“Travel opens your mind”. Interview with William Maddux

We have heard it often: living abroad for some time, be it for study or work reasons, brings benefits. So much so, that exchange programs have now become a fundamental part of many University courses around the world, and a certain degree of multicultural proficiency is required by employers in the most creative fields. To know more about this issue, The New European talked to William Maddux, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Chair of the Organisational Behaviour Area at INSEAD

Your research have consistently shown that multicultural experiences have a positive effect on creativity. How do you define creativity and how do you explain that exposure to multiple cultures can enhance it?

The traditional psychological definition of creativity is something that is novel and useful. In other words, it refers to a concept, an idea or a product that differs from conventional practices in a particular domain and that can be used for some purpose.

When people have these multicultural experiences, such as living or working abroad, and if the experience is immersive or transformative enough such that they are truly adapting themselves to these new environments, this psychological adaptation changes how the way they look at the world in general. For one, it helps them come up with creative ways to approach mundane problems as these individuals have acquired an ability to look at a normal business idea or normal academic idea from a more complex perspective.

First of all, they now have access to a larger number and more diverse array of new ideas than they would have if they stayed within their own country. For example, they learn how the same thing might be done differently in the US, France, Singapore, Germany and Brazil. Second, they may discover associations between these very different ideas and figure out how to combine ideas in original ways. Finally, they may have more insights into how to do things completely differently than what’s been done in the past because they’re now looking at problems completely differently than others are.

 Do you also have examples of sectors where multicultural awareness can have a positive impact on professionals’ creativity?

In most creative industries, such as fashion, art, video game making, technology, publishing, or film, where creativity and innovation are important, these experiences are likely to be important when firms are looking to hire or train employees. In sectors where creativity is less critical for success, maybe it is more about efficiency, then these experience might be important.

For example, we just published a paper on the fashion industry. We examined 11 years (21 seasons) of fashion collections of the world’s top fashion houses and found that when creative directors of one of the top fashion houses had worked abroad, their fashion collections were rated as more creative.

One of the keys to Karl Lagerfeld’s amazing success, for example, may be his multicultural background: born in Hamburg to a Swedish father and German mother, Lagerfeld works in France and Italy, often commuting between the two countries during the course of the same day. He actually once proclaimed that he would like to be a “one-man multinational fashion phenomenon”, someone who uses a diversity of cultural influences in his collections to make a lasting imprint on the global fashion industry. And his multicultural experiences may help him approach creating fashion collections in ways that his peers cannot match since they won’t have the same diverse perspective that he has.

Educational practices and organizations are increasingly encouraging multicultural experiences among students and professionals. What types of multicultural experience are needed to facilitate greater success in the global marketplace?

Offering courses and study abroad programs as well as international assignments at work have the potential to have a positive effect on the creativity of professionals and their organizations, both in terms of generating new ideas and implementing them as products or services.

However, there is a difference between actually living and working in a foreign country and just travelling or reading about it. For the latter, we don’t always find an effect, at least, on creativity. Living or working abroad is really going to push you to immerse yourself in the new culture and adapt to the new environment, and it is this more flexible and complex mindset that helps determine creative and professional success.

It is important to have what we call a “transformative” experience where you really get deeply involved in the culture, try to change yourself to adapt to the new culture as much as possible.

How can we promote multicultural competence in educational and organizational settings?

Offering subsidies and scholarships for students to study abroad and come back to their country or for companies to send their employees on internationally assignments would be a good incentive. Tax incentives for people to go work internationally would also be a good motivating factor.

As hiring people with international experiences might not always possible, helping companies developing talent internally by facilitating international assignments could be the way to go.

What advice would you give to students and professionals to get the most out of a multicultural experience?

My advice would be to learn as much as you can from your host country by learning the language and spending time with people from that culture. Learn the local ways and try to adapt to the new culture to see the word as people from your host culture see it. If you do that long enough and deeply enough, then you will have a brand new frame of reference from which you can see the world and come up with new ideas.

The original version of this interview has been published on Issue 5 of The New European magazine, The New Pioneers. You can download it for free here.


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