Examining Intercultural Sensitivity in the Indian Context.

AuthorBadola, Ashish


Diversity Management is an interesting topic since manager in today's multicultural global business environment frequently encounter cultural differences, which interfere with management practices in organization. Diversity is a ubiquitous phenomenon found in all types of workplaces. It has found its applicability owing to the volatile nature of the present business environment, moving workforce, globalization, joint ventures, mergers and acquisitions, talent sourcing and acquisition, organizations striving for gaining competitive advantage and so on. Diversity refers to the co-existence of employees from different socio-cultural backgrounds within an organization. Demographic diversity and cultural diversity are two prominent perspectives which have a major impact on workplace functioning. Demographic diversity is associated with visible differences like ethnicity, gender, age, socio-economic difference. On the other hand, cultural diversity is related to language, customs, beliefs, religion and so on. Irrespective of its kind, diversity is the most influencing factor of modern life, whether it is valued for its contribution to global society or, on the contrary, for undermining effects of national identity.

Diversity requires a type of organizational culture in which each member of the organization can pursue his/her aspirations without being constrained by gender, race, ethnicity, religion or another factor which is irrelevant to performance (Bryan, 1999). With modern and dynamic companies increasingly looking for people from diverse backgrounds as it brings talent, interest, and viewpoints (Simmons, 1996 cited in Kundu, 2001), managing it has become a challenge to ensure equitable distribution of work (Torres & Bruxelles, 1992). As a result, diversity is turning out as the biggest challenge for any manager, and this phenomenon is visible across all types of organizations, industry, and sector. The success of any organization to effectively handle this important aspect is left to the skill and expertise of HR managers which at times turn out to be very challenging. The most relevant question in any HR manager's mind is how diversity affects behavior, performance, and wellbeing (George & Jones, 1996). Bennet and Bennet (2001) recommends that diversity should be defined in the broadest possible way to include not only variation in age, race, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic class, education, region of origin, language and so forth but also differences in life experience, position in family, personality, job function, and anything which is responsible for forming an individual's perspective. George and Jones (1996) linked workforce diversity and organization with an analogy that if an organization is composed of people of same attributes like gender, ethnicity, religion, age and so on their attitudes and behavior are likely to be a similar, will share similar set of assumptions, values and will respond similarly to different work situations like project, conflicts, additional tasks, and conversely if the composition differs in terms of attributes their responses will be at variance. The reasons for these variations are attributed to a diverse work place environment which gets manifested in the form of communication gap, conflict resolution, task completion, decision making, and the behavior of an individual. Adler (1997) argued that when a manager recognizes these cultural differences the problems are minimized whereas the advantages accrued out of it are maximized. This intercultural mix of people at the workplace in the context of sensitive environment demands due attention as it is important for workers to first perceive the cultural differences at the workplace, secondly to have a realistic assessment of their culture orientation, thirdly to be sensitive towards others' cultural orientation and lastly how to prevent these differences transforming into workplace conflicts. The aim of this study is to examine the intercultural sensitivity among the workers from various sub-cultures that exist within the Indian cultural framework.

Multicultural Workplace

In a multicultural environment, people interact with others from different cultural backgrounds; they differ, overlap and intertwine (Darawong & Igel, 2012). These intercultural interactions create challenges or barriers as well as opportunities (Stahl et al., 2010). The research on multiculturalism has also developed various constructs like intercultural competence, cultural intelligence, intercultural effectiveness, and intercultural sensitivity explained by means of theories like social identity theory, similarity-attraction paradigm, information processing theory, social-capital theory and intergroup contact theory (Stahl et al., 2010, Roberge & Dick, 2010) with an aim to explain the outcomes of multicultural environment. Any organization valuing multiculturalism ensures that these employees are part of group work together in unison to achieve the desired goal but their differences of opinions and their baggage of cultural biases generally hinder the attainment of the goal. It has been found that deep level similarity on group cohesion is positive while dissimilarity has a negative effect (Harrison, Price & Bell, 1998). A culturally sensitive organization or manager can exploit the very different ways of thinking to arrive at a variety of perspectives thereby expanding its knowledge base.

Intercultural Sensitivity

Sensitivity in Merriam-Webster dictionary is defined as "awareness of the needs and emotions of others" or "the ability to respond to affective changes in one's interpersonal environment" It is important to differentiate between commonly used terms when referring to the sensitivity which is cross-cultural, multicultural and intercultural. The term "cross-cultural" has generally been used to make sense of comparison between two different cultures whereas multi-cultural has been used to describe several cultures at once. The use of term intercultural was first noticed in education literature where it has primarily been used to express a set of ideas to sensitize teachers to issues like cultural plurality and to challenge ethnocentric views in curricular content and practices (Canen & Canen, 1999). In the core of the intercultural perspective lies the misconception of cultural diversity and cultural differences (Canen & Canen, 1999). In spite of the visible differences, these are often used interchangeably. The term intercultural is defined as relating to, involving, or representing different cultures. Hart (1996) defined intercultural as the interaction between two or more cultures and answers the main question of what happens when cultures interact at the interpersonal level, group-level, organization level or international level. Whereas cross-cultural is comparative in nature intercultural is the experience of difference. Intercultural sensitivity reflects the level of sensitivity to the difference between given cultures.

Literature shows that intercultural awareness is a precursor to intercultural sensitivity as it includes attitude towards cultural differences and its influence. Intercultural awareness is defined as a process of attitudinally internalizing" insights about those common understandings held by groups that dictate the predominant values, attitudes, beliefs, and outlooks of the individual" (Adler, 1987: 31 in Chen & Starosta, 1999) and is also defined as "the ability of intercultural awareness by learning the similarities and differences of each other's culture" (Chen & Starosta, 1997). It is a three level process moving from a superficial understanding of cultural traits to develop the ability of empathy towards opposite culture by having insider's perspective of it or in other words be sensitive of opposite's culture having been aware of its attributes. The three levels or active domains of learning are cognition, affect and behavior (Bhawuk & Sakuda, 2008). Cognition as a first step encompasses recognition of cultural differences. A person with lower level of cognition will not (or be able) identify or notice the differences and will be able to interact without any hesitation, though individual or personality differences or any previous socialization issue may affect the interaction. On the other hand, a person with higher levels of cognitive sensitivity will be able to notice the subtle differences between his/her culture and that of the counterpart. The differences in culture become an important metric for any further analysis or interaction. In the second step is the effect which could be conceptualized in either positive or negative or high or low way. A person with positive or high affective sensitivity will express interest in opposite culture irrespective of any past setbacks of misunderstandings. He or she will refrain from arriving at judgment or opinion and will show greater respect and will make an endeavor to seek or learn more about the cultural differences. A person with a lower or negative affective sensitivity will get easily demoralized with culturally different situation and will exhibit a tendency to retract from a situation which may challenge his/her beliefs and values. The third state reflects the behavior or the response which is consequent to acceptance or rejection of the first two steps. Once the cultural difference is recognized and accepted cognitively and affectively an individual then can interact effectively under such diverse settings without hurting any feelings or exhibit appropriate cultural response.

Thus, intercultural awareness and learning predominantly is a cognitive process and intercultural sensitivity is the manifestation of that awareness. Bennett...

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