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Business call interactions vary by cultural backgrounds, Rice University research finds

By analyzing the Q&A portions of earnings and conference calls, Rice University researcher found that outlooks and verbiage varied between people with cultural differences. rawpixel.com/Pexels

It's Alibaba's latest earnings call, and CEO Daniel Zhang is fielding questions during a Q&A. An analyst from the U.S. thinks Zhang sounds cautious, and leaves his forecast as is. But another analyst, who grew up in Shanghai as Zhang did, notes a certain cheerful nuance in his tone. After the call, she revises her earnings forecast for Alibaba upward. The market jumps.

It's an anecdote reported from earnings calls time and again: when an analyst and manager both come from the same, collectivist culture, the analyst somehow seems able to discern unspoken meaning in the manager's tone. This ability to detect underlying optimism or pessimism prompts these analysts to adjust their forecasts ⁠— and the market responds.

In a recent study, Rice Business professor Patricia Naranjo proved that this unspoken communication is real. When both analyst and manager in an earnings call come from collectivist cultures ⁠— that is, cultures that prize the group over the individual ⁠— the effect on the market is measurable,

Working with colleagues Francois Brochet of Boston University and Gregory S. Miller and Gwen Yu from the University of Michigan, Naranjo found that after an earnings conference call, markets responded more dramatically to revisions from analysts who had the same, collectivist ethnicity as the C-suite executives who spoke. The results suggest these "intra-cultural analysts" play a key role in getting stock prices to reflect managers' true outlook.

To measure this phenomenon, Naranjo and her team first amassed a sample of English-language earnings conference call transcripts from 2002 to 2012. The calls occurred within the three days around an earnings announcement. The final sample consisted of 57,740 conference calls held by 5,021 unique firms from across the globe.

The 24,901 executives from 42 countries who took part in the calls were mostly CEOs and CFOs, but there were also COOs, CMOs and IROs, among others. Of the managers, six percent were female and ten percent had a post graduate education. The average age of the executives was 52.77.

The researchers began with the premise that ethnicity helps shape an outlook that is either more or less individualistic. The researchers then assigned managers and sell-side analysts to likely ethnic groups, based on first and last names and an ethnicity-name matching technique. Assigned groups included Anglo-Saxon, Chinese, European, Hispanic, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Russian/Slavic, and Vietnamese.

Next, the researchers measured each ethnicity's individualism outlook, using an index based on analysis of 88,000 IBM employees in 72 countries. Unsurprisingly, Anglo-Saxons rated the highest on the individualism scale, followed by Europeans. Koreans and Chinese were the least individualistic, and were categorized as more group-oriented.

Now it was time to test the hypothesis. Did managers from more individualistic cultures have a more optimistic tone during conference calls? The prediction was based on psychology research showing that independent cultures – typically Western ⁠— place more emphasis on influencing individuals through shows of self-confidence and optimism. Because Q&As tend to be more spontaneous than scripted calls, Naranjo and her colleagues zeroed in on the Q&As to conduct their analysis. Their hypothesis proved correct: the managers from individualistic cultures did indeed speak with a more positive tone during the calls. They also used more first-person pronouns as they spoke.

The finding held true even for executives from individualistic cultures who had studied or worked in group-oriented cultures. Though these executives weren't quite as positive-sounding as counterparts who hadn't spent time in group-oriented cultures, the researchers concluded that the cultural traits the executives inherited from their native ethnic group were long-lasting.

Overall, the researchers also found, CEOs tended to speak more positively and use more singular first-person pronouns on average. Female managers used less optimistic language, and older managers tended to adopt a more pessimistic tone, but also used more singular first-person pronouns.

Finally, those analysts who shared a group-oriented cultural background with the managers on a conference call responded more strongly to the managers' tone ⁠— suggesting that they recognized the effect of culture on a speaker's tone of voice. Collectivist managers, as a rule, used less optimistic language.

When Naranjo's team studied individualistic analysts matched with group-oriented managers, the analysts' response was not as strong. Nor was there any pronounced special response when an analyst from a group-oriented culture was paired with an individualistic manager. When analysts are from different backgrounds as managers, in other words, there's no evidence that they will strongly revise a forecast in response to tone.

