Ethnocentric Organizations: Strategies to help them Shift to Polycentrism

Plenary Session
Globea Conference on Tolerance and Human Rights
Prague, 17-19 May 2001

Greetings: My real name is Tamás András Ákos, and I am Canadian, and that's a long story, perhaps for another day. I've been concerned about intercultural relations most of my life, but it wasn't until the mid-1970s that I offered my first formal cross-cultural training session for public health nurses wanting to improve their work with Indigenous people living in a city in western Canada. Over the years I've had many opportunities to learn about these issues and I welcome an opportunity to share some thoughts with you here. I hope you find them helpful.

As some introductory comments before I read the main part of my paper I'd like to describe some assumptions, many of which may be familiar to you.

  1.  One's culture is invisible to one's self – I can't see my own culture; its patterns were learned by osmosis, by everyday immersion in a social context during early childhood. They have disappeared from conscious awareness, and, as E.T. Hall says , "control from the depths." I use my culturally learned perception system to see and make sense of the world and my place in it. My culture is the lens through which I experience the world, and for most people this lens is almost completely invisible. I usually notice things about other people's cultures only when their ways are different from my own.
  2. Organizations are "cultural artifacts" – they are products of their society's culture, and are rooted in its deeper patterns. Think of a tree – you can see only half of it, the other half is underground, its roots are invisible. An organization has an invisible root system in the unconscious, hidden patterns of the culture and history of its society and of its founders.
  3. I will find that the culture and patterns of an organization that is built by "my people", by my own "tribe" is also invisible or transparent to me – everything is where it is supposed to be, where I expect it to be, and it feels natural to me. I know how to make it work for me, and I usually do this without even thinking much about it.
  4. Members of other "tribes" or cultural groups, however, are like "foreigners" in these organizations – they are not sure how they work, in both their formal and informal aspects, and the hidden cultural patterns are more opaque to them. They have difficulty making their "homes" in them and receiving good services from them.
  5. Management scholar Edgar Schein says that an organization's corporate culture is shaped by its founding group, its early leaders, whose personalities and beliefs spread throughout the organization and determine how the organization feels, and how it works.
  6. Most organizations are founded by people who share the same culture – members of the same sub-group of a society. As such, they are often mono-cultural, or ethnocentric, usually unconsciously so: in most countries these founding leaders were not overtly racist (South Africa is certainly an exception!).

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