May 13, 2005
East meets West in multicultural human resource expert Lisa Nishii
ITHACA, N.Y. -- Rudyard Kipling, who famously wrote, "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," obviously never met Lisa Nishii. Negotiating cultural differences is something she has had to do from birth. Now an assistant professor of human resource (HR) studies and international and comparative labor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR), Nishii has a most unusual heritage: Her Japanese father is descended from Buddhist monks, while her mother traces her ancestry back to the original Mayflower settlers.
Adding to the multicultural stew are Nishii's Korean husband and the couple's daughter, Elise, born last December, whose complex heritage can best be described in fractions -- one-quarter American, one-quarter Japanese, one-half Korean.
It all began when Nishii's parents met at the University of Michigan, where her mother was an undergraduate and her father an MBA student. "She was interested in Asia, so she joined the Japan Club on campus, saw my dad and asked if he would teach her Japanese." After he turned her down (too busy), she returned and asked again. That kind of assertive behavior, particularly from a woman, intrigued him because "it's very un-Japanese," said Nishii. This time he said yes, and a courtship began that ended in marriage and a move to Tokyo, where Nishii was born.
But her Boston mainline mother worried that the traditional Japanese educational system, with its emphasis on unquestioning obedience to one's elders out of respect, would suppress her daughter's natural curiosity. Nishii recalls coming home from school one day and announcing a teacher's request to bring in a pair of scissors -- but she didn't know why because it was impolite to ask. Her mother immediately pulled her out of the traditional Japanese school and enrolled her in an international school. There, her schoolmates represented 60 nationalities, giving Nishii an opportunity to learn how to communicate with an enormously diverse array of people. But she was still searching for her own mixed set of values and where they fit in.
The answers didn't come until she enrolled as an economics major at Wellesley College and, while researching a paper on cultural differences, found a seminal article on cross-cultural psychology. "That was my 'aha' moment. For the first time I understood the cultural contradictions within my own personality," she said. Some examples: She believes strongly in gender equality and likes to speak her mind -- traits she considers American -- but at the same time she cares about ceremony, etiquette, traditions and placing social obligations before personal wishes -- the Japanese side of her.
While studying industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Maryland for her Ph.D., Nishii found a link between whom she was and what she wanted to do. She reasoned that if the world was indeed going global, multinational companies would need to learn about how to manage people in a different way than in the past -- and she had the expertise, background and interest to help them do so.
"Every company is touched by the global marketplace, but not every company realizes that fundamental differences in cultural assumptions and values become more magnified in a global setting," she notes. "It's not uncommon for American companies to run their international companies, including managing for diversity, in an American way," which usually doesn't work in an international setting.
"People don't realize just how much culture influences what they do and how they do it until they have lived in multiple cultural settings and discovered that their home-based assumptions don't equip them with what they need to be successful," says Nishii. Some examples: "Empowering workers to work in a way that suits them best is talked about a lot within U.S. companies, yet that notion of how people are empowered is very Western. In Asian cultures, high uncertainty avoidance, high power distance and a desire to abide by existing rules are the norms. Research shows that U.S. empowerment programs bomb in those environments."
Knowledge about those differences in traits is especially important for international companies, she said, because human resource management is all about "how to gain a global competitive advantage through your people."
Benjamin Schneider, Nishii's dissertation co-chair, now a senior research fellow at Valtera, said of her, "She cares about being a first-rate scholar, she cares about being conceptually and methodologically rigorous, she cares about trying to understand herself and the world around her in all of their complexity and she cares about people." Her other co-chair, Michele Gelfand, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, added, "She's a rare mix of intelligence, drive, creativity, passion and integrity -- the type of person that professors dream about working with."
Nishii, whose research and teaching span human resource management and organizational behavior, currently is working with colleagues on a large-scale project funded by a National Science Foundation grant in which they examine "strength of situations" cross-cultural differences -- the extent to which normative expectations restrict the range of acceptable and appropriate behavior -- across more than 35 countries. In a separate project, Nishii is looking at the relationship between culture and human resource practices across 40 countries. In addition, she is mapping the relationship between workforce diversity and organizational performance and has begun research on global diversity and inclusion. Two of her papers on culture and negotiation won Best Paper awards from the International Association of Conflict Management. And her doctoral thesis, on employees' perceptions of HR practices, won the Best Dissertation Award from the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.
Sara Turken '05, who took Nishii's International Human Resource Management class and was her advisee on a senior honors thesis, said: "She's a fantastic, dynamic professor. She has a personal connection to the field and a true passion for the material, which shows in her teaching. Because of her cross-cultural background, she is able to apply the culture material we study not only to HR situations but to other aspects of business and to fields such as law." And best of all, "she takes a genuine interest in her students."
While the drive to do research, teach, publish and have a life while caring for the new baby can be a juggling act, "so far we're managing quite well," said Nishii, who shares child-care duties with her husband, Ray Kim, an assistant dean for admissions and advising in Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences. "We're total best friends, he's the love of my life -- we're a really good team, and he was willing to go wherever I was offered a job," she remarked. It also helps that this semester she has had a teaching release, which has allowed her to do much of her writing at home ("it's blissful") and spend more time with Elise, whom she describes as "a chill baby."
Nishii, who was a competitive swimmer in college, lifting weights and exercising to stay in shape, sometimes misses the physical challenge of the sport. Nowadays, in her very limited spare time, she cooks and does craft projects, such as making bibs for Elise and paintings for the family's home. "The best part is I can finish most of these in a day, and the baby never says 'revise and resubmit,' like journal editors do," she said.
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