For investors tuning in to company conference calls, the findings speak volumes. For analysts and executives who share the same, collectivist background, important messages can go unspoken ⁠— and still be understood. Not only that, but when these "intra-cultural analysts" read between the lines and act on their intuitive cultural knowledge, the markets listen. Investors should take note as well.

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This article originally appeared on Rice Business Wisdom.

Patricia Naranjo is an assistant professor of accounting at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Without trust, workplace productivity, reciprocity and cooperation break down, according to this Rice University research. Pexels

While U.S. soldiers battled in Vietnam, inside the White House, President Lyndon Johnson grew increasingly suspicious of those closest to him. The legendary political dealmaker now believed that any opposition to the war was part of a conspiracy against him; aides who questioned his policy might be part of it. According to research using newly available interviews and telephone transcripts, Johnson's distrust may have been triggered by the very experience of being in power.

But how, exactly? In a recent paper, Rice Business professor Marlon Mooijman and a team of colleagues delve deeply into the interaction of power and trust, seeking answers about when and why wielding power degrades leaders' belief in those around them.

The question has deep implications not only in politics, but also in business. "Managers must trust employees' willingness to comply with instructions and keep the company's best interest in mind," Mooijman notes. Without that trust, past research shows, workplace productivity, reciprocity and cooperation break down. Leaders who successfully craft trusting bonds with their coworkers and employees, on the other hand, are more effective than those who don't.

To learn why leaders might abandon that trust, Mooijman's team set up four studies. First, though, they had to establish a working definition of trust. Trust, they proposed, is the willingness to be vulnerable to another party's actions, based on the expectation that the other party will perform a specific action important to the truster — even without the truster's ability to monitor or control the activity. Essential to a trusting relationship: the expectation of the other party's goodwill, and the willingness to expose themselves to possible exploitation if that goodwill fails.

Whether you work in an indie coffee shop or a giant software company, most workers can name a leader who lacks that kind of trust. Many also have had the good luck of a leader who isn't lacking in that department. The difference between such managers, Mooijman's team found, may be the stability of their power.

There are plenty of reasons for wanting to keep power, obviously. In relationships, power holders are able to disregard others' wishes and pursue their own. Within the individual, power boosts self-esteem and encourages behaviors such as expressing amusement and happiness. Less obvious, however, is the effect of fearing a loss of power. Leaders whose power feels unstable experience this physically, with changes in heart rate and blood pressure. They have a heightened awareness of colleagues they perceive as threats, and are more prone to divide coworkers and disrupt their alliances.

When power holders or leaders perceive their power to be unstable, it's that prospect of power loss that erodes their trust in those around them, even helpful and often unsuspecting colleagues. So strong is this effect that it occurs even when the loss of power comes with an economic benefit, Mooijman notes. "Unstable power decreases trust," the team found, "regardless of whether we provided participants with a justification of their unstable position."

To reach their conclusions, Mooijman's team first surveyed 206 participants assembled through Amazon's Mechanical Turk software. Each participant was randomly assigned a power ranking (high or low) and asked to imagine being a VP of sales at a mid-sized firm. Some were told that as part of a productivity initiative they would be reassigned to other divisions. The participants were then asked to rank their perception of their power at their firm and their perception of their job stability there. Regardless of whether their job reassignment was explained or not, the researchers found, the participants who perceived their jobs — that is, their power — to be unstable showed more mistrust of their coworkers.

A final study, a field experiment with real life managers and subordinates, reinforced these findings. Managers in positions of relatively high power who perceived their jobs were unstable were more prone to voice distrust about their subordinates.

While instability is built into political careers, Mooijman's findings have practical implications in other industries. For example, the common practice of moving workers between departments, meant to build insight and productivity, may backfire. Instead of strengthening team spirit, the strategy will likely foment distrust. Similarly, at high levels of power, emphasizing job instability with tactics such as high-stakes, winner-take-all performance metrics might be counterproductive.

Power doesn't always erode trust, the researchers found. Leaders who felt their power was secure didn't show the same level of suspicion as those who felt their roles were insecure. But when power seems fragile, the research revealed, even the most seasoned leaders are prone to abandon trust in their colleagues and see work as a battlefield.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Marlon Mooijman is an assistant professor in the management department (organizational behavior division) at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.