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In Space, a Third Culture Rules

How insights from behavioural economics can help solve thorny social issues

For those interested in the secrets of high-performing multicultural teams, the International Space Station (ISS) is like a petri dish. On ISS missions, where there is no room for error, astronauts from several national space agencies must learn how to work together for the common good. It’s a skill that modern organizations are desperate to cultivate. As part of a research project, Guillermo Rico and Christoph Beck interviewed astronauts of seven different nationalities to learn more about how multicultural teams on the ISS are set up for success. Rico and Beck are double-degree students from Copenhagen Business School, completing the Master of International Business at Smith School of Business. The following video transcript has been edited for length.

What We Researched

What motivated us to look at cultural awareness in the context of space exploration was that it was the only environment we could think of where people who are highly qualified and from different nationalities all work together in an isolated environment. Should a cross-cultural issue or conflict occur, they cannot escape the situation. Additionally, space missions are well documented; we know who was on board and for how long.

We interviewed astronauts from four space agencies: NASA, European Space Agency, the Japanese Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. At the end, we had representatives from seven different nationalities.

The Value of Analog Training

Space agencies use a combination of formal diversity training and analog training. At the beginning of an astronaut’s career, he or she will go on a cross-cultural awareness seminar, which usually takes place over two days. Additionally, space agencies allow astronauts from other agencies to immerse themselves in their culture. In Russia, astronauts have the opportunity to live with a Russian family for up to a month to learn Russian in order to learn to communicate effectively on a Russian spacecraft.  

What we found in our conversations with astronauts was that the bulk of cultural awareness training happens in analog training. Here is where they learn how to effectively communicate with one another across cultures.

Analog training is intended to simulate some of the aspects of space flight. It comes in different forms. For example, there are missions in Italy where astronauts conduct science experiments in caves for one to two weeks. Also, as part of the NEEMO mission, astronauts are submerged in a spacecraft underwater for up to two weeks where they perform experiments. In these analog training missions are astronauts from all over the world.

Lessons for Organizations

We wanted to see if cross-cultural issues or conflicts occur in space. The answer is they do not. We found some evidence of cross-cultural conflicts happening during the Mir era but not modern-day missions on the ISS.

Teams on earth can learn a lot from space crews, not only in how they interact but also in the way they train together as a team. For example, each crew member is supposed to be guided by three principles: one, the main goal is mission success; two, crew members are accountable for their own tasks but are expected to help others when they’re done with their responsibilities; and three, each individual’s professionalism should be enough to mitigate any cross-cultural or personal misunderstanding.

For this to work, companies have a role to play. They need to build an organizational culture that allows teams and individuals to develop these characteristics and to build an environment where diversity is seen as an asset. This can be achieved through various extracurricular activities, not ping pong tournaments or parties but team analog training such as escape rooms or team survival exercises. This would be anything that would allow a team to solve problems together.

Challenges in Building a Third Culture

In multinational firms, people from different nationalities usually have varying ways of communicating or views of how individualistic they should be. By building a “third” organizational culture, people know how they’re supposed to behave as a team, for example in evaluating or communicating.

Astronauts have their own third culture, known as the spacefaring culture. They have their own way of building trust or making decisions. When giving feedback, for example, they know they must be respectful but also to the point. If they have an opinion to share, they don’t have to think, I need to tell you this but I also must be careful not to be too rough or too soft. It makes their job easier.

There are challenges even if you have a strong culture of diversity. People coming from different places often have trouble disagreeing with one another. When it comes to disagreeing, Russian astronauts may perceive Japanese astronauts as quiet and not wanting to tell what they’re thinking. Japanese astronauts find Russian and American astronauts antagonistic and confrontational. In Asian cultures, confrontation is viewed as breaking group harmony while Russians are taught that dialogue and debate unifies the group and is the way to come up with better decisions.

We found that the clashes within national cultures were not as big as the clashes among different professions. A scientist from the U.S. and a scientist from Japan may have much more in common than a scientist from the U.S. and an astronaut with a military background.

Culture and Communications

Our research is based on past theory on cultural awareness. There are models that allow us to measure culture on different dimensions. We can pinpoint which cultures use a more high-context language versus a more low-context language. We in North America tend to be much more direct and concise which, for people from high-context cultures such as China or Japan, could come across as rude. That’s something companies and employees should be aware of.