New research suggests that employees with high implicit aptitude learn new cultural norms faster than those with high IQs


Understanding which employees to send abroad

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Feb. 15, 2022 – Sending an employee to work abroad can be an enormous expense for companies and a great disruption for the employee. For example, a recent report by the SHRM Foundation found that the cost of a three-year international assignment can exceed $3 million. As such, companies have long sought to make these consequential personnel decisions judiciously.

New research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology conducted by professors from the MIT Sloan School of Management, Nanyang Business School, and Columbia Business School provides insight and actionable advice for companies choosing which employees to send abroad. In a series of seven experiments, the researchers tested whether people with higher IQs or those with higher implicit aptitude were better able to learn complex cultural customs and norms crucial to succeeding when working abroad.

“Although IQ predicts performance in many other domains, our studies suggest that people with higher implicit aptitude are better at learning complex culture norms,” says, the Mitsui Career Development Professor and an assistant professor of work and organization studies at MIT Sloan.

“People with high IQ are better able to learn information through conscious effort,” says Krishna Savani, an associate professor at Nanyang Business School. “In contrast, people with higher implicit aptitude are better able to automatically pick up complex patterns in the environment without conscious effort.”

In the past, scholars and practitioners had assumed that expatriates adjust to new cultures by explicitly acquiring knowledge about the culture’s language, customs, practices, norms, taboos, and values. The current researchers note, however, that interpersonal interactions are heterogeneous (no two are identical), temporally dispersed (similar episodes may occur infrequently and far apart), and probabilistically rewarding (even the correct behavior in a particular class of social interactions does not yield positive outcomes every time).

“These complex and noisy regularities make it difficult for expatriates to explicitly learn local norms, which can affect work performance. Instead of consciously forming rules about what works best in given situations, people may implicitly learn the adaptive responses through trial and error,” says Michael Morris, a professor at Columbia Business School.

The researchers say that their findings have two clear implications for organizations. First, instead of seeking out high IQ employees for expatriate roles, organizations should seek out employees with high implicit aptitude. A number of tests can be used to measure employees’ implicit aptitude in approximately 10 minutes. Everything else equal, organizations can select people scoring high on implicit aptitude for expatriate assignments.

Second, their findings suggest that explicit instruction may play a limited role in helping expatriates learn the norms of a foreign culture. “Instead, expatriates would be better off exposing themselves to the local culture, such as by eating and socializing with locals, and just letting their implicit knowledge system figure out cultural norms through everyday experience,” says Prof. Lu.

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