Great Expectations: How Broader Norms Shape Professional and Personal Choices for Asians

Great Expectations: How Broader Norms Shape Professional and Personal Choices for Asians

By SMU City Perspectives team

Published 20 June, 2024


Our expectations shape our reality. What we want from our jobs, managers, employees, partners, and even the country profoundly affect how successful and satisfied we feel. Research shows that Asians tend to have more broad expectations than people in the West, and this shapes important choices both in personal and professional domains.

Shilpa Madan

Assistant Professor of Marketing, Singapore Management University 

In brief

  1. Normative standards refer to the number of criteria that something needs to meet to be considered ‘ideal’, such as a job or employee
  2. Broad normative standards lead people to evaluate their options more carefully and to reject options that do not fully meet their long list of requirements, even when it is costly to do so 
  3. People from Asian cultures tend to have broader normative standards than those from Western cultures

What does an “ideal job” mean to you? The definition of an ‘ideal job’ or product or partner is different for everyone. Some may have more requirements than others, for instance, some people may need their ‘ideal job’ to pay well, have health benefits, and be easily accessible by public transport; whereas some may only need it to pay well. 

Assistant Professor Shilpa Madan sat down to discuss her research about how  Asians tend to want their ideal jobs, products, partners, homes and so on to fulfil more criteria than Westerners, and their far-reaching consequences for people and companies alike. As she shared how she came to the study of normative standards - and not just norms - she also uncovered insights how these standards work in different cultures. 

Q: What led you to do research into normative standards?

Asst Prof Shilpa Madan: Before starting my Ph.D., I worked as a global marketing manager for a major organisation. I developed advertising and products for diverse markets, from the United States and Brazil to China, Malaysia, Vietnam, and India, focusing on fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) like shampoos and body washes. Developing products for different consumers began with creating concepts, followed by crafting advertising copy, selecting fragrances and packaging, and sometimes featuring a beautiful actress on the package.

The biggest difference I noticed was between consumers in North America and those in Asia. Consumers in India, China, Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam were much more demanding, wanting multiple benefits in one body wash, whereas North American consumers were content with one or two “hero” benefits.

This experience led me to think about how people have different ideals, whether for body wash, jobs, partners, and more. This idea sparked my project on the differences in what we consider 'good' or 'ideal' in various aspects of life.

Q: Your research looks into ‘normative standards’, could you explain what a normative standard is? 

Asst Prof Shilpa Madan: A normative standard refers to the criteria something must meet to be considered good or ideal. For example, consider what makes a good student. If you say a good student has a GPA of 3.7 or above, you're using narrow normative standards focused on grades.

In contrast, someone else might say that to be a good student, one requires a good GPA, participation in extracurricular activities, straight A's, and piano skills. This is an example of broad normative standards.

Our contribution with this research lies in investigating the breadth of normative standards—the number of criteria involved. While research has often focused on the level of standards (e.g., what constitutes a 'high' GPA), it has overlooked the breadth—how many criteria are included.

Q: Your study found that Indian and Singaporean normative standards in several domains need to satisfy more criteria than Western ideals, like Americans or the British. Could you elaborate on this?

Asst Prof Shilpa Madan:  In our study, we analysed e-commerce data to show that people in Asia have broader normative standards than those in the West. We compared the top-selling body washes in Singapore and the United Kingdom, both English-speaking countries, ensuring no loss in translation.

Our theory was that if marketing managers noticed differences between Asian and Western consumers, then Asian body washes should offer more benefits. We examined the packages of the 100 best-selling body washes in both countries, listing the benefits they claimed. We found that the top body washes in Singapore listed more benefits in their advertising copy than those in the UK.

This indicates that product managers need to understand their audience. Asian consumers are more demanding than their Western counterparts regarding what a product should offer. Therefore, it's crucial to create products that meet these expectations and to use effective advertising to communicate these benefits.

Q: Do these normative standards apply to how organisations search for applicants?

Asst Prof Shilpa Madan: Managers, hiring managers or human resources managers always have a picture of an ideal employee in their head when they're posting job ads on portals like LinkedIn. This is reflected in job ads they post on LinkedIn, for instance. If you see job ads on LinkedIn, they will have a list of criteria a candidate must meet to apply for the job. Following this idea, we believed that HR Managers in Asia would have a broader normative standard than those in the West. 

