Even though the racial and ethnic diversity is a typical feature of the modern working environments and a direct result of the developing globalization trends, there is an opinion that such diversity cannot lead to positive outcomes because of conflicting interracial relations. Organizations need to focus on managing the racial and ethnic diversity to compete within the industry. According to the intergroup contact theory developed by Gordon Allport in 1954, the diverse groups are positive for organizations because direct contacts can decrease prejudice and contribute to developing positive relationships. Opponents of Allport’s theory state that positive outcomes of managing the racial and ethnic diversity are rather rare. However, it is important to analyze the development of the theory in detail and focus on its implementation in the workplace. The reason is in advantages because the active intergroup contacts often lead to decreased prejudice, improved group performance, and increased creativity, as well as to improved problem-solving and decision-making. The paper aims to discuss the intergroup contact theory in detail.
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The racial and ethnic diversity in the workplace usually causes two different reactions in managers who can perceive it as a challenge or as a benefit. Despite the personal perception of the problem, the increased racial diversity in the workplace is the reality, and it can be discussed as a direct result of the developing globalization trends (Carr-Ruffino, 2012, p. 24). Therefore, to compete effectively within the labor market and within the specific industry, organizations need to pay much attention to managing the racial and ethnic diversity (Harvey & Allard, 2015, p. 38). One of the theories according to which the racial and ethnic diversity is viewed as beneficial for an organization is the intergroup contact theory developed by Gordon Allport in 1954. According to Allport, direct contacts between representatives of different groups usually work to decrease their anxiety toward each other and even contribute to developing positive relationships without any prejudice (Allport, 1954, p. 67). Although the opponents of Allport’s intergroup contact theory state that positive outcomes of managing the racial and ethnic diversity are rather rare, it is important to analyze the development of the theory in detail and focus on its implementation in the workplace because the active intergroup contacts often lead to decreased prejudice, improved group performance, and increased creativity.
Critique of the Intergroup Contact Theory and Its Historical Development
In 1954, Gordon Allport presented the intergroup contact theory according to which the personal contact between representatives of different racial groups contributes to developing the harmonious relations between people. This theory developed in the context of the American society’s focus on segregation and on the first attempts to desegregate the educational institutions and workplaces (Allport, 1954). Allport claimed that it was necessary to refer to the personal contact between people as the way to reduce prejudice while making the members of different groups develop the mutual understanding. This approach was rather provocative for the 1950s-1960s, and it gave the rise to many debates on the topic.
The intergroup contact theory became actively discussed again in the 1990s when the “value in diversity” or “optimistic” perspective was proposed by the researchers who focused on developing the work of teams and on the management of the diverse workforce to achieve higher performance results (Shore et al., 2009, p. 118). Today, managers also pay attention to the intergroup contact theory because of the necessity to manage large diverse groups that are often perceived as a result of globalization. Moreover, managers also concentrate on the accentuation of the teamwork’s benefits for organizations. However, there is no single opinion regarding the effectiveness of applying the intergroup contact theory in organizations to achieve the corporate goals and demonstrate better performance (Jehn & Bezrukova, 2004). Thus, researchers often reject positive outcomes of the theory, while stating that not all contacts can be beneficial for all the parties and that the prejudice can only grow in groups and teams, where the interracial contacts are not expected or not desired (Jehn & Bezrukova, 2004, p. 704). Furthermore, the number of researches which state that the positive and negative outcomes result from the interracial contacts is almost equal (Shore et al., 2009, p. 118). Nevertheless, while criticizing the intergroup contact theory, it is important to note that Allport and his followers did not assume that the theory would work under any conditions, and they determined certain criteria for the positive outcome of the intergroup contact.
It is possible to focus on the contribution of this theory to management and business relations and identify the positive relationships with the intergroup contact theory as the most significant in this context. The reason is that the author proposes clear and reasonable criteria according to which it is necessary to initiate the intergroup contact. Thus, it is possible to expect the high results of the contact when the members of groups have the equal status when they are focused on cooperation when their activities are directed by common goals, and when their contact is supported by authorities (Allport, 1954, p. 69). In this case, the intergroup contact will be advantageous for all parties.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Implementing the Theory in the Workplace
The implementation of the intergroup contact theory in the workplace is associated with a range of advantages and with one disadvantage that depends on the specific managerial approach. One of the main advantages of the intergroup contact theory is the possibility to use such contacts in order to reduce prejudice among the coworkers and to contribute to developing the understanding between them. When employees cooperate in diverse groups, the level of the threat and discomfort, which can be a result of the prejudiced attitude toward other ethnic groups, decreases, and the situation can lead to reducing the overall prejudice in the people’s relations (Blascovich, Mendes, Hunter, Lickel, & Kowai-Bell, 2001, p. 254; Hewstone & Swart, 2011, p. 375). It is important to state that while cooperating, people are more focused on finding similarities in their visions than differences in their appearance.
To implement the theory in practice effectively, it is also necessary to set a clear common goal for the group members. As a result, the advantages of this practice are expected when the racially diverse employees perceive each other as part of the whole organization in order to achieve the concrete goal. At this stage, it is possible to improve the problem-solving approaches, to increase creativity in decision-making and project work, and to improve the corporate culture (Hewstone & Swart, 2011, p. 376). The positive atmosphere in the racially diverse group supported by the company’s leaders as authorities is important to develop mutual understanding and learning while decreasing possible negative emotions.
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It is also important to focus on one disadvantage that is associated with the inappropriate implementation of the theoretical principles in the workplace. According to Allport, the key to the positive development of intergroup relations is the equal status of the group members (Allport, 1954). Therefore, when the representatives of a different race perform as managers, leaders in the company, and group supervisors or team leaders, it is possible to expect a kind of prejudice that can negatively affect the group development and employees’ performance (Blascovich et al., 2001). However, in order to avoid this problem, it is important to apply the effective managerial practice for working with diverse employees when their contacts are monitored by positively oriented leaders who focus on promoting diversity in the workplace.
Although racial and ethnic diversity is a characteristic feature of the modern working environment, many researchers develop the idea that such diversity cannot lead to positive outcomes because it is difficult to manage interracial relations and achieve understanding. However, such theories as the intergroup contact theory developed by Gordon Allport in 1954 demonstrate that the effective implementation of certain principles in the workplace can lead to significant positive results in terms of cooperation, performance, creativity, teamwork, decision-making, and problem-solving. The discussed theory was developed in the 1950s as the reaction to desegregation tendencies in American society, and it can be used as an efficient approach to managing diversity in organizations.
Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Blascovich, J., Mendes, W. B., Hunter, S. B., Lickel, B., & Kowai-Bell, N. (2001). Perceiver threat in social interactions with stigmatized others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80(1), 253–267.
Carr-Ruffino, N. (2012). Managing diversity (9th ed.). Cincinnati, OH: Pearson Learning Solutions.
Harvey, C. P., & Allard, M. J. (2015). Understanding and managing diversity: Readings, cases and exercises (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Hewstone, M., & Swart, H. (2011). Fifty-odd years of inter-group contact: From hypothesis to integrated theory. British Journal of Social Psychology, 50(3), 374-386.
Jehn, K. A., & Bezrukova, K. (2004). A field study of group diversity, workgroup context, and performance. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 25(1), 703-729.
Shore, L., Chung-Herrera, B., Dean, M., Ehrhart, K., Jung, D., Randel, A., & Singh, G. (2009). Diversity in organizations: Where are we now and where are we going? Human Resource Management Review, 19(1), 117-133. Web.