact, stated recently that cross cultural management is a core aspect of leadership and management development. It’s available to you at no cost because a) it is important to build a bridge between the ‘real world’ and academic work as we face a challenging globalised future and b) research needs to have a practical impact. 

In terms of globalisation and our future, you are no doubt aware that the world’s regions and countries are mapped according to wealth (e.g., GNP), systems (i.e., political, economical and legal), and development (e.g., infrastructure, level of education). Indices and statistics of these concepts provide us with information about the differences that exist globally between countries. Governments, global organisations (e.g., Worldbank), and multi-national corporations (MNCs) may use it before deciding on investment, aid, and collaborations.

            At the individual level, we learn about cultural differences between people through travel, the media and day-to-day living, working, and interaction in a multicultural environment. People vary in terms of what they value and how they do things. We may inform ourselves about the how, what and where of people foreign to us out of necessity or out of interest of the anthropological aspects of (modern) human life.

            For some time, knowing the do’s and don’ts often sufficed for any substantial intercultural interaction. In the professional realm, cross cultural training before or during intercultural assignments, projects or mergers usually provided a ‘toolbox’ of these do’s and don’ts, such as how to greet, what (not) to discuss over dinner, and when to expect a definitive offer on a deal. However, due to globalisation, organisations function within diverse contexts across continents and the modern person has mixed identities (ethnic, national, religious), with x-number of years of experience abroad. This means that a simple do’s and don’ts list is not enough.

            Successful interaction requires intercultural insight. This constitutes the know-how as mentioned above but, moreover, it requires the ability to interpret the situation presented to us by being aware of our cultural lenses and keeping the other’s perspective in mind. It is an updated kind of toolbox, which is adapted to 21st Century working life.

            This briefing will address the three core aspects of effective intercultural engagement: Know-How, Cultural Self-Awareness, and Perspective. Each section will describe some important research in an accessible way, illustrated by practical examples. The briefing concludes with advise that can be implemented immediately. Check out the link on the top menu above or click here: Identity Research for Impact – A review for practitioners



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Welcome to the Identity Research Blog

From the first e-conference back in May 2007, we’ve now arrived at a blog for this website – to review and report on issues, news, and events related to Identity and research.


Nathalie van Meurs, D.Phil.



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Countering Radicalisation: perspectives and strategies from around the globe

Nathalie van Meurs and Charles Harb recently attended the conference ‘Countering Radicalisation: perspectives and strategies from around the globe’ organised by the Dutch government in The Hague for ministers of internal and external affairs, national security officers, policy makers and researchers. Ruud Lubbers, former Dutch PM and High Commissioner for Refugees chaired the meeting, which involved round table discussions on radicalisation and terrorism. Tony Heal, the Deputy Head of the Prevent Unit within the Home Office of the UK also presented, and alerted the researchers among the audience that, although approximately 14,000 articles on counter radicalisation exist, very few contain empirical data. More research is required and policy makers are very interested to talk to the academic community about formation of identity, management of conflict, and strategies for collaboration between local and national government on this issue.

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LSE talk: The New Politics of Identity

On the 29th of April, 2008, Professor Lord Bikhu Parekh (University of Westminster) gave a talk on his new book “A New Politics of Identity”. He was accompanied by a panel of experts in the field, namely David Goodhart (Editor of Prospect), Professor John Keane (University of Westminster and the Wissenschaftszentrum, Berlin), and Prof Lord Tony Giddens (Chair).


After Professor’s Parekh’s presentation, the panel discussed Bhiku Parek’s work, which covers the impact of globalisation on ethnic, religious, and national identities. The event was open to all and organised by LSE’s Centre for the Study of Global Governance.


Professor Parekh decided not to summarise the book but to focus on its message and launched the concept of three identities: personal, social, and human. Each of these identities raise questions about lifestyle decisions and beliefs. He addressed the issue of how we organise our identities; are they prioritised by oneself or primed? As an example he mentioned that a person may be a Christian cricketer. Does being Christian affect being a cricketer (e.g., in terms of competitiveness – do onto others…. ) and vice versa?


His main focus, however, was on this new ‘human’ identity. We must ask ourselves “as a human being, what kind of life am I to live?”. He linked this with the work of the philosopher Hegel (and Marx to an extent) in terms of whether this universal identity is mediated by other social identities. If someone is a globally oriented citizen, does this affect their behaviour? If so, how? For example, in terms of justice and obligations, should there be a political community that aims towards universal democracy and global welfare state, not limited to a nation? The panel commented on these and other aspects within the book. David Goodhart focused on the concept of citizenship and argued that ‘the left’ needs to rethink the definition of ‘the nationstate’ as human rights presupposes a citizenship. In terms of immigration, this means that the UK should follow the Canadian model and that each individual needs to add value based on their skills. Citizenship comes with rights. These ‘rights’ conflict with moral liberal thinking and the focus should be on rights AND obligations. He continued to argue that majority groups’ identities are not satisfied by current political arrangements. For this reason, he states, Parekh’s book is too balanced (on the one hand, on the other hand) and a case is made for both liberalism and group rights. He said people should settle with the fact that identity is often politically defined in terms of race, religion etc.


The issue of immigration and individual vs. group rights was also elaborated upon by John Keane. He criticised the book for not addressing the causes and agents of globalisation. He aimed to clarify that globalisation does not mean Americanisation per se nor does it imply homogenisation. A discussion ensued regarding the idea that the concept of the state and the concept of humankind are juxtaposed but whether it is truly a matter of bipolarity. Parekh replied pragmatically that it is necessary to think beyond the nation state. If, for example, talent is taken from India (e.g., IT specialists or medical experts) then scholarships should be provided. He argues that we should think in terms of a post national state with reference to human rights and political morality. There is a need for some kind of social cohesion and less of a need for a focus on the state and culture. Due to the complexity of identities it is nonsensical to think of a state as ‘liberal’. Equally, universalism is not necessarily a good thing.


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Mixedness and Mixing e Conference

Mixedness and Mixing e Conference: New perspectives on Mixed Race Britons


Inspired by the success of the Negotiating Identities eCongress, the Commission for Racial Equality (now Commission for Human Rights and Equality) hosted an eConference on 4-6 September looking at issues relating to Britain’s mixed race population (mixedness) and mixed families (mixing).


Mixed-race people account for around one in six of all ethnic minorities in Britain today. They belong to an ethnic group that is not only the fastest-growing in Britain today, but also has the youngest average age and the greatest amount of diversity. It is also perhaps the least well understood.


The events brought together a wide variety of perspectives to identify and discuss new approaches, ideas and experiences, and to consider how these can best be used to formulate policy that delivers equality to all mixed-race people.


Nathalie van Meurs wrote a paper for this conference.


Check out:



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