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Ethnocentrism: Major Effect On Organizational Behavior

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Autor:  anton  13 January 2011
Tags:  Ethnocentrism,  Effect,  Organizational,  Behavior
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Ethnocentrism: Major Effects on Organizational Behavior


This research paper defines the term ethnocentrism as a means to make assumptions or judgments about other cultures from one’s own point of view. This paper details the various problems that an ethnocentric view presents when dealing with different cultures. The effects of cultural diversity on organizational behavior are complex and powerful. This paper will also explain that a diverse workforce, which represents a changing world and marketplace, is important to organizations in the creation of competitive environment and an enhancement of work productivity. Increasingly, more and more large corporations are implementing diversity training programs to educate employees and managers alike as to the advantages and benefits of a diverse workforce.

The Definition of Ethnocentrism

Encyclopedia Britannica (2000) states that Ethnocentrism derives from the Greek word Ethnos meaning race, people or cultural group, and Kentrikos meaning concentrated about or directed to a center is a word that greatly describes many cultures. Ethnocentrism is a controversial issue which has been present for millennia. It has occurred all over the world, and has taken many different forms. Ethnocentrism is generally defined as the popular belief that the ethnicity of a person is superior (or more central to the Human Race as a whole) than any other ethnicity. Ethnocentrism keeps us from learning more about other cultures as well as learning more about ourselves. We as humans are ethnocentric. We make false assumptions based on our limited experiences. If our own experience is the only “reality” we have, then it is normal to assume it is the “natural” basis or reality as we believe our own ways work for us. This research paper will discuss cultural ethnocentrism, the negative effects of ethnocentrism, culture and cultural differences, ethnocentrism and globalization, cross cultural communication and managing and valuing diversity in the workplace.

Understanding Culture

Culture in general is concerned with beliefs and values on the basis of which people interpret experiences and behave, individually and in groups. Broadly and simply put, “culture” refers to a group or community with which you share common experiences that shape the way you understand the world (Hofstede, 1980). On the other hand Maehr (1974) acknowledges that, even with rigorous study, we can only make statements about elements of culture, not culture in its entirety. The approach which Maehr recommends for inquiring about culture is an iterative, clinical approach, similar to a therapeutic relationship between a psychologist and a patient. Maehr’s disciplined approach to culture stands in contrast to the way in which culture is referred to in some of the popular management magazines.

The need to understand cultural differences is obvious today. Many societies are multicultural, and many people and organizations collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries. Although it is typical for people to see themselves as unique (Reed, 1986) and to be somewhat ethnocentric, ethnocentrism is not a good strategy for the future. According to Adler (1997) “ethnocentrism is assuming that they ways of your culture are the best ways of doing things. A person with ethnocentric perspective neither recognizes other people’s different ways of living and working nor appreciates that such differences have serious consequences.”

Today we live in a world that is somehow smaller than it used to be. New communication technology (e.g. email and the WWW) has made it easier to a certain extent to cross previous boundaries and communicate across time and space. However, the new technology does not necessarily make it easier to collaborate and communicate inter culturally. To effectively collaborate and communicate we have to share meanings. This often requires that we understand cultural differences and share cultural information.

Positive and Negative Traits of Ethnocentrism

Although ethnocentrism is generally thought to be a negative trait, Sharma, Shimp, and Shin (1995) argue that ethnocentrism fosters in – group survival, solidarity, conformity, cooperation, loyalty, and effectiveness. In Sharma, Shimp, and Shin (1995), Shimp argued that

“ethnocentrism is said to be a manifestation of authoritarianism, and that authoritarianism

is a personality defect, based on pervasive and rigid in – group – out – group distinction;

it involves stereotyped negative imagery, and hostile attitudes regarding out – group’s,

stereotyped positive imagery and submissive attitudes regarding in – groups, and a

hierarchical, authoritarian view of group interaction in which in – groups are rightly

dominant, out – groups are subordinate.”

In related research, Taylor and Jaggi (1974) introduced a phenomenon called ethnocentric attributional bias. According to Taylor and Jaggi (1974), ethnocentric construct internal attributions for a positive behavior of in – group members while making external attributions for their negative behavior. For example, if in – group members perform well on some task, the attribution is that they possess the essential ingredients to accomplish such a task (e.g., “they’re smart,” “they’re hard workers,” etc.). Yet, if in – group members perform marginally on some task, the fault lies elsewhere (e.g., “trick questions,” “bad call by the umpire,” etc.). On the contrary, external attributions are made for the positive behavior of out- group members (e.g., “they got lucky”) while internal attributions are made for their negative behavior (e.g., “they’re born liars.”)

