Psychological Scientists in the Private Sector

Many Cultures at Work

Chisato Aoki, Fellowship Program

Chisato Aoki I work for a United Nations-based organization* that has 55 member countries and 15 nationalities working in the office. Of course, there are always differences among people in any organization. But such differences are magnified in a multinational environment. The diversity of cultural backgrounds among people involved in this kind of organization can present interpersonal problems that affect job performance and the work environment. For a psychologist, this provides opportunities to observe such differences and to explore their origins. In addition, psychologists can apply their skills and knowledge to easing problems and can help improve the working environment in these settings.

In multinational organizations, understanding other people's cultural backgrounds and developing multicultural communication skills are essential to creating a good working environment and achieving good job performance. I have found it enormously important to accept differences in behavior, perception, cognition and ways of communication among staff members and delegates from different cultural backgrounds. You can't stick to your own cultural standard to assess other people's behavior and performance in the multinational environment. For example, so-called "common sense" cannot always be applied, because common sense might be different among cultures.

If cross-cultural differences in behavior and thought are viewed as advantages and an individual's different abilities are recognized and enhanced in the organization, such differences can perhaps create great new ideas, which may not be borne from a uni-cultural environment. On the other hand, they can also generate conflicts and mistrust if poor communication and a lack of respect for differences leads to misunderstanding.

My original interest in research was in language processing and brain functions in English and Japanese speaking people and understanding their cultural differences. However, through my experience of working in a multicultural environment, my research interest is expanding. Now I am interested in understanding and devising effective methods for cross-cultural communication as well as understanding cultural differences through an evolutionary psychological approach, stress and stress coping mechanisms in a multicultural environment, and brain function under stressful situations and the effects of relaxation methods.

My background as a cognitive neuropsychologist does not directly relate to my current work. However, my general background in psychology, such as perception, cognition, learning, emotion, motivation, depression etc., helps me understand the basic problems that the multicultural staff faces within the multinational environment.

From my experience of working in an international organization, I am certain that psychologists can play important roles in enhancing the performance of staff, as well as increasing understanding among people of different cultural backgrounds. First, I think that it would be very useful, and perhaps even necessary, to establish or strengthen counseling within international and United Nations organizations, so that staff members can consult a psychologist or counselor trained in cross-cultural communication. In order for staff members of such organizations to help people and to solve problems worldwide, they must first solve their own problems in the multicultural environment. The psychologist can perhaps assist expatriate staff members to adjust to a new culture and to deal with people with different cultural backgrounds.

Second, psychologists could contribute directly to development aid projects. For example, the organization I work for specializes in the conservation and sustainable management of tropical forests. Foresters involved in project management do not necessarily have a good understanding of human relationships or effective communication skills, but they must deal with local people and policy makers in order to implement and manage projects. If a psychologist trained in environmental psychology and cross-cultural communication can work with the foresters, the work performance at the project level might be improved.

Psychologists need to promote the skills they can bring to an organization or company that has a potentially strong human conflict element. As the possibility of conflict may be stronger in a multicultural environment, I believe it is important and challenging for psychologists to work in international organizations. In so doing, they can help foster understanding between cultures and hence contribute - both directly and indirectly- to improving the global environment and to achieving peace between nations and between ethnic groups.

* Organization name withheld at the request of the author

American Psychological Society
November 2000
Vol. 13, No. 9

2001 American Psychological Society
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