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Ideas Made to Matter


How going out can spur outside-the-box thinking


You’ve worked abroad. You’ve lived abroad. But have you had a close friendship or romantic relationship with a person from a culture drastically different from your own?

If not, you might be missing out on a powerful way to boost your own creativity, recent research shows.

Research by MIT Sloan assistant professor of work and organization studies Jackson Lu and his colleagues, entitled “‘Going Out’ of the Box: Close Intercultural Friendships and Romantic Relationships Spark Creativity, Workplace Innovation, and Entrepreneurship,” found that people who experience those types of relationships tend to exhibit higher creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

The research studied 115 MBA students, 108 people who’d dated both someone from their home country and a foreign country, 141 currently employed United States residents, and more than 2,000 foreign nationals who had worked in the U.S. on a J-1 visa and then returned to their home country.

It found that:

  • MBA students who dated someone from another culture during their program performed better on creativity tests.
  • Among participants who had previously had both intercultural and intracultural dating experiences, those who reflected on an intercultural dating experience displayed higher creativity on the tests compared to those who reflected on an intracultural dating experience.
  • Professionals who kept in regular contact with friends they made in America after returning to their home country tended to be more innovative and entrepreneurial.

Only the depth of intercultural relationships, but not the number of them that a person experienced, predicted higher creativity. That’s due to the deeper cultural learning that takes place in longer-term relationships, the research said.

“The current findings suggest that people cannot simply ‘collect’ intercultural relationships at a superficial level, but instead must engage in cultural learning at a deep level,” the paper reads.

“When in an intercultural relationship, an individual should not eschew cultural differences but rather embrace them, because such differences enable one to discern and learn the underlying assumptions and values of both the foreign culture and the home culture,” the authors write. “Without close social interactions, it can be difficult for individuals to juxtapose and synthesize different cultural perspectives to achieve cultural learning and produce creative insights.”

These positive effects of close intercultural relationships might have contributed to the innovativeness of high-profile thinkers, including Marie and Pierre Curie, who were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery of radioactivity, and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who studied Zen Buddhism with Kobun Otogawa in San Francisco. Four of this creative paper’s six authors, too, are currently married to someone from another culture, Lu said.

“Creativity is about connecting dots,” he said. When someone enters a close relationship with a person from a different culture, they collect more dots to connect to the ones they already have.

“These relationships can also enhance your cognitive flexibility, which means that not only do you have more dots, but you’re more capable of connecting them,” he said. “Intercultural relationships lead you to switch your cognitive frameworks, and push you outside the box.”

Lu said one need not venture abroad to seek out intercultural friendships and romantic relationships: globalization has made it easier than ever to connect with people from other cultures.

Despite that, the same force has also made it easier for those living abroad to find members of their own country and remain insular, so it falls upon the individual to branch out and meet culturally different others.

How organizations can harness diversity to spark innovation

While close friendships and relationships may appear to be a deeply personal topic, organizations can put the researcher’s findings to work by helping to cultivate them within their workforce, they write. Doing so can promote creativity and innovation within the workplace.

The first step is to foster an intercultural environment within the workplace by opening its doors to individuals from different cultures. If a company has offices spread across different countries, leadership could launch exchange programs between the locations, or provide more support for employees who want to obtain work visas.

On a grander scale, changing policies that tax U.S. citizens on income earned abroad — a stance that the U.S. uniquely holds among developed countries — could encourage cultural diversity, the authors write.

Once diversity is improved, companies can strive to foster closeness between employees from different backgrounds by encouraging them to embrace their cultural differences. Offering shared activities outside of work and assigning foreign and domestic employees to work on projects together in the office can also improve ties.

“As they transition from mere colleagues to closer friends, employees will have more opportunities to engage in cultural learning at a deep level, thereby sparking creative insights,” the authors write.