Culture Matters When it comes to Stressors and Strains

Topic:  Culture, Self Efficacy, Work Environment
Publication: Applied Psychology: An International Review (JAN 2010)
ArticleA cross-national examination of self-efficacy as a moderator of autonomy/job
strain relationships

Authors: M.M. Nauta, C. Liu, and C. Li
Reviewed By: Benjamin Granger

In work settings, autonomy refers to the degree of control that employees have over their work.  While research has generally shown that low levels of autonomy are stressful to employees (i.e., leads them to experience strain), this is not necessarily true for all employees.  Indeed, employees who are confident in their ability to exercise control over their lives and work environments (i.e., high generalized self-efficacy) appear to be buffered from the negative effects of low autonomy.  However, most of the research on this topic has been conducted in North America and it is unclear whether these findings are consistent across cultures.

Recently, Nauta, Liu, and Li (2010) explored whether culture plays a role in determining how employees respond to low (vs. high) levels of autonomy and self-efficacy. The authors chose to compare American and Chinese employees because they typify individualistic and collectivistic cultures respectively.

That is, employees in the U.S. tend to be more individualistic and place a heavier focus on independence, while Chinese employees tend to be more collectivistic and place a heavier focus on the needs of the group to which they belong. Nauta, Liu, and Li collected data from a wide range of university employees working at a large university in the U.S. and three universities in China.

Much like U.S. employees, low levels of autonomy appear to make highly efficacious Chinese employees uncomfortable. In other words, for employees who feel confident that they can effectively exert control over their work environment, not being able to do so is stressful (regardless of culture).

However, Nauta et al. discovered an interesting difference in how American and Chinese employees, low in self-efficacy, react to autonomy. In other words, American employees who lack confidence in their ability to exert control over their work find low levels of autonomy stressful, while Chinese employees who lack such confidence find high levels of autonomy stressful.

These findings are particularly pertinent to organizations operating globally. If nothing else, Nauta et al.’s study is a reminder that management policies and job characteristics in one country or culture may not have the same effects in another country or for another culture.

Nauta, M.M., Liu, C., & Li, C. (2010). A cross-national examination of self-efficacy as a moderator of autonomy/job strain relationships. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 59(1), 159-179.