How does ethnic diversity affect management culture and its effectiveness?
ETHNIC DIVERSITY AND MANAGERIAL EFFECTIVENESS IN SOUTH AFRICA
How does ethnic diversity affect management culture and its effectiveness? Current management thought suggests that organizational effectiveness depends on the development of an inclusive organizational culture that empowers all ethnic groups. However, much is still unknown of the relationship between national, ethnic, and organizational cultures. Do members of different ethnic groups espouse different managerial values? Do dimensions of national or ethnic cultures determine those of organizational cultures?
A recent study by Adele Thomas and Mike Bendixen, both of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, examines the influence of ethnic diversity on organizational culture and effectiveness. South Africa provides an ideal setting for examining the implications of managing within the context of strong ethnic diversity in an economy that is striving to be globally competitive.
Historically, ethnic minorities have not been at the center stage of business activities in South Africa. The economy has long been controlled by whites, while blacks and other ethnic minorities were deliberately kept out of management and organizational decision-making structures. The situation changed after the fall of apartheid. With the inauguration of the 1994 Nelson Mandela government, the ethnic minorities have been empowered and included in the mainstream of management structures. Though the business environment is still dominated by white males, recent attempts have resulted in inclusion of people from various ethnic groups to build a more heterogeneous and diverse workforce. As a result of those efforts, black owners are estimated to control about 10 percent of the market capitalization in the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.
The authors note that this transformation within the South African economy has not occurred without hostility and friction, particularly since employees’ actions or decisions often reflect differences in ethnic backgrounds or cultural affiliations. The situation in South Africa is also unique in that managerial practices are strongly influenced by British and American systems of management. Indeed, some critics argue that firms in South Africa would benefit from adopting organizational cultures based on the values, primarily collectivism, of traditional African cultures. Thomas and Bendixen suggest this particular criticism raises the question of whether the ethnic culture of managers can determine specific organizational values.
Thomas and Bendixen interviewed 586 South-African middle managers, all of whom had hiring and firing authority. They identified 14 demographic subgroups of managers to control for sex, color, race, and geographic region, and interviewed a minimum of 20 managers from each subgroup. Those subgroups included white, English-speaking males and females; white, Afrikaans-speaking males and females; Asian males and females; mixed-race males and females; black Xhosa-speaking males and females; black Zulu-speaking males and females; and black Sotho-speaking males and females.
Two measures were particularly critical. First, the researchers measured dimensions of each manager’s ethnic culture using well-established cultural values based on research by Geert Hofstede: power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, and long-term orientation. Second, Thomas and Bendixen gathered data on each manager’s management culture and effectiveness through interviews with their subordinates.
Analysis of the data brought some interesting conclusions to light. Despite the managers’ identification with their ethnic group, there was a common national culture at the managerial level. The dimensions of that national culture, including a high degree of individualism and a low tolerance for hierarchical differences in power, resemble those found in the Netherlands, England, and the United States. The authors suggest these similarities may indicate the historical impact of Dutch, British, and American cultures on South Africa, as well as the prevalence of British and American systems of management.
However, the low scores on tolerance for hierarchical power distribution may also be a reflection of South Africa’s present political and ideological scenario, which promotes the values of participation and democracy. As the authors indicate, such a scenario is, perhaps, an outcome of the past oppression of many ethnic groups that has resulted in an intolerance of hierarchy and authoritarianism.
The high scores in individualism are surprising, since they conflict with previous studies on national culture in South Africa and the generally collectivist nature of African culture. Thomas and Bendixen offer two potential explanations for the discrepancy. First, they suggest that organizational cultures, which are largely shaped by American or British systems of management, may have influenced the cultural values expressed by the managers in this study. Alternatively, the apparent contradiction can be reconciled by the special nature of African collectivism in which individuals act autonomously, but remain socially united, a concept that has been referred to as communalism. As a form of collectivism, communalism coexists with personal freedom or individualism.
The authors also found that neither ethnicity nor race significantly influenced management culture; similarly, management effectiveness was independent of both ethnicity and race. Together, these findings suggest that management culture and management effectiveness are not affected by either culture or race in South Africa.
The results of this study have significant organizational policy implications. For South Africa, they indicate that, despite a tumultuous history that includes apartheid, the country’s ethnic diversity does not harm its management productivity. They also suggest that education and experience are viable tools to enhance management culture and effectiveness, and may ultimately increase South Africa’s level of global competitiveness. Clearly, these empirical findings reinforce a management philosophy that underscores the benefits of diversity in the workplace, not only for South-African business, but also for businesses around the world.
Source: Thomas, A., & Bendixen, M. 2000. Management implications of ethnicity in South Africa. Journal of International Business Studies, 31: 507-51