Intercultural Perspectives, an interview with Prof. Yih-teen Lee by Dr. Barbara Covarrubias Venegas

Who am I? Navigating between home, host, and the global village: Consequences of multicultural team members’ identity configurations

As the world becomes more connected, individuals increasingly cooperate and work together with people of different cultural backgrounds and hold multiple cultural identities. Still, we know little about what happens to our identities in the context of collaborative multicultural work. Recently, researchers have hypothesized a relationship between home identity (SI), host identity (HI), and global identity (GI) and cultural intelligence (CQ). In this interview, a senior researcher and lecturer,  Dr. Barbara Covarrubias Venegas talks to Professor Yih-Teen Lee from the Institute of Higher Business Studies, IESE about this topic, the outcome of this research and what it means for practitioners.

Barbara: In your recently published paper “Navigating between home, host, and global identities: Consequences of multicultural team members’ identity configurations“, published in 2018 in Academy of Management Discoveries, you discuss that very often we rely on models favouring an integration mode of dual culture-specific identities (i.e., maintaining strong identification to both home and host cultures) and suggest that this approach does not take into account the complexity of multiple cultural identities, of, for example, non-migrant professionals. What do you mean by this criticism?

Yih-Teen: May I start with an example? Think about multicultural team members, especially in self-managed settings. They generally enjoy more freedom in crafting their cultural identities than do, for example, immigrants. Not identifying with any one culture may in fact be beneficial for multicultural work, although in research we have not really looked at this in-depth yet. Furthermore, because the global and the local are closely interconnected nowadays, it is necessary to study the effect of identities jointly at both culture-specific and global levels. Researchers who have explicitly studied the identities of individuals involved in multicultural work have focused either only on the culture-specific level (i.e., home identity and host identity; Lee, 2010) or only on the global level (i.e., global identity). Therefore, these studies often do not offer a full account of how these identities interact within and across culture-specific and global levels and how they affect relevant work outcomes in a multicultural environment.

Barbara: What motivated you personally to dig into this aspect of identities and their relation to CQ?

Yih-Teen: In my personal situation I have also been able to experience multiple cultures. I was raised in Taiwan in a Chinese cultural context, but I have been living and working in Europe for years, starting in Switzerland and now for the past 20 years here in Spain. What happened is that I have started asking myself “Who am I? Which kind of cultural belonging do I have?” and very often I am not able to answer this question clearly. That represents a sense of feeling culturally homeless, I think.  So, when I started to share this feeling with my colleagues, we discovered some of us had similar experiences. These experiences were not necessarily negative, unlike the negative connotations of homelessness that early research on acculturation showed. In fact, we often discussed several advantages to these feelings, such as obtaining capabilities to navigate in a global context. This triggered me to dig deeper into this phenomenon and develop more understanding of it.

Barbara: Thanks for sharing your personal experience. Let’s take a small step back and define for our readers what you mean by “identity”.

Yih-Teen: Of course, the definition of identity is “…the subjective concept of oneself as a person, encompassing the whole set of knowledge, meanings, and experiences that are self-defining”, whilst cultural identity can be defined as “a sense of solidarity with the ideals of a given cultural group and to the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours manifested toward one’s own (and other) cultural groups”.

Let me explain this in the context of globalization: although globalization enriches people’s lives, it also generates uncertainty for people facing unfamiliar events. Anchoring oneself to the home culture helps individuals to find security, safety, and comfort in a local niche. For instance, organizational members actively mobilize their home identity as a symbolic resource to confront challenges triggered by globalization. However, strong identification with one’s home culture may also narrow the cultural mindset and create an ethnocentric attitude that prevents individuals from engaging in intercultural exchanges. For example, when individuals strongly identified with their home culture, they tended to react to cross-border transactions with a nationalistic mindset. Similarly, holding an identity toward the host culture fosters mutual liking and reduces out-group biases toward the host culture and facilitates individuals’ integration into the host culture with less sociocultural adjustment difficulties. However, identifying strongly with the host culture at all cost may not be effective for developing CQ or for being perceived as a leader in a work context that transcends diverse cultural boundaries.

