ICAP Panel Debate, 27 June 2018: Can psychology be effectively practiced across country borders?

Panellists: Dr Angela Carter, Hazel McLaughlin, Professor Barbara Kozusznik, Professor Liudmila Karamushka & Professor Mare Teichmann

Every four years the International Congress of Applied Psychology (ICAP) meets to discuss the current issues in research and applied psychology. This year it is being held in Montreal, Canada bringing together psychologists from all over the world. Yesterday there was a lively debate on the application of psychology in an international context. The session was attended by Industrial and Organisational Psychologists, but also by other divisions including Educational and Clinical as well as Academic Psychologists. Participants represented all continents; North and South America, Europe, Australasia, Asia and Africa and included countries such as Indonesia, China, New Zealand, USA, Canada, Brazil, Algeria, Poland, Germany, UK and Albania.

Applied psychologists provide services outside their country of origin providing interventions to clients who may come from different cultures and speak different languages. There is a need to step back, reflect and examine the effectiveness of cross-border practice providing a deeper appreciation of the challenges and opportunities for psychology across frontiers.

As Hazel McLaughlin highlighted in support of the motion: ‘Increasingly psychologists work with global organisations who operate in many countries and where cross cultural interaction is the norm. There is an expectation that leaders will be local to their national environment but act global. They are often expected to adopt the prevailing organisational culture rather than to focus on their national culture and behaviours. In this context global leadership and behavioural expectations require a degree of fit to international norms and psychologists have a significant role to play in this context.”

Hazel highlighted global consultancy and coaching assignments specifically focused on the cross country and global lens. She expanded on the issues around cultural sensitivity: “Psychologists need to be culturally aware; sensitive to cultural differences e.g., the outspoken Dutch manager or the relationship-based manager from Dubai, but also supportive of these leaders so that they can contribute and be successful in the global organisation. Psychologists can do this by providing data, evidence and information that can support these leaders to be successful. So psychologists can provide different development approaches, psychometric data and such activities as talent management practice and development centres that support the global executives. Indeed, the research indicates that there are greater differences in personality within national groups than across national groups. So people are people no matter their country of origin.”

But the challenges are great as Angela Carter pointed out:

Working in different languages can have an impact on peoples’ understanding particularly of the importance of topics and critical analysis; such as this debate may be more difficult to explore to get below the surface if we are not speaking a common language. Indeed, empowering workers/learners to take on tasks and lead discussion can be difficult for those from different cultures and not wishing to “loose face” or appear to forward in a group where they feel lower in status.”

In addition, Angela highlighted that; “power relationships as experienced in a developmental or learning environment may make a level of critique and reflection difficult. For example delegates from UAE and China may not want to discuss issues with peers but prefer to listen only to the trainer altering the process of learning that may be designed in practice.”

The debate was lively and informative. Communication is a central issue; e.g. Indonesia has over 300 local languages. Psychologists must be sensitive to the communication challenges in order to make psychology effective across cultures. Time is needed to get to know people and to be sensitive to their interpretation of information and their understanding of the issues; finding commonality is essential. There may be ‘awkward’ moments but be tolerant. When we look at operating across borders, psychologists have a role in the wider remit too; with e.g. refugees, looking at areas such as health and broader managerial support.

Research is important and it is essential to have common books and data especially on topics such as leadership. There is a difficulty around over generalising; e.g. applying data in one country and assuming that it will work in another; context and culture need to be taken into account. There is a need for more international co-operation on areas such as hiring on an international level. So it is important to take time and to be prepared to understand the other cultures and be aware of differences.

Psychologists are increasingly showing willingness to work across borders and to appreciate that you will not always get it right first time. The next steps are to focus on common goals, to stick to the basics and to undertake research that is cross cultural and in context. With more sharing of practice and case studies, psychologists can learn and build on best practice to enhance the overall impact.

The focus now is on a framework for cross cultural working for psychologists and a white paper through the Alliance on Cross Border Working for psychologist to share best practice and gain commitment to action.

As Hazel McLaughlin concludes; “Awareness of language and cultural differences can support the relationships between psychologists and leaders. Psychologists need to be mindful of differences and adapt our behaviour to the needs of the environment. Language skills are good in this context but they are not enough. There is a need to appreciate different cultures and enable people to interact effectively in different environments. Understanding the cultural lens is vital to success of ‘Psychologie Sans Frontier.”

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