Trigger Events in InterCultural Sensemaking Joyce Osland

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Trigger Events in InterCultural Sensemaking
Joyce Osland

San Jose State Unviersity
Allan Bird

University of Missouri-St. Louis
Allison Gundersen

Case Western Reserve University


In a global economy intercultural adaptability is an important skill for anyone working across cultures. We adopt a social cognitive approach to explain trigger events – occasions that lead people to notice cultural differences – which in turn generate opportunities for intercultural sensemaking. Because the trigger event construct has received little attention and scant empirical study since its conception, we performed a multidisciplinary review of trigger event definitions, resulting in an explicated list of characteristics. In a process model, we delineate four moderators of the arousal-attention dynamic as well as threshold moderators of situational characteristics that may constitute triggers leading to intercultural sensemaking. We position trigger events within the larger context of intercultural adaptation and effectiveness.

Trigger Events in InterCultural Sensemaking
The range of what we think and do

Is limited by what we fail to notice.

And because we fail to notice

That we fail to notice,

There is little we can do

To change

Until we notice

How failing to notice

Shapes our thoughts and deeds.

- R.D. Laing

An American was on a short-term assignment in Germany, a country with which he had little personal experience. As he rode the bus or walked through the streets, he was surprised that people ignored the nods and smiles he sent in their direction. Although he didn’t take their reaction personally, he was both puzzled and uncomfortable by this unexpected behavior. He drew on previous experiences in Japanese culture where people sometimes avoid meeting strangers, thereby avoiding the incurrence of more obligations, but this felt very different. After a while, he asked a trusted German friend to explain the lack of greeting behavior. Since the German had no quick explanation, the American began to quiz him, trying to figure out in what specific situations Germans interact in this manner. He developed a working hypothesis about the development of intimacy in German culture, which he tested out with his German subordinates. Over time, the American also began to see a pattern in other behavioral contexts – for example, the relations between those with authority and those without and the way junior colleagues adjusted their behavior when speaking with senior colleagues. Eventually he saw the lack of greetings to strangers on the street as part of a larger cultural pattern of social distance. Once he understood the pattern, he stopped nodding and smiling, stopped expecting this behavior from others, and ceased to reflect on it.

What prompted the American to pause and try to figure out the German behavior he observed? The absence of expected behavior served as a trigger event that initiated a period of focused cultural sensemaking. Recent research into the intercultural adaptability of expatriates has taken a social cognitive approach, focusing specifically on the processes by which managers make sense of culturally different behaviors (Osland & Bird, 2000). However, as Starbuck and Milliken (1988) insightfully point out, “If events are noticed, people make sense of them and if events are not noticed, they are not available for sensemaking” (Starbuck & Milliken, 1988: 60). Our current investigation focuses on “trigger” events in understanding what factors and conditions evoke intercultural sensemaking behaviors and cognitions in intercultural settings.

Within the realm of managerial research, the trigger concept has remained largely unaddressed since Louis (1980) and Louis and Sutton’s (1991) seminal work on surprise and sensemaking. Consequently, few organizational scholars have empirically examined the concept or elaborated upon it conceptually. One exception is Maitlis and Lawrence’s (2008) study of conditions that trigger sensegiving in organizations. While some research on intercultural competence has focused more extensively on conditions that prompt mindfulness (cf., Berger & Douglas, 1982; Ting-Toomey, 1999) and the processes surrounding unexpected behavior and their outcomes for people in intercultural interactions (cf., Storti, 1990), it, too, has left the nature of trigger events largely unexplored. Therefore, this topic is important for both theoretical and practical reasons. First, a multidisciplinary review and synthesis of prior work may lead to a clearer conceptualization of trigger events and elaborate multiple facets of the phenomenon. Second, a more thorough understanding of the role of trigger events that incorporates cognitive considerations in intercultural sensemaking and a delineation of the process could contribute to intercultural training and coaching. Accurate cultural sensemaking is an essential element of effective global leadership (Osland, Bird, Osland, & Oddou, 2007).

In the next section, we review and synthesize the definitions and treatment of trigger events in various disciplines that utilize this concept. This is followed by an explanation of sensemaking and its distinctive characteristics within the intercultural context. We present a process model of trigger events in intercultural sensemaking and conclude with implications for future research and practice.

