Perspective: Managing teams when culture dictates how we cope with COVID’s impact on careers

Written by
Professor Yanjun Guan, Durham University Business School

05 Aug 2020

05 Aug 2020 • by Professor Yanjun Guan, Durham University Business School

While we manage through COVID-19, we must recognise how our culture, and the cultures of others, dictate how we respond to its impact on our future, writes Professor Yanjun Guan.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced workers all over the world out of their offices and into their homes. In fact, COVID-19 has had the most extensive impact on working lives that we’ve ever seen, but how have people coped with the effects on their career? Our research shows that it’s our culture that determines what we’re most concerned about, and how we deal with that, and these findings have significant implications for leaders who are managing a global workforce.

With my colleagues at Durham University Business School, Hong Deng and Xinyi Zhou, we reviewed research on personal cultural orientations, like values and thinking styles, as well as national culture and its influence. Our findings persuasively indicate that culture plays a substantial role in shaping the way people assess and cope with the stress on their work caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As various quarantine measures around the world were imposed to save lives, offices closed and some industries ground to a halt, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a distressing event that forced people to make sense of a new situation and choose appropriate ways to cope. Because members of the same culture are socialised to support shared cultural meanings, cultural orientations provide important guidance to their personal evaluations of stressors and choices of coping strategies, which are especially useful to managers. 

Individualism vs. collectivism

For instance, our findings show that in countries that value individualism – such as the UK, America and Australia – people tend to form an independent mindset to lead their behaviour. This will direct their attention to stressors closely related to their personal career development, such as job insecurity, the challenges of working from home, and new career opportunities. In contrast, in a collectivistic culture – such as in Japan and China – people's attention may go beyond this to issues related to work groups, organisations, and even social networks.

But it’s not just what people find most stressful that’s influenced by their national culture, it’s individual coping strategies too. For example, directly solving the associated issues are heavily emphasised in American society whereas accommodating and re-evaluating existing problems are more valued in Japanese society. The differences are clear

One problem that many have had to tackle is that they have had to use more unfamiliar ways – such as working remotely and using online communication – to continue working. People in cultures that have lower levels of inequality, like in the UK, may be allowed some control over organising their work and life. As a result, findings indicate that they are less likely to be affected, and so experience lower levels of stress. 

But how can managers learn from this knowledge?

Well, leaders of inter-cultural teams should pay attention to subordinates’ culture-specific coping styles and use a more flexible way to improve the effectiveness of their teams. For example, employees with collectivistic values are more likely to be motivated by group goals and significant others, and are sensitive to situational factors. In contrast, employees with individualistic values care more about their personal agency and autonomy. Managers should be mindful about these differences and choose appropriate approaches to communicate with employees from different cultural backgrounds. 

Power distance cultures

Yet the culture that a leader or manager originates from has an impact too. Our findings show that managers from high power distance cultures – like China, Singapore and Saudi Arabia – are more likely to seek guidance from superiors or authorities, rather than colleagues. While people in low power distance cultures, like the USA and the UK, tend to support leaders who include others in decision-making processes. That means in high power distance cultures, a decision-making process dominated by top leaders is more likely to be viewed as a valid way to shape and implement collective coping strategies for the workplace, whereas in low power distance cultures, a decision-making process that involves stakeholders from diverse backgrounds is favoured.

What’s more, it’s interesting for managers to note that people in collectivistic – instead of individualistic – cultures are more likely to use group performance, rather than a leaders' personal characteristics, to evaluate their success. 

Apply this to politics and the findings indicate that when facing a conflict between collective and individual interest, political leaders in collective cultures, such as Japan, China, South Korea, are expected to prioritize national benefits over individual benefits, whereas in individualistic cultures, e.g. USA, UK, Australia, there is a need to balance both. This may impact people's coping and career management practices more than the influence of personal preferences. 

A cross-cultural approach to emergent challenges

But there’s another aspect that today’s managers must not ignore as, in a globalising world, people are influenced by foreign cultures too, by reading international media and so on. This suggests that we’re capable of developing numerous cultural identities, and these identities can be primed and activated by relevant cues to help people adapt to new situations.

Finally, human beings are a cultural species, so it’s clear that examining the career implications of the COVID-19 benefits from a cultural viewpoint. It has revealed cross-cultural differences in coping strategies and career management strategies under the COVID-19 pandemic and provides important guidance for individuals and managers to develop a more flexible and adaptive way to cope with emerging challenges. Evidently, the COVID-19 pandemic has become one of the most major global crises in our lifetimes and it requires individuals, organisations and nations to take necessary steps to cope.

But this line of research could become even more vital. It may help to advance our understanding of career management strategies by recognising a fuller range of strategies that come from diverse cultures, which has the potential to enrich the range and flexibility of the activities of both individuals and leaders in response to future fast situational changes.


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