Understanding Culture and Cultural Differences

Culture in general is concerned with beliefs and values on the basis of which people interpret experiences and behave, individually and in groups. Broadly and simply put, “culture” refers to a group or community with which you share common experiences that shape the way you understand the world (Hofstede, 1980). A person can belong to several different cultures depending on his or her birthplace; nationality; ethnicity; family status; gender; age; language; education; physical condition; sexual orientation; religion; profession; place of work and its corporate culture. A part from the above, Kotter (1986) identified six fundamental patterns of cultural difference; different communication styles, attitude toward conflict, approaches to completing a task, decision-making styles, attitudes towards disclosure, and approaches to knowing. We all have our unique beliefs, values, perceptions, expectations, attitudes, and assumptions.

Different Communication Styles varies widely between, and even within, cultures. One aspect of communication style is language usage. Across cultures, some words and phrases are used in different ways. For example, in countries that share the English language, the meaning of “yes” varies from “maybe, I’ll consider it” to “definitely so,” with many shades in between.

Another major aspect of communication style is the degree of importance given to non-verbal communication. Non-verbal communication includes not only facial expressions and gestures; it’s also involves seating arrangements, personal distance, and sense of time. In addition, different norms regarding the appropriate degree of assertiveness in communicating can add to cultural misunderstandings (Kotter, 1986).

When viewing different attitudes toward conflict some cultures view conflict as a positive thing, while others view it as something to be avoided. Kotter (1986) points out that in the United States conflict is not usually desirable; but people often are encouraged to deal directly with conflicts that do arise. Face to face meetings customarily are recommended as the way to work through whatever problems exist. In many Eastern countries, open conflict is experienced as embarrassing or demeaning; as a rule, differences are best worked out quietly. A written exchange might be the favored means to address the conflict (Kotter, 1986). Kotter (1986) stated that, in some cultures, it is not appropriate to be frank about emotions, about the reason behind a conflict or a misunderstanding, or about personal information. Keep this in mind when you are in a dialogue or when you are working with others. When dealing with a conflict, be mindful that people may differ in what they feel comfortable revealing. (Questions that may seem natural to you -- What was the conflict about? What was your role in the conflict? What were the sequences of events? – may seem intrusive to others). The variation among cultures in attitudes toward disclosure is also something to consider before a conclusion that an accurate reading of the views, experiences, and goals of the people with whom you are working.

From culture to culture, there are different ways that people move toward completing tasks. Some reasons include different access to resources; different judgments of the rewards associated with task completion, different notions of time, and varied ideas about how relationship-building and task-oriented work should go together (LeBaron, 2003). When it comes to working together effectively on a task, cultures differ with respect to the importance placed on establishing relationships early on in the collaboration. Cook (1999) argued that, Asian and Hispanic cultures tend to attach more value to developing relationships at the beginning of a shared project and more emphasis on task completion toward the end as compared with White Americans. Cook (1999) also states that, White Americans tend to focus immediately on the task at hand, and let relationships develop as they work on the task. This does not mean that people from any one of these cultural backgrounds are more or less committed to accomplishing the task or value relationships more or less; it means they may pursue them differently.

The roles individuals play in decision-making vary widely from culture to culture. For example in the United States, decisions are frequently delegated; that is an official assigns responsibility for a particular matter to a subordinate. Novinger (2001) states that, in many Southern European and Latin American countries, there is a strong value placed on individuals holding decision-making responsibilities. When decisions are made by groups of people, majority rule is a common approach in the United States; in Japan consensus is the preferred mode. Be aware that individuals’ expectations about their own roles in shaping a decision may be influenced by their culture frame of reference.

Distinguished differences occur among cultural groups when it comes to epistemologies that is, the ways people come to know things (Novinger, 2001). Novinger (2001) also argues that European cultures tend to consider information acquired through cognitive means, such as counting and measuring, is more valid than other ways of coming to know things. Compare that to African cultures’ preference for affective ways of knowing, including symbolic imagery and rhythm. Asian cultures’ ways of knowing tend to emphasize the validity of knowledge gained through striving for enlightenment or perfection.