Barbara: And what about global identity? You are suggesting another identity to be taken into consideration: how does it relate to leadership?

Yih-Teen: Exactly, we propose to go one step further, namely away from home and host country identities, and consider the global identity. My colleagues and I (and other researchers) assume that this approach widens the range of inclusiveness, allowing multicultural team members to see beyond their national differences and to perceive culturally diverse team members as belonging to one’s “in-group”. And global identity means “a sense of belongingness to mankind in a global community that transcends national boundaries and cultural divisions. Individuals with a strong global identity generally defy simplistic and conventional categorizations of culture.”

We believe that individuals’ cultural identities are related to the extent to which they will be perceived as leader-like in self-managed multicultural teams. Evidence suggests a close connection between one’s concept of self, one’s social identity, and perceptions of leadership. Therefore, we assume that a global identity, along with culture-specific identities, is associated with multicultural team members’ CQ and leadership perception.

Barbara: Your study involved data from experienced professionals involved in self-managed multicultural teamwork. In total, 196 participants representing 35 different nationalities participated in your study. What is the major outcome that a practitioner must consider when it comes to identities and multicultural teamwork?

Yih-Teen: As mentioned previously, our objective was to examine how members’ multiple cultural identities influence critical outcomes such as CQ and leadership perception in self-managed multicultural teams. In particular, we were interested in discovering which configurations of home/host/global identity are most effective in this context. We found that when global identity is low, individuals with balanced culture-specific identities tend to show higher CQ. Similarly, they are more likely to be perceived as leaders in global work contexts such as multicultural teams, compared to their counterparts with unbalanced culture-specific identities. Furthermore, we found global identity to moderate the aforementioned relationships, such that when global identity is high, the influence of culture-specific identities on the two outcomes (CQ and leadership) becomes weaker.

Barbara: What about leadership in this context?

Yih-Teen: Oh, yes – what we found out was particularly interesting regarding leadership perception. First, when global identity is low, individuals with low-home identity/high-host identity are perceived as the least leader-like. This seems to suggest that in self-managed multicultural teams, such an identity pattern (similar to what is referred to as assimilation orientation) may be associated with the impression of wanting to assimilate to the host culture while losing one’s cultural roots, which may be seen as weak and hence foster an unfavourable leadership perception. In fact, when global identity is low, individuals with low-home identity/high-host identity also show the lowest CQ, which may partially explain the especially unfavourable leadership perception associated with such an identity pattern.

Barbara: From a practitioner’s point of view, what would your suggestion be when it comes to leading a multicultural team?

Yih-Teen: I believe we need to consider the global identity much more in talent management and trainings in a multicultural work place, as these individuals to demonstrate high levels of CQ and are perceived as leader-like almost irrespective of their identity pattern at the culture-specific level. Particularly for people who have difficulties identifying strongly with two or more cultures and for those who may not be able to keep sufficient psychological distance from all their cultural affiliations, developing a global identity may be a feasible approach to achieving positive outcomes in self-managed multicultural teams and, we may speculate, also in other global work contexts.

About Prof. Yih-Teen Lee: Yih-teen Lee is Full Professor in the Department of Managing People in Organizations. He specializes in leadership, fit, and cultural bridging in his roles as educator, researcher, and consultant. At IESE, Yih-teen teaches subjects such as leadership, leading global collaboration, self-leadership, leading multicultural teams, and strategic human resource management in the MBA and executive programs. Yih-teen has been living and working in Europe for almost 20 years and identifies himself as a multicultural individual.


About Dr. Barbara Covarrubias Venegas: Dr. Barbara Covarrubias Venegas is a senior researcher and lecturer at a university in Vienna/Austria and Visiting Professor at the University of Valencia/Spain. Barbara was also president of SIETAR Austria, as well as communications director and board member of SIETAR Europa for many years and currently is Secretary General of the IACCM International Association of Cross-Cultural Competence and Management. Barbara’s research and training focus includes Cross Cultural Management, New Ways of Working, Flexible Organizations, Organizational Culture and Digital Leadership.



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