East vs. West: Who wins in the office?

June 30, 2011, 9:00 AM UTC

On the court, at the rink, and at work, the game is played differently depending on where you live. Can two contrasting cultures play nice?

The banners have been unfurled, the trophies have been hoisted, and the NBA and NHL seasons have come to an end. Some say sports hold too much weight in the real world, but there is something to be said for how the team attitudes match the regional dispositions of their people.

On the hardwood, the Western Conference’s Dallas Mavericks used creative teamwork to defeat the result-oriented Miami Heat of the East. And on the ice, the aggressive Boston Bruins of the NHL’s Northeast Division willed themselves to victory over a relaxed pack of skilled Vancouver Canucks from the Northwest.

Likewise in the office, research is proving that these local temperaments are quite accurate. So between the laid-back, creative West Coast mentality and the assertive, all-business East Coast mindset, which would win out? Always bet on the home team, say the experts.

“One of the most consistent findings in the last couple of decades of psychology research is that people are happier in living and working in places that match their personality traits,” says Adam Grant, Ph.D. and Associate Professor of Management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. So, as nice as it is to be around friendly people, disagreeable folks are actually more comfortable when they’re surrounded by like-minded individuals who also thrive on conflict.

Over Jackie Mathys’ 15-year career, the Portland, Ore.-based headhunter with Mathys+Potestio has witnessed this phenomenon firsthand. “If you don’t fit, nothing else matters,” says the creative staffing specialist. “That’s the first test — usually an employer can tell within 60 seconds if a person is a cultural fit.” And in Portland, where salaries are lower and jobs are fewer, that cultural fit is more pronounced because job seekers more often move to Oregon for the lifestyle, not for professional opportunities.

A 2010 study published in Psychological Science showed that people experience enhanced feelings of well being when their personalities match the culture of their new surroundings. But the report also advised companies that are relocating staff not to assume that transplanted workers will be as happy as natives, simply because they moved to a locally-loved location. In order to determine how successful the worker will be in the new area, employers should instead think in advance about whether the person and the region’s culture can make a perfect pairing.

Picking sides

The key to happiness is determining where you fit in best. A well-accepted categorization of personalities, the Five Factor Model, postulates that for all of our differences, there are actually only a handful of universal characteristics: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness.

Springboarding off that research, a 2008 study out of the University of Cambridge and the University of Texas at Austin shows that the East and West Coasts have significant differences in three of those five traits, which explains the contrasts between New Yorkers and the people of Newport Beach.

“Intensity is what I think about when I think about an East Coast lifestyle,” says Nancy King, an executive recruiter also based in Portland, who specializes in tech startups. Because of the East Coast cities’ density, they have an energy of urgency, she says. Meanwhile the West Coast’s open spaces and fewer larger cities encourage a relaxed vibe and lifestyle.

A little angst goes a long way

On the Five Factor Model (FFM), this “energy of urgency” translates to neuroticism. “Neuroticism is the strongest predictor of satisfaction with work and with life,” says Grant. “It is also the biggest difference between East and West.” Because it involves heightened sensitivity to negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, and depression, neurotic people tend to be less happy at work and with life, he says.

This is why West Coasters tend to demonstrate a higher average job satisfaction than those in the East where neuroticism manifests itself in the workplace through lower creativity, as evidenced by lower patent production and innovation rates. The higher the stress, the less focus put on math, engineering, and computers. Heading west, meanwhile, yields lower stress, more patents and innovation, and more attention to math, science and engineering.

Grant does admit that neuroticism is one of the hardest traits on which to show balance, because in most cultures it’s more desirable to be less neurotic. But when it comes to anticipating threats, crisis, and problems, channeling your inner Woody Allen can be advantageous. The anxiety that neuroticism generates is associated with a higher ability to plan and prepare. Neuroticism’s opposite is emotional stability, and believe it or not, recent evidence suggests it’s possible to be too emotionally stable. Being a Zen master may cause you to under-react to negative feedback, crisis, or threats. In other words, you may be too laid back on the job.

Agreeing to disagree

The West Coast’s relaxed vibe is represented by another trait in the FFM: agreeableness. The perceived cooperative, giving, caring, and trusting characteristics of the Pacific set can be highly beneficial for building reputations and relationships. In contrast, a competitive, challenging style helps define the East Coast version of this trait.

Ten years ago, when King worked as a recruiter in banking and finance, she frequently saw each personality. “It’s a manner of decision-making and a leadership style that’s more along the line of, ‘I’m making the decision here, and that’s what we’re going to do,’ versus a style of collaboration and discussion,” she says. “The West Coast executive teams are more involved — there’s more discussion.” Yet being disagreeable has its virtues, such as a stronger tendency to debate over issues and not being afraid to play devil’s advocate.

Open for business

The third characteristic at odds between East and West in the FFM is openness. The best personality for creativity, says Grant, openness tends to thrive more in the West than the East. But being less open can be helpful in terms of establishing consistent routines, having good organizational memory, and learning from the past.

In job interviews between East and West Coasters, however, that conservative approach can backfire. “People from the East Coast want to get down to brass tacks pretty quickly,” says Mathys. “They want to address profitability, return on investment, and what they can do for that employer.” But while that may how business is done, she says it might not be what West Coast hiring managers want to hear.

It all comes back to what Grant sees as a stronger emphasis on professionalism in the East and a much more laidback set of organizational cultures on the West. And while the argument can be made that social media’s shrinking of the world is helping to blend these mentalities — King testifies to an increasing intensity among her West Coast tech clients — no such data has proven this theory out yet. Until it does, you’re best off playing the by the home court rules if you want to win.