I love Sharon Begley, Newsweek’s science columnist, because she makes me realize I had a false notion in school: that I hated, or at least could not get interested in, science.  Of all the columns I read diligently in Newsweek every week, hers tends to be the one that most inspires me to make connections with workplace issues.

Last week, for example, she wrote a column call What’s Really Human? about the fallacy of psychologists drawing conclusions about “universal human nature” from their typical lab experiments.  These experiments usually use college students as lab rats, and the college students are almost always from WEIRD cultures, an acronym that stands for “western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.”  The result, predictably, is that we conclude certain traits are universal when they are actually culture-specific.  The examples she gives range from things things like optical illusions to a sense of fairness and justice.  “While some scientists express skepticism that a discovery about college sophomores applies to, say, Tsimane tribesmen of Amazonia, all too many findings are cast as illuminating The Human Mind,” she says.

We continue to do this in the workplace, don’t we?  Everything we “know” about creating an engaged workforce comes from the organizational development theories of WEIRD cultures.  I can’t help but think that it’s usually a good thing; who wants to argue against the notion that employees who are treated well will perform better, or that positive feedback will create a motivational atmosphere?  But we also assume that the same things that westerners find motivational or rewarding will be equally so to employees of other cultures.  For how long have we been repeating the idea that managers should “praise in public and censure in private?”  In some cultures, where community is more important than the individual, public praise is terribly embarrassing.

What examples do you have?

1 Comment

  1. What a lovely acronym!
    WEIRD. I am going to use that as soon as possible. Thanks!

    Oh – and being from Sweden, I am all too aware of the awkward feelings involved with public praise. 😉