Cultural Bridging and Identity Work: A Talk with Yih-teen Lee by Kim Hays

During the morning and afternoon of Saturday, May 26, Professor Yih-teen Lee of IESE, Barcelona, presented a session at our Lugano congress called “From Cultural Awareness to the Comprehensive Global Acculturation Model: A Review of the Field and Implications for Training.” That dry title turned out to refer to an exceptionally engaging talk. Professor Lee is interested in “contributing to the ability of managers and organizations to navigate global cultures effectively.” Many members of SIETAR Switzerland train the employees of multinational businesses with exactly this same goal in mind.

After the congress, I spoke with Professor Lee. My first question was why someone who attended National Taiwan University for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees has a doctorate from the University of Lausanne. “When I was growing up in Taiwan,” Lee told me, “the trend was for young people who wanted to be successful to do hard sciences. Already in high school I was very interested in exploring different human cultures, and I wanted to focus on the social sciences. But we were a traditional family, and my father, who was a successful banker, was strongly opposed to my doing anything so impractical. If I refused to do a university degree in the natural sciences, then I should do one in business—that was our compromise. So I studied international business management in Taiwan, but I wasn’t fully happy. I continued to want to understand cultural differences. Then I got a scholarship to a Swiss university—I could pick which one I wanted to attend. I decided I wanted to live in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. At that age I thought French was the language of beauty and romance—a stereotype, I admit it! I ended up getting a PhD from the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Lausanne and teaching there, too. At last, in Lausanne, I was able connect my interest in the development of cultural competence with the study of management.”

At the start of his Lugano presentation, Lee pointed out that the rules of doing business are set by the biggest players. Technology’s most valuable companies today are no longer just Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft, but also China’s Alibaba, Tencent, Xiaomi, and Baidu, among others. I asked Lee how he thinks the rules of business may change as China’s players spread into different fields around the world.

“Something we have to wonder about it is whether these companies will adapt to EU rules about privacy. Or will they succeed because, unlike their Western competitors, they will not consent to be bound by local rules and will amass enormous amounts of information that give them access to vast markets? Questions like these about data use and privacy in Chinese versus Western cultures are going to create a great deal of discussion in the near future.”

Lee reminded his Lugano audience that, for the past decade or so, the kinds of cultural models we have been using in our consulting work (like Geert Hofstede’s theory of cultural values or Trompenaar’s Seven Dimensions of Culture) emphasize differences between groups and focus on the importance of adaptation. In his talk, Lee proposed that our field concentrate instead on cultural bridging: in other words, on facilitating connection at the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral levels. To illustrate his ideas, he used the examples of Japan’s Sanyo and New Zealand’s Fisher and Paykel, makers of white appliances, which were taken over by the Chinese multinational Haier. He explained the methods Haier used, in the case of Sanyo, to successfully implement their own management structure on the Japanese company. At Fisher and Paykel, by contrast, Haier was content to limit its influence to assigning one Haier employee to the local management team. In both cases the acquisitions were a success thanks to the managers. Although they used very different strategies, both were able to serve as bridges between the parent and daughter companies, translating the expectations of Chinese management for the Japanese and New Zealanders in ways that the locals could appreciate and follow without a loss of identity.

In 2016, Haier also bought GE Appliances. I asked Lee if he knows how this relatively new relationship is working out. “In the case of GE,” he explained, “the spirit of the two companies is allied, and Haier is able to give the GE management a high degree of autonomy, as long as it is matched with strong accountability.”

One of the slides Lee presented in Lugano showed a number of differently shaped drinking glasses and a large pitcher of water. He used this image to talk about how leaders—and anyone, for that matter—can learn to project different identities. In this way, a single person may be able to adapt to a variety of complicated cultural situations. “This kind of identity work isn’t easy, but it can be done. There are always boundaries and constraints that shape and limit the kind of person we can become. First we have to figure out what experiences since childhood have made us the way we are and what parameters define the particular space we ‘fill.’ Then, once we understand our own limitations, we can change our identity to fit the situation we find ourselves in, as long as it’s compatible with our boundaries.”

I asked Lee about future projects. He is eager to expand on the idea of cultural bridging. “I want to provide the concept with a solid theoretical foundation and connect it with a number of the different global acculturation models. In future papers, I’ll be looking at how we can map and define different kinds of cultural bridging. In general, it’s important to remember that cultural bridging is a process, not a single transaction. I think of it as an on-going effort, a constant negotiating and re-negotiating of the way problems should be solved, based on changing goals.”

Professor Yih-teen Lee of IESE, Barcelona, speaking at the 2018 SIETAR Switzerland conference in Lugano.

Yih-teen Lee is a Full Professor in the Department of Managing People in Organizations at IESE in Barcelona. His research appears in many of the leading journals of his field, and he is author or co-editor of books and book chapters, including The Cultural Context of Human Resource Development and the forthcoming Lee, Y.-t., & Schneider, S. C, “Making a difference: Managing identities and emotions in multicultural teams,” in L. Zander (Ed.). Research Handbook of Global Leadership: Making a Difference.

Kim Hays, PhD, was born in the US and has lived in Puerto Rico, Canada, Sweden, and, for the past 30 years, Switzerland. She has worked in the cross-cultural training field since 1999. She spends most of her time now writing fiction.

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