Understanding Trigger Events

In an organizational context, a trigger event has been defined as an interruption in a cognitive flow (Weick, 1995); however, many disciplines – e.g., chemistry, computer science, operations research, psychology, education, and so forth -- have developed their own definitions of trigger events. For example, in chemistry, a trigger event is characterized by a chemical reaction or phase transition, whereas in education it is defined as a “disorienting dilemma”; in intercultural communication, it is a “culture bump” that indicates unexpected behavior and in computer science, it is a set of rules that identify exceptionality. A multidisciplinary literature review led to the exploration and synthesis of the varied definitions and applications, resulting in the following explication of various trigger event characteristics.

Trigger events deviate from expectations. Louis (1980) identified one category of trigger events, describing them as surprises or discrepancies from expected or deliberate initiatives to pay attention because one does not know what to expect (Louis & Sutton, 1991). Archer (1986), for example, coined the term “culture bump” to refer to a cultural difference that causes a disruption in thinking or behavior flow, which is grounded in expectations stemming from the normal situational behavior learned within one’s own culture.

Trigger events are disruptions to a stable state that lead to a new state. Trigger events are described as perturbations that are responsible for moving a system from an initial state to a final goal state (Senglaub, 2001). For instance, an automated military training program that models commander’s intent1 uses trigger events to move a system from a starting condition through a series of intermediate states to a final goal state (Senglaub, 2001).

Trigger events prompt changes in direction or trajectory. In artificial intelligence, computer science, and engineering, trigger events are rules that identify exceptionality and signal that a change in function is needed. In a similar vein, decision making in operations research views trigger events as changes in environmental circumstances or as new information that activates further decisions and/or alterations in course (Joosten, 1994). For instance, expert schedulers use “'broken-leg' cues as a decision making trigger event, i.e., an event or information that alters the certainty of a standard determinant event” (McKay, Buzacott, Charness & Safayeni, 1992). On an organizational level, triggers events may lead to a change in strategic direction as a response to internal or external stimuli (Walsh & Ungson, 1991).

Trigger events initiate previously learned responses. Some trigger events are viewed simply as behavioral or emotional prompts of the stimulus-response variety. As used in social work (Humair & Ward, 1998; Parker & Randall, 1996), trigger events in operant conditioning, are formulated as situations that activate negative behaviors. For example, identifying triggers is often a fundamental component of smoking cessation and addiction programs. Once the trigger-response linkage is understood, the trigger can be eliminated or avoided, or the response behavior can be modified.

Trigger events can be multiple. Multiple triggers can occur within the same interactive affective and behavioral incident, especially as humans react and interact with others. For instance, Lewis argues that triggers in emotional sensemaking, what he calls “emotion appraisal,” can define the onset of an emotional episode, as well “as any point in an ongoing appraisal-emotion stream” (Lewis, 2004: 27). For example, in a merger, a female manager from the acquired firm was offended by a pushy male executive from the acquiring company. Her forceful response elicited more aggressive behavior on the executive’s part. The initial action and the subsequent responses that marked their escalating conflict and disintegrating relationship constituted multiple trigger events. Triggers, therefore, can modify the ongoing sensemaking, replacing it or extending it, based on the current context and state of the individual (Lewis, 2004).

Trigger events can be accumulative. Accumulative trigger events can take two forms. A persistent cue or signal may come to be seen as a disruption, as noted in research on problem detection (Billings, Milburn & Schaalman, 1980). For example, repeated complaints from the same supplier may eventually prompt corrective action. An accumulative trigger may also result from multiple disparate cues in aggregation (Cowan, 1986), such as the employee who ultimately realizes that he should start looking for a new job after observing a series of events: slow promotion decisions that were formerly automatic, buy-out rumors in the press, decreased stock prices, and a superstar employee who jumps ship.

Trigger events can be transformative, leading to deeper understanding and higher consciousness. In transformational learning, trigger events are called “disorienting dilemmas” that lead students to self-examination, to critically question their beliefs and assumptions and, eventually, to adopt a new perspective on their experience or the world, moving to a new paradigm (Cranton, 1994; Mezirow, 1991; 1997; 2000).

The common thread running through these many definitions and aspects is that a trigger event is an interruption in a previously stable state or coherent flow that initiates a response, leading to a new state. When trigger events involve cognition, that new state may involve sensemaking, learning and, possibly, transformation.

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