Culture Clash


Sunday, April 15, 2001

Recent events
overshadow record

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.

IN A SMALL COMPANY in Hawaii (200 employees), people have long experienced cordial relations with each other and they frequently have socialized outside the workplace. In the last 15 years, there has not been a major problem involving personnel. Reimbursement for travel expenses and claims for overtime pay were processed on an informal basis and on an honor system. But recently, it was discovered that one of the employees had been embezzling money for the last two years.

The president of the company established a strict set of policies for the processing of employee expense accounts, purchases from outside vendors, and the paperwork for sick leave and annual leave. Employees began to complain among themselves that they were no longer trusted and they had to complete so much paperwork that they had far less time for their jobs.

One reason for the president's decision to make changes is people pay a great deal of attention to recent colorful events. They give less attention to combining information from the new events with information from the past. In this case, the president bases decisions on the recent negative event and does not consider it just one piece of information to be combined with the positive experiences of the last fifteen years. The president's decision can be especially controversial in Hawaii since many people enjoy workplaces with informal rather than strict rules for conduct.

Attention to recent events helps explain many decisions that people make. We might be at the airport to welcome a friend, and a flight from Los Vegas arrives as we wait. The person who "won big" at the slot machines is welcomed by his ohana. Do we carefully think about the majority of people who have lost money in Las Vegas, or is our attention directed at the excitement surrounding this big winner?

People who consider running for political office are taught this aspect of human behavior in seminars. Experienced politicians tell a joke that they frequently share among themselves. A politician in the running for her eighth two-year term. Talking with a constituent, she reminds him of the help she gave 10, seven, six, and three years ago. For instance, she reminds him that seven years ago, she spoke up for his nephew when he sought his first job after college. "Yes, but what have you done for me recently?" the constituent asks.

Realizing that people's attention is drawn to recent events that will be fresh in their memories, politicians often work on popular legislative actions during the months prior to their reelection campaigns.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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