Ethnocentrism and Globalization

In today’s competitive global business environment, more and more companies have realized that the creativity and ingenuity needed to develop new products, grow market share, and maintain a competitive advantage can best come through a diverse workforce (Cox, 1993). Loysk (1996) points out that, ethnocentrism is particularly important in case of global dealings when a company or an individual is instilled with the idea that methods, materials, or ideas that worked in the home country will also work aboard. Breakthrough technologies often emerge when people with diverse backgrounds are brought together because differences between people can breed innovation. Loysk (1996) states that Ethnocentrism, in relation to global dealings, can be categorized as the following:

• Important factors in business are overlooked because of the obsession with certain cause-effect relationships in one’s own country. It is always a good idea to refer to checklists of human variables in order to be assured that all major factors have been at least considered while working abroad.

• Even though one may recognize the environmental differences and problems associated with change, but may focus only on achieving objectives related to the home – country. This may result in the loss of effectiveness of a company or an individual in terms of international competitiveness. The objectives set for global operations should also be global.

• The differences are recognized, but it is assumed that associated changes are so basic that they can be achieved effortlessly. It is always a good idea to perform a cost-benefit analysis of the changes proposed. Sometimes a change may upset important values and thereby may face resistance from being implemented. The cost of some changes may exceed the benefits derived from the implementation of such changes.

Cross Cultural Communication

Exploring historical experiences and the ways in which various cultural groups have related to each other is imperative to opening channels for cross cultural communication. We all communicate with others all the time; in our homes, in our workplaces, in the groups we belong to, and in the community. No matter how well we think we understand each other, communication is hard. “Culture” is often at the root of communication challenges. Our culture influences how we approach problems, and how we participate in groups and in communities. Thomas & Inkson (2004) unequivocally stated that becoming more aware of cultural differences, as well as exploring cultural similarities, can help you communicate with others more effectively. The need to communicate is universal. Most misunderstandings among people result from different cultural experiences. Most of us desire to communicate effectively, but do not have a keen appreciation of barriers to be faced. Because of these barriers, there is ample opportunity for a person to go wrong in any communication. Four specific problems related to language difficulties that typically arise in cultural communication include semantics, word connotations, tonal differences, and different perceptions.

Webster (2005), defines semantics as the meaning or relationship of meanings of a sign or set of signs; connotative meaning; the language used (as in advertising or political propaganda) to achieve a desired effect on an audience especially through the use of words with novel or dual meanings. Simply put, almost every commonly used word has more than one meaning. Also, words have regional meanings as a result of the development of new industries or fields. The meaning conveyed by the sender’s words depends upon the experience and attitude of the receiver. Therefore, one way to penetrate the semantic communication barrier is for the sender to strive to speak or write in terms of the receiver’s experience and attitude.

Combined with semantics, word connotation is a common communication barrier. Word connotation is a word’s association with social attitude, evaluation, emotional affect, etc. Words often have essentially the same denotation, dictionary definition is known as a denotation. The attached meaning a receiver might associate with a word is known as a connotation. For example, the boss wants an employee to pick up a “cheap” calculator. Now, does the employee define that word as “inexpensive” or poorly made?” When sending a message, analyze the words to determine what connotation a receiver might attach.

Tonal differences can be a barrier in the communication process. Tonal differences include accent and dialect, pronunciation, fluency, emotion, etc. In American English, nonstandard dialects exist within all racial, ethnic and regional groups (Pearson & Nelson, 2000). Each dialect is a product of distinct social, historical, cultural and educational factors. All are legitimate in that they represent the concepts needs and intentions of their speaker.

Individual’s perceptions have an effect on the communication process. Perception is a three-phase process of selecting, organizing and interpreting information (Pearson & Nelson, 2000). Perceptual biases occur when people react to stimuli in the environment in very different ways. We each have shortcuts that we use to organize data. Habitually, these shortcuts introduce some biases into communication. Some of these shortcuts include stereotyping, projection, and self-fulfilling prophecies. Stereotyping is one of the most common. This is when we assume that the other person has certain characteristics based on the group to which they belong without validating that they in fact have these characteristics. Effective communication makes sense of the basic values, motives, aspirations and assumptions that operate across geographical lines. Given some dramatic differences across cultures in approaches to such areas as time, space, and privacy, the opportunities for miscommunication while we are in cross-cultural situations are plentiful (Okun, 1999).

