Sherif al-Qallawi on Egyptian Work Culture

I-O psychology is WEIRD: Most of our research is conducted with samples of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies. How confident can we be that our evidence generalizes to non-WEIRD workplaces around the world? To gain some insight on that question, I asked our friend Sherif al-Qallawi (TwitterLinkedIn) to talk about the Egyptian workplace and how it differs from workplaces in North American and Western Europe.


This is an AI-enabled transcript and may not be completely accurate. Please do not quote myself or any of my guests based on this transcript.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  00:01

Welcome to the Department 12 Podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Ben Butina, and in case you haven’t noticed, I-O psychology is pretty weird. By that, I mean, most of our research is conducted with samples of Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic societies weird, specifically, North America and Western Europe. Over the past 100 years or so, we’ve built up an impressive body of evidence about workplace behavior. But how confident can we be that our evidence generalizes to workplaces around the world? To gain some insight on that question, I asked our friend Sharif to talk a little bit about the Egyptian workplace. In case you didn’t catch the last episode, here, Sharif’s introduction.

Sherif al-Qallawi  00:50

My name is Sherif Ali-Qallawi. I’m a fourth year PhD student at Florida Tech in the I-O program. And I have recently passed my comps, so now I’m officially a Ph.D. candidate and I live in Melbourne, Florida.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  01:06

Sharif was born in Egypt and has spent most of his working life there before coming to the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship. So he’s in a good place to talk about the differences between work cultures in the U.S. and Egypt.

Sherif al-Qallawi  01:19

That is a big cultural difference between the Egyptian workforce and U.S. workforce. So one of the differences is that we have a more collectivistic orientation kind of culture. And we are more thinking about others and how do how do they think when we do any action or take any decisions. And this is in contrast to the individualistic type of structure that we usually have in the US. So that affects a lot of decisions and out of the practices that companies implement, whether to compensate people whether to like reward them, or sometimes to make them learn about a topic. So we usually focus on group based interventions. So that makes us maybe think of how can we make something that rewards the majority of people? Or how can we take decisions that affects a larger numbers are even if this was at the cost of personnel advantage, sometimes.

So this can be a double edged weapon, because sometimes you might accept to not talk about an issue that you’re having with your supervisor, for example, because you perceive them to be of a high authority and you wouldn’t really want to, like, go beyond them or tell their superiors about what is really happening. This kind of hierarchy style is very clear in Egypt, but here it can be really easy to talk to superiors and to have an open door policy, which is kind of different in terms of the dynamics of the workplace, and what you can expect From employees in terms of initiatives and listed taking creativity most of the time, this can be within the team and can be represented by the supervisor in the Egyptian culture.

But here it’s more about everyone is living in some kind of an egalitarian workplace where you where everyone can have his his or her own input. So these are all kinds of differences that can happen within the mind of any employee that makes them take different types of decisions and can make the relationship with the company different in terms of loyalty and working as a company for so many years, like 10 years or more, for example, but in the US, you usually want to think about how each employee would like to think that situation and that is a major difference in terms of planning and designing practices for HR or for IO psychology, for employees because you tend to think more about the industry. Part of it. I think this is the middle part of the difference between both cultures when thinking about the workplace.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  04:08

So Western culture tends to be more individualistic. So naturally, our workplaces reflect this orientation and our research follow suit. topics like group versus individual level interventions, compensation incentives motivation, it seems reasonable to suspect that some of what we know about the workplace behavior in our weird workplaces might not apply elsewhere. Consider our theories around leadership, for example, as Sharif talks about management practices in Egypt,

Sherif al-Qallawi  04:40

And the other thing is that we have some kind of paternalistic leadership in Egypt, in which you feel that your boss is not only your boss, he can be your friend and he can be kind of, let’s say, your father, who not only supervises your activities, but who can also support you on your personal life and he can give you or she can give you like personal advice and maybe attend your personal events with you. So this kind of personal life involvement, in addition to the work related supervision is also another distinction through just kind of paternalistic leadership.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  05:19

Another way that national culture influences work culture is our attitude about time. I recently read a study, for example, on the negative effects of being late for meetings, being five minutes late for a meeting in the US or Germany, for example, can create resentment from colleagues. But, is the same true in Egypt?

Sherif al-Qallawi  05:40

And another distinction, I think, is the way that you think about time so most of Egyptians time in a more flexible way than the US. I think that when we usually have some kind of appointment or meeting time, you A lot of people think that this is the time of the gathering gets up, and not really the time where the meeting should start. So usually we would have meetings that is to start at five, but it takes us some time to start the meeting, it could start at 530, or at a different time when everyone is ready to start the meeting.

And this was one of the major cultural differences that I found here when I came to the US because at that time, I was late to a lecture I think by around five minutes or something like that in the beginning, and I thought, okay, it’s only five minutes, I think I will be arriving before everyone else. And I found that the lecture has already started and everyone was ready and they were already discussing a specific topic into the lecture. So that was some kind of a shock to me when it comes to the difference between how we perceive time and different other factors in the Egyptian culture and us culture.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  07:01

Aside from time orientation, there are also profound differences in the way we communicate. And I don’t just mean the differences in language

Sherif al-Qallawi  07:09

In Egypt, we have some kind of indirect communication, which is we don’t like to get to the point by the chick want to provide some kind of introduction to you and to try to ease our way into this point. And what was like additional context before we tell you what you need to do. This was totally different here they was where we have more of a direct kind of communication you directly say what you want or what you feel or what you think of others most of the time. So this was a major difference between this indirect communication attitude.

Also I think one of the major things that I’ve noticed is some kind of like business development mindset that is extending to other countries here in most of us. defines the employees or the founders or the owners here in the US exchange ideas with people from other nationalities. So they can think about how can we extend it to other countries? And what will others think of our service? So you try to accommodate the business culture to be working with as many countries or cultures as possible or with other organizations from around the world. But in Egypt, maybe we are more focused about the local workforce, or how can we extend our relations to the Middle East, but not so much in terms of cooperation with other countries since we don’t have lots of nationalities are working in Egypt, like we have in here in New York, or California, for example. So that kind of mindset was also different between the two countries.

Ben Butina, Ph.D.  08:49

Research from across psychology subdisciplines suggests that weird samples are meaningfully different from the rest of the world in basic things like visual perception, spatial reason And even the heritability of IQ. So when it comes to even more specific topics like workplace behavior, I think it pays to be skeptical about the generalizability of our evidence based other cultures.

As work psychology gains traction globally, we may find systemic solutions to this problem. In the meantime, there just aren’t any shortcuts. You have to think critically about every research finding you hope to apply. And the specific culture you’re working in. Learning about other cultures is crucial and I hope we can do more of it on this show. More from Sharif in our next episode, talk to you then.