In the study of organizational behavior and diversity, the use of models, theories,
and past experience are each helpful in gaining a complete understanding. Individuals
within an organization behave as they do as a result of the context in which they
are immersed. This short article seeks to examine this context in order to further
the cause of helping managers deal with issues in their organizations from a standpoint
of knowledge and understanding, rather than guesswork and out-dated methods.
First, the organization as a system will be discussed, including its interdependence
upon other systems. Next, the importance of relationships as a vital part of the
operation of organizations will be mentioned. Then, the management of diversity will
be outlined, leading to a discussion of the importance of culture in influencing
The Organization as System
Organizations may most accurately be thought of as systems in which dynamic processes
continually re-shape the system in response to sub-systems, other systems, and the
environment. According to Cohen, Fink, Gadon, and Willits (2001), the model of a
system helps understand the way organizations operate. They define a system as a
set of mutually interdependent elements.
In the case of a social system, the elements are behaviors and attitudes. The system
takes in energy and translates it into a pattern, producing a useful output. In order
to maintain equilibrium, the system must process information from its environment,
analyze the feedback, and make the appropriate adjustments (Katz and Kahn, 1978).
For social systems, this means developing self-adjusting behaviors. Systems are open
in that they operate within the context of their environment, responding to changes
in that environment with changes in policies, rules, or other operating behavior.
An individual may be seen as a part of a system, but since most systems are subsystems
of larger systems, every individual is a part of numerous systems. Each of the systems
influence an individual’s behavior.
The Importance of Relationships
When the organization is conceptualized as a system, the importance of relationships
becomes obvious. Certain elements of relationships, such as trust and rapport, determine
the nature of communication that takes place within an organizational system. Problems
resulting from interpersonal relationships are the largest single reason for terminating
a competent manager (Cohen, Fink, Gadon, and Willits (2001). If communication is
smooth and unfettered by personal disputes, dislikes, and other problems, the organization
as system is most efficient in responding to changes in the environment and making
the necessary adaptations. Therefore, management should place a high priority on
developing healthy relationships with organizational members, as well as helping
make relationships between members cordial and effective (McDaniels and Walls, 1997).
Management of Diversity
Originally, diversity was seen as desirable because of its justness or fairness (Kirby
and Richard, 2000). However, it was not seen as having other benefits to organizations.
More recently, the benefits of diversity have been touted as being numerous and widespread.
Diversifying the workforce is believed to have the effect of enriching organizational
relationships, which allows for more effective self-organization (McDaniel and Walls,
1997). Another benefit of diversity is the ability to view problems from multiple
perspectives, allowing work-groups to solve such problems most efficiently by using
the correct approach for the correct problem. In the model of cultural synergy, managers
create policies and strategies based partially on the cultural patterns of organization
members and clients. In doing so, they are able to “transcend the individual cultures
of their members” and create cultural synergy (Adler, 1991, p. 108).
McDaniel and Walls (1997) use quantum theory and chaos theory to illustrate the “unknowable”
nature of organizations. They see organizations as akin to organisms in their possession
of organizational intelligence and their ability to learn. Seen in this way, organizations
explore new possibilities which increase performance and improve systems. Infusion
of a diversity of thinking styles and world views would only make such an organization
more effective. Therefore, in the management of diversity, it appears that along
with more diversity, more tolerance for ambiguity is necessary.
In addition to environmental or system influences on behavior, members of organizations
bring with them their own sets of internal values, which also influence their behavior.
Values can be defined as “something (as a principle or quality) intrinsically valuable
or desirable” (Merriam-Webster, 1988) or “what is really important in life” (Cohen,
Fink, Gadon, and Willits (2001, p. 174). Values may be seen as predictors of behavior
because they determine how a person conceptualizes his or her world. Behaviors that
will be performed include those that are in line with one’s most deeply-held values,
whereas those that will be avoided may conflict with one’s values.
Cohen, Fink, Gadon, and Willits (2001) claim that values come from an individual’s
personality, but these authors ignore the role of culture in shaping values. The
assumption is that somehow each individual comes up with his or her set of values
on their own. Values are actually created within a context of many overlapping cultures,
including, family, regional, national, language. As children are socialized, they
learn an implicit set of values that are held in common amongst members of particular
groups. This “programming of the mind” does allow for some individual differences,
but it also predetermines the value-sets of most people (Hofstede, 1997).
As a result of the importance of relationships in the organization as system, the
role of values in predicting behavior is also pertinent to the management of diversity.
Relationships between people from different cultural backgrounds will involve behavior
which is motivated by underlying values. Since these underlying values are different
amongst different cultures, the potential exists for misunderstanding. Therefore,
management must oversee not only the implementation of diversity, but also ensure
that relationships between members of different groups are based on cooperation and
mutual understanding (Chen, Chen, and Meindl, 1998).
The behavior of individuals in organizations can be understood by examining the context
within which each individual operates. When viewed as a system, an organization consists
of people who are engaged in interdependent relationships which enable dynamic, responsive
changes, allowing the system to survive. Diversity is gradually becoming seen as
a benefit rather than a liability to organizations, making them more innovative,
competitive, and responsive to diverse customers.
In addition to maintaining and encouraging diversity, managers must go further to
ensure that the relationships between diverse members are effective. Values, part
of a person’s self-concept, are culturally-determined constraints which affect how
an individual within a system behaves and communicates with others. Therefore, the
importance of attaining an understanding for other cultures’ underlying sets of values
is vital for maintaining healthy relationships in a diverse organization.
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