Executive Advice; Getting the most out of living abroad depends on Biculturalism and Integrative Complexity as key drivers of creative and professional success

People Simultaneously Identify with their Home and Host Cultures

Research from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University suggests that those who learn to embrace two cultures experience greatest benefit
Is living abroad a sound investment in a person’s creative and professional success as many people suggest?

A new study from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University points out that the answer is not a simple “yes” or “no.”

The study finds that the act of simply living abroad may do nothing to enhance creativity and professional success.

Rather, the rewards of foreign exposure depend on one’s ability to integrate the new culture with the old one.

The authors called the tendency to identify with the culture of a host country while maintaining identification with one’s home culture as bicultural identification. The study is written by Carmit Tadmor of Tel Aviv University, Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School, and William Maddux of INSEAD.

“The ability to simultaneously identify with both one’s host and home cultures and the resulting capacity for complex thinking may be a key to translating foreign experiences abroad into a tangible toolbox that bolsters one’s creative ability and professional skill to the highest level,” the authors wrote.

A key driver of creative and professional success is “integrative complexity.”

This information-processing tendency is related to one’s capacity and willingness to acknowledge the legitimacy of competing perspectives on the same issue and to forge conceptual links among these perspectives. The researchers found that it was bicultural identification while living abroad that was a key determinant of whether this capacity develops.

“Although living abroad does help in honing creative abilities compared to not living abroad, not all individuals who have lived abroad will be equally successful in deriving a positive benefit from such experiences. Rather, it seems that only individuals who are able to simultaneously maintain a connection to one’s own cultural heritage while identifying with the new host culture will develop the requisite integrative complexity levels that will ultimately produce greater creative and professional success,” says lead author Tadmor.

“The study underscores the idea that it’s not sheer exposure to other cultures that helps spur creative development, but the psychological connections one makes among multiple cultures,” noted Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School.

Tadmor, Galinsky and Maddux conducted three experiments to determine the impact of bicultural identification – integration of the home and host cultures – when living abroad.

In the first and second experiments, the researchers tested participants, all who had lived abroad, on their levels of creativity and innovation by using problem-solving tasks and written assignments. Tasks included asking participants to write down as many creative uses for a brick within two minutes as well as measuring the number of businesses, products, and processes participants had created during their careers.

Galinsky and his co-authors found that participants who identified with both their host culture and their home culture consistently demonstrated more fluency, flexibility, and novelty on the creative uses task and produced more innovations at work than did participants who identified with either the old or new culture but not both.

The third experiment extended their findings to general professional outcomes. The researchers surveyed 100 Israeli professionals and found that bicultural professionals achieved higher promotion rates and more positive reputations. Importantly, across all three studies, the authors found that bicultural identification allowed people to notice and integrate diverse perspectives and this capacity is what led to their greater creative and professional success.

“Living abroad gives the opportunity for individuals to enhance creativity and integrative complexity, but taking a bicultural approach while abroad may be the key to producing lasting cognitive changes and psychological benefits,” the authors wrote. “Thus it seems that although living abroad matters, it is how one approaches that experience which adds critical explanatory value.”

The study, “Getting the Most out of Living Abroad: Biculturalism and Integrative Complexity as Key Drivers of Creative and Professional Success,” is forthcoming in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

To learn more about the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, visitwww.kellogg.northwestern.edu.