Diversity has been found to have multiple benefits for organizations when embraced and employed properly, including increased creativity and innovation due to a wide range of unique perspectives (O’Donnell, 2019). However, when employed improperly and left unchecked, negative effects can wreak havoc on an organization. Social dominance theory is the idea that societies are stratified, organized in a hierarchical fashion with the dominant group controlling the lesser ones (PSU WC, 2019, L. 13, p. 7). This becomes a real issue when leaders subscribe to this way of thinking, resulting in misguided and biased workplace decisions. If this is allowed to become systemic within an organization, it can result in ethno-racial segregation and inequality, resulting in preference for the dominant ethnic group (Bursell & Jansson, 2018, p. 63). I have seen some form of this in my previous organization, and I will elaborate on my experience to explain this harmful phenomenon.
First, I will provide some background. I spent three years working in an organization in Hawaii, and the local population to this day has rocky relations with the United States. This is because of how we acquired the land, previously known as the Kingdom of Hawaii. We overthrew it in 1893, taking the land for ourselves in only what can be described as a coup, which led to its eventual annexation and statehood in 1959 (The Learning Network, 2012). Because of this, many locals do not like white people, referring to them with the derogatory term ‘haole.’ Workplace tension between the two groups was certainly present, leading to favoritism towards the local population within the organization.
The construct of social dominance theory can help to explain why these behaviors exist, and are allowed to persist. Contained within this theory is the psychological attribute called social dominance orientation, or SDO. SDO is a measurement of the extent an individual believes a group is superior to another (PSU WC, 2019, L. 13, p. 7). Typically, the group with more power, whether that be social, economic or otherwise, exhibits higher levels of SDO. This becomes a real issue when leaders adopt this way of thinking, resulting in favoritism for their group and discrimination towards the other (PSU WC, 2019, L. 13, p. 7). While outright discrimination is illegal, it still occurs in a more elusive manner.
Two concepts which are utilized by individuals with high levels of SDO are those of ethnocentrism and prejudice. Ethnocentrism is when individuals believe their group, racial in this instance, is superior to all others (Northouse, 2016, p. 428). Prejudice, false beliefs about another group, are often used by individuals with strong ethnocentric beliefs (p. 429). In Hawaii, the locals see themselves as better than Caucasians, and they hold prejudiced beliefs toward them as well. They are often referred to as a ‘mainlander,’ which comes with a host of negative connotations. I am a mixed individual; Caucasian and Hispanic. As such, my skin tone is darker than the typical Caucasian. Because of this, I personally never felt discriminated against in that way, but I knew people who were.
It is human nature for us to desire to be around other individuals similar to us. This was found to be true in a study conducted by Bursell and Jansson (2018, p. 72). Leaders who exhibit preferential treatment to those who are alike creates the opportunity for workplace segregation to occur, as they are in a position to enact such policies (p. 73). I have seen such leaders assign more desired tasks to individuals who were alike, resulting in the out-group receiving the less desirable tasks, which is one consequence of workplace segregation (p. 73). I have personally experienced this, resulting in a lost opportunity for me to gain valuable experience and knowledge with more complex work tasks. In those moments, I was confined to the out-group.
Hawaii is unique in that it is the only state where no single ethnic group holds a majority, and is the only state where Caucasian people are not the majority. Because of this ‘melting pot,’ it results in rather interesting race dynamics, particularly in the work place. The concepts of social dominance orientation, when used in conjunction with discriminatory practices like ethnocentrism and prejudice, can help to explain preferential treatment on behalf of the most powerful group, up to the point of workplace segregation, intentional or otherwise. Diversity has a whole host of positive benefits, but if leaders adopt these discriminatory practices, it can also negative consequences, as I have seen personally. It is very important that leaders not succumb to these ideas if they are to lead in an ethical and fair manner within the workplace.
Bursell, M., & Jansson, F. (2018). Diversity preferences among employees and ethnoracial workplace segregation. Social Science Research, 74, 62-76. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2018.03.009
The Learning Network. (2012). Jan. 17, 1893; Hawaiian monarchy overthrown by America-backed businessmen. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/17/jan-17-1893-hawaiian-monarchy-overthrown-by-america-backed-businessmen/
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
O’Donnell, R. (2019). The unintended negative effects of diversity and inclusion training (and how to avoid them). Retrieved from https://www.zenefits.com/blog/the-adverse-effects-of-diversity-and-inclusion-training/
Pennsylvania State University World Campus. (2019). PSYCH 485 Lesson 13: Leadership and diversity. Retrieved from https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1985970/modules/items/26589597