How our Education Shapes our Work Style

It might be hard to admit, but the education we received as children inevitably catches up to help or haunt us. Somewhere amidst the Pledge of Allegiance, kickball and note-passing, we formed habits and perspectives that followed us to the workforce.

How does primary education differ between countries, and how can a company recognize and use these differences to their fullest potential?

Respect for Authority

Whether we drag them out to happy hour or dread the approach of their footsteps, it’s crucial to know where we stand with authority. In China, a heavily delineated hierarchy is engrained at an early age, starting in preschool. Rarely will a student challenge the teacher, or raise a question in the middle of class without feeling afraid or guilty of wasting time. Children much prefer approaching their teachers at the end of class, even if it means waiting in a line of students who have the same question. Though one employee from Mexico felt that students there are very rambunctious, a similar hierarchy makes it hard for them to communicate with teachers, causing a general mood of apathy, and what locals call the “law of minimum effort.” Then there’s Sweden, where teachers make it a point to single out and push students out of their comfort zone if they don’t contribute.

This difference translates to the working world – while some bosses prefer to instill fear in their employees, others want to be seen as peers. An employee’s flexibility towards different managing style can be felt throughout the office, and for a boss, knowing how your employee sees you lets you know what’s motivating them to work and how they prefer to communicate. Are they more likely to share their uncensored opinion, or maintain strict personal and professional boundaries? How would they react in times of uncertainty, or conflict?

Solving problems vs. finding problems

Learning style is highly determined by a school system’s testing style. Both Chinese and Mexican students are motivated by a punishment-driven system, but for the former, rote memorization reigns. Memorizing formulas or replicating pages of historical texts is all you need to move up in the ranks, which are publically announced to motivate and create competition. However, in Mexico and Sweden, process also matters as much as the final product. Teachers assess every step, including research, logic, teamwork, execution and the deliverable. By the time they start working, students feel equipped and confident to handle unpredictable or creative tasks.

Employees have to deliver on ‘test day’, but how they understand and execute the process often affects the final outcome. To manage those with different learning styles, communicating a clear desired result saves time in the long run. Knowing each individual’s strengths and the style of management they are comfortable with will make it easier to create a work environment that lets them perform to their highest level.

How does primary education differ between countries, and how can a company recognize and use these differences to their fullest potential?

Individual vs. group

Love it or hate it, group work is necessary to some extent in all companies, and how we see it is often a reflection of our childhood education. Mexican schools favor a collaborative environment, teaching kids that an individual is only as successful as the larger community. We see this carry through to the workforce, where two-hour lunches foster strong social skills and require employees to be proactive. On the other hand, students from Iran often find group work unproductive, and prefer indirect forms of communication such as email.

In addition to bringing in their educational background, they must also coexist in an office’s own unique culture. One way to overcome barriers is to build your own culture, which can level the playing field and rally employees to speak up and create new ideas.

After the school day ends

Judging by the way students manage their time in Japan and Iran, it’s no surprise that adults are also accustomed to burning the midnight oil. After school, kids often attend back-to-back activities, tutoring and “cram schools” that are packed to the gills. On the other hand, Swedish kids tend to come home to a whole evening free of academic obligations. Perhaps this is why Swedish companies are adamant about taking two coffee breaks every day and turning off the lights at 6 pm. For the most part, it seems that employees appreciate companies that encourage a healthy work-life balance and value their personal time outside the office.

Credit where it’s due

Work doesn’t just end when the project does – now comes the question of who takes credit. While the flattened hierarchy and demographic nature of Sweden makes it easier to challenge authority, students and employees also lose valuable time waiting for everyone to agree. Being born and bred in a group atmosphere makes it harder to take credit for one’s personal skills and accomplishments. Employees who grew up in Mexico also feel the challenge of replacing ‘we’ with ‘I’ without feeling like they’re showing off or overselling, but find that it’s imperative in North American culture, where modesty is often misinterpreted as weakness. Learning how to read between the lines and helping employees communicate their skills and passions can reveal what they have to offer.

It behooves companies that want to work with global leaders to not only value these differences, but also champion them in each individual’s work. It can be challenging working with someone from across the hall, let alone from across the world, but those who can leverage unique perspectives are the ones better equipped to optimize strategy, policy, production and innovation in the long run.

the author

Idris Mootee

Idris Mootee is the publisher and editor-in-chief of MISC and CEO of Idea Couture. See his full bio here.