In both today’s markets place and at home, the challenge to be open minded and put aside prejudice and stereotypes are more of a challenge then ever. The crisis in the Middle East has brought prejudice back to the national forefront. Many American look at people with Middle-Eastern features and assume they are terrorist. Without any provocation or prompting an act of prejudice or stereotyping can happen. For example, an American Airlines captain put a middle easterner off the aircraft soon after the September 11th tragedy. The gentleman had not done anything wrong. He had passed all the heighten security checks, and he had a fully paid ticket. Because of the Captain’s prejudice or stereotyping the middle-eastern gentleman was delayed and humiliated. There have been other cases like this since the September 11th tragedy. We as Americans must look for ways to better understand the various cultures that make up or country, and rise above these acts of prejudice and stereotyping.

Managing and Valuing Diversity

When people think of diversity, they may think of ethnicity and race, and then gender; however, diversity is much broader that that. Diversity are those human qualities that are different from our own and outside the groups, to which we belong, yet present in other individuals and groups. The dimensions of diversity include, but are not limited to: age, ethnicity, gender, ancestry, physical abilities/qualities, race, sexual orientation, educational background, geographic location, income, marital status, religious beliefs, parental status and work experience (Thomas, 1990). According to Cox (1990) managing diversity is defined as planning and implementing organizational systems and practices to manage people so that the potential advantages of diversity are maximized while its potential disadvantages are minimized.

Managing diversity means acknowledging people’s differences and recognizing these differences as valuable; it enhances good management practices by preventing discrimination and promoting inclusiveness (Borchardt, 1993). Due to increasing differences in the United States’ population and the world’s increasing globalization diversity issues are now considered important and are projected to become even more important in the future. People no longer live and work in a narrow-minded marketplace; they are now part of a worldwide economy with competition coming from nearly every continent (Borchardt, 1993). Managing diversity remains a significant organizational challenge; managers must learn the managerial skills needed in a multicultural work environment. Most people believe in the golden rule: treat others as you want to be treated. The implicit assumption is that how you want to be treated is how others want to be treated. But when you look at this proverb through a diversity perspective, you begin to ask the question: what does respect look like; does it look the same for everyone? Does it mean saying hello in the morning, or leaving someone alone, or making eye contact when you speak? All of these factors depend on the individual. We may share similar values, such as respect or need for recognition, but how we show those values through behavior may be different cultures. How do we know what different cultures need? Perhaps instead of using the golden rule, we should use the platinum rule which states: “treat others as they want to be treated” (Cox, 1990). Supervisors and managers must be prepared to teach themselves and others within their organizations to value multicultural differences in both employees and customers so that everyone is treated with dignity (Borchardt, 1993).

According to LeBaron (2003) an organization made up of people with diverse backgrounds and outlooks can be stronger than one based on monoculture. Organizations need to focus on diversity and look for ways to become totally inclusive organizations because diversity has the potential of yielding greater productivity and competitive advantages (Adler, 1997). Managers need to view diversity as part of strategic planning; the long-term payoff to organizations that value diversity is that employees are generally more motivated, creative, and productive in a diverse workplace. Valuing diversity can be defined as “respecting the differences people bring and celebrating the added value that those differences represent” (Okun, 1999). Managing diversity is not about differences among groups, but rather about differences among individuals. Each individual is unique and does not represent or speak for a particular group. Diversity involves recognizing the value of differences, combating discrimination, and promoting inclusiveness. Effective managers are aware that certain skills are necessary for creating a successful, diverse workforce. First, managers must understand discrimination and its consequences. Second, managers must recognize their own cultural biases and prejudices (Cox, 1993). According to Thomas (1990), managing diversity is a comprehensive process for creating a work environment that includes everyone. Organizations need to develop, implement, and maintain ongoing training because a one-day session of training will not change people’s behaviors (Hofstede, 1980). Workplace diversity can improve an organization by providing a larger talent pool, reducing employee turnover, and increasing global competitiveness (Cox, 1993). Over the last decade, an increasing number of organizations have realized the importance of improving, managing and valuing diversity in the workplace. It is important to realize that managing diversity does not mean controlling or containing diversity (Thomas, 1990).


A diverse workforce is a reflection of a changing world and marketplace. Diverse work teams bring high value to organizations. Respecting individual differences will benefit the workplace by creating a competitive edge and increasing work productivity. Diversity management benefits employees by creating a fair and safe environment where everyone has access to opportunities and challenges. Management tools in a diverse workforce should be used to educate everyone about diversity and its issues, including laws and regulations. Most workplaces are made up of diverse cultures, so organizations need to learn how to adapt to be successful. The core of any organization is its personnel and their success depends on their people.


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