So in our study, we looked at 24 American companies that have a large presence and offices in India. We found matching positions from the same companies in both India and America and compared the number of qualifications or the criteria listed on LinkedIn. We found that job postings for the same role, for the same company, listed in India required applicants to fulfil more criteria (i.e. qualifications) than the listing in the US.

Q: What effect do normative standards have on people?

Asst Prof Shilpa Madan: Normative standards can shape how we think and act. The two specific outcomes we focused on were attention to details and tendency to maximise.

Let's say you were a recruiter and your criteria for a good employee is an individual who has a high GPA and some extracurricular activities. With this narrow normative standard, it becomes easy to shortlist candidates. 

However, if instead of having only two criteria, you have a broad set of eight. It becomes harder to shortlist candidates, because you have to pay more attention to whether people meet your expectations. By the time you are done, you will have a much deeper understanding of these candidates than you would have had if you had only two criteria or a narrow normative standard.

The other downstream consequence is the tendency to maximise. We found that people who hold broad normative standards are more likely to keep searching for what they’re looking for because it's very difficult to meet all their desired criteria. If you’re a recruiter with broad normative standards, you’re going to spend more time looking for a candidate that checks off most or all of your criteria compared with a recruiter with narrow normative standards.

Q: What are some findings managers should be concerned with?

Asst Prof Shilpa Madan: Broad normative standards can be a double-edged sword. While we found that broad normative standards can make people more detail-oriented (which is usually a good thing), we also found that managers who held broad normative standards were more likely to micromanage their employees because they are always checking boxes.

The employees who work under managers with broader normative standards are more likely to report and feel bad that they're being micromanaged. As we know, employees who feel micromanaged are more likely to feel burnt out, find their jobs less satisfying, and more likely to quit the organisation.

So it is important for managers and leaders, especially in Asia, to prevent their attention to detail from becoming micromanagement. 

Wanting to maximise can also become counterproductive. When people have broad normative standards, they want to tick off all the boxes which can take a lot more time and effort, leaving people with little sense of closure as time goes on, feeling tired and burdensome.

Q: How can marketing managers and those in Human Resources use your insights for their benefit?

Asst Prof Shilpa Madan: The broad implications are that we need to be aware of the normative standards of our target market. Consumers in Asia, who typically have more broad normative standards expect more from their purchases. This means that marketing managers and brands will have to put more effort, money and resources into designing and promoting these products. This also applies in the context of recruitment and performance management.

First, what business leaders choose to have as normative standards is an important strategic decision. This is because normative standards can deeply affect an organisation’s ability to staff and retain its talent. First, the normative standards that managers have for new employees in their team will determine the number of candidates who can apply for that job. 

Second, the breadth of manager’s normative standards determines how they conduct appraisals. A manager with a more broad normative standard will evaluate their subordinates on many more criteria (thus, making an excellent rating harder to achieve) than a manager who holds narrow normative standards.

What insights come to mind?

What insights come to mind?

Click to respond and see what others think too

What makes you skeptical?

We read every single story, comment and idea; and consolidate them into insights for our writer community.

What makes you curious?

We read every single story, comment and idea; and consolidate them into insights for our writer community.

What makes you optimistic?

We read every single story, comment and idea; and consolidate them into insights for our writer community.

What makes you on the fence?

We read every single story, comment and idea; and consolidate them into insights for our writer community.

Story successfully submitted.

Story successfully submitted.

Thank you for your story. We'll be consolidating all stories to kickstart a discussion portal in our next release. Subscribe to get updates on its launch.

I consent to SMU collecting, using and disclosing my personal data to provide information relating to XXX offered by SMU that I am signing up for/that I have indicated my interest in.

I can find out about my rights and choices and how my personal data is used and disclosed here.

Methodology & References
  1. Madan, S., Basu, S., Ng, S., & Savani, K. (2022). The breadth of normative standards: Antecedents and consequences for individuals and organizations. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 172, 104181.