Could Communication Form Impact Organizations' Experience with Diversity?

Article excerpt

In this paper we argue that cultural diversity can be advantageous or detrimental for organizations depending on organization members' communication. We introduce three forms of communication explored by W. Barnett Pearce, each of which differs in deeply held assumptions. The forms ultimately relate to different ways of being human. We consider the ways that two of the forms, ethnocentric and modernistic, can lead to problems in decision-making and creativity in diverse organizations. We then present cosmopolitan communication, discussing how the form can lead to positive outcomes in diverse organizations, why it works well, and how change agents can encourage communication that draws on this form. We overview the implications of cosmopolitan communication for organizational-level diversity changes and for learning organizations. Given the exploratory nature of the pairing between managing diversity and these three communication forms, extensive suggestions for future research are made.


Organizational environments have become more turbulent in the last 20 or 30 years. Competition is fierce. Organizations need to be nimble to respond to changing conditions. According to one view of organizational diversity, members of diverse decision-making groups have different experiences, values, attitudes, and cognitive approaches (Richard, 2000). These divergent perspectives improve problem solving, decision-making, and creativity (Cox, 1993; Watson, Kumar, & Michaelson, 1993), which, in turn, increases organizational effectiveness for many types of organizations because these skills are especially needed in contemporary environments. An opposing view suggests that demographic diversity within organizations leads to increased problems with communication and coordination, dysfunctional conflict, and a potential for decreased performance (Pelled, Eisenhardt, & Xin, 1999; Tsui & O'Reilly, 1989; Wagner, Pfeffer, & O'Reilly, 1984).

Given these contradictory findings, we propose that the interaction growing out of an organization's predominant communication form may mediate the relationship between diversity and organizational effectiveness. More specifically, we outline the conditions, based on three broad communication perspectives, in which diversity can be detrimental (e.g., coordination problems and dysfunctional conflict) as well as beneficial (e.g., increased creativity, problem-solving and decision-making capability).

The first section introduces several conversations about managing diversity that provide a context for the discussion of communication forms. The second section presents the theoretical framework necessary for understanding ethnocentric, modernistic, and cosmopolitan communication. In Section 3, we build theory concerning the relationships between managing diversity and the communication forms. Section 4 presents theoretical and practical implications, and the final section offers conclusions.

Literature Review

To understand how cosmopolitan communication might lead to increased effectiveness in diverse organizations, it is helpful to overview how diversity and its management have been studied. Managing diversity is one paradigm for thinking about difference in organizations. In the early and mid 1990s, books on the topic addressed theory and research (Cox, 1993), case studies of organizations with managing diversity programs (Fine, 1995), as well as a range of suggested managing diversity programs for organizations (Herriot & Pemberton, 1995; Jamieson & O'Mara, 1991; Loden & Rosener, 1991; Thomas, 1995). The paradigm's primary underlying value is increased organizational effectiveness and profit. As described by R. Roosevelt Thomas (1991), developing each individual's potential is a key goal. However, diversity is not an individual characteristic; it is the mixture of the different characteristics of all of the organization's members. …


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