The affinity that working internationally does not change

Exposing yourself to differences is known to contribute to reducing biases. Following this thought, researchers tested the role of nationality in inter-personal relationships among expats. They found a significant interplay.

It serves as an ideal test laboratory: The expat community in the United Arab Emirates. There, researchers applied a multi-level study design that included 63 supervisors and 221 subordinates mostly from outside the UAE (94 percent and 95 percent respectively; from Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Syria and Yemen. About half of the relationship dyads between supervisors and subordinates (46 percent) were from the same, 54 percent from different countries of origin.

Influence of Nationality on supervisor-subordinate relationships

In such a multi-cultural setting, researchers were able to investigate if nationality influenced the quality of human relationships when the context was more or less culturally diverse. They found that nationality does indeed play a role in leader-member-relationships – but with a certain caveat. The quality of relationships that individual subordinates have with their supervisors is both positively and significantly influenced by national similarity, but only when their workgroup is very diverse. When a workgroup is rather homogenous, the influence becomes completely negligible.

Social identity and ‘black sheep’

Social identity theory suggests that a diverse work environment might be related to greater feelings of uncertainty – thus heightening awareness of one’s surface-similarity and inadvertent attempts to connect on that basis. For the case of more homogenous expat groups, the researchers mention the possibility of the so-called ‘black sheep effect’: individuals judging unlikable in-group members more negatively than out-group members.

Beyond the obvious: contextualised Diversity dynamics

The study contributes to the body of research that challenges existing myths about intra-group bonding and support in Diversity. The pledge for more women on boards, for example, often includes the assumption that they would not only attract but also promote more women across the ranks – and support equality in general. A large-scale study shows, however, that at least the latter does not hold true regarding gender pay gaps. It echoes, in regards to gender, some of the results of the expat study summarised above.

Read a summary of the gender study here

The combined key learning of the two studies is two-fold:

  • On a general level, it is critical to develop more awareness for biases that are – not so rarely – embedded in narratives for D&I. Some of them serve as toxic elements, others create blind spots and divert attention and energy away from key issues into areas where low to no impact on the system is created.
  • On a specific level, the studies reconfirm the need to pay utmost attention to the various levels of organisational cultures, including observable behaviours, proclaimed values and their perception and interpretation and – most tricky – the invisible norms and unwritten rules that often serve as the strongest barriers to D&I.


Further reading

Head and heart responses to Nationalism

How to create traction from Bias learning

The damage of simplified Bias training


Shaun Pichler, Beth Livingston, Andrew Yu, Arup Varma, Pawan Budhwar, Arti Shukla, (2019): Nationality diversity and leader–Member exchange at multiple levels of analysis: Test of a cross-level model. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, Vol. 38 Issue: 1, pp.20-39