Acculturation: Why EVERY Manager Needs to Know About It!

Acculturation is critically important to consider in organizational culture

Acculturation is critically important to consider in organizational culture

Change can be stressful; this is one of the undeniable truths of life. Whether change happens in a person, a group, a country or a corporate organization, the process can get messy and convoluted. Acculturation is the adjustment process – the change – that happens when two entities with different values come into direct contact with each other for an extended period. This change happens in personal and group attitudes and behaviors; it happens within and between people, and, within and between different groups. These groups could be teams, social networks and clubs, communities, societies, cultures, nations, or, organizations.

Historically, acculturation has been thought to only affect whichever group is considered the “minority group” (the non-dominant party) in the situation. For instance, if a person from Australia or Nigeria moves to the United States, then acculturation was thought to happen only to that person. Over the course of time, this person would be considered un-acculturated if they learned nothing about being “American”, partially acculturated if they began acting “somewhat American”, and fully acculturated if they acted “completely American”. So, acculturation was thought to happen in stages, where the last stage would be the “fully acculturated” stage. We now know that this formula is outdated and obsolete. Acculturation doesn’t happen in stages; it is a dynamic process that can go in many different directions. This makes it critical that we understand the underlying mechanisms so that we may start better strategies towards healthy organizational culture.

Every organization has its own culture that it wishes to build and sustain through its operations and through its members. An organization’s culture is based on the mission, vision and purpose of the organization. Employees enter an organization with their own values and beliefs. Through new hire orientation and other on-boarding processes, the organization’s culture is taught and prescribed to the new hires. This entire process is expected to increase the employees’ understandings of the company values and operations. It is also expected to improve employees’ sense of loyalty to the company, which helps increase the cohesiveness of the organization. Those employees who can absorb the organizational values faster and better usually succeed within the company, and can help the company succeed in the outside world. For human resources personnel who are responsible for recruitment and enrollment initiatives, understanding and guiding the acculturation of the new hires into the company’s existing structure is of paramount importance. For managers, understanding the continuing acculturation of the employees is imperative to ensure not only task and project success, but also longevity, and professional development.

Acculturation: What do you need to know about it?

Research done over the past few decades demonstrates that the acculturation process is based on regular contact, reciprocal influence and change. This means that all parties involved in the acculturation process are in direct contact with one another, they are influenced and the resulting changes impact all parties (albeit unequally). It is also not a simple linear process where one’s adjustment process is only based on his or her absorption of the new cultural values. Acculturation is actually a multi-domain phenomenon that includes and affects language, attitudes, behaviors, values, beliefs and ultimately, identity. It is a non-linear process that is highly influenced by prevailing societal norms. It happens both on the group level, and the individual level. In individuals, the process is called psychological acculturation. It is this process that should be the focus of managers who want to create a healthy, sustainable group culture.

The simplest, yet most comprehensive, scientific, acculturation model that predicts people’s strategies of change is the Berry and Sam Acculturation Model . In this model, two main factors are considered:

  • How important is it for a person to retain their own personal values?
  • How important is it for a person to absorb values from the new culture?

Based on these two factors, we can accurately predict one of four strategies that an individual is going to implement to cope with change:

  1. Assimilation: when a person discards almost all personal values, and fully absorbs new cultural ideologies and norms.
  2. Separation: when a person retains all personal values, and chooses not to absorb any beliefs from the new culture.
  3. Integration: when a person considers both the retention of old values, and the absorption of new values highly important.
  4. Marginalization: when a person neither chooses to keep old values, nor absorb any new ones.

Acculturation: Why do you need to know about it?

Assimilation may not be the best acculturation strategy to use.

Most organizations actively recruit employees and immediately put them through an on-boarding process to assimilate them into the organizational culture. Managers and executives emphasize initiatives that assimilate individuals into the group or company as quickly as possible. The assumption here is that personal values are a part of personal life and identity issues, and thus, unrelated to the work culture. Theoretically, this is a brilliant separation of business and leisure; of the nine-to-five from the rest-of-the-time. In reality however, adults in most developed Western countries spend between 50% – 75% of their “awake” time either at work or on work related activities. People work and live their personal lives simultaneously, in the same space and time. While it does improve cohesiveness, assimilation decreases the inclusiveness of the company’s culture by overriding group differences. The lack of other perspectives decreases the diversity of thought in an organization, and if unchecked could even lead to a stagnant failed business. Ultimately, initiatives that enforce (or recommend) assimilation are more stressful for the person, the group, and ultimately the culture of the organization.

Separation and Marginalization are the most stressful acculturation strategies.

Milton, the character from the movie "Office Space" is the perfect example for someone who uses marginalization as an acculturation strategy.

Milton, the character from the movie “Office Space” is the perfect example for someone who uses marginalization as an acculturation strategy.

People who use  separation tactics to adjust see themselves as outsiders in an organization to which they have very little loyalty. These are the types of people who show up to get the job done, and leave. They generally have few to no engagements that might tie them to the organizational culture. These types of situations occur when people’s personal beliefs and values are hugely different from organizational values, , from the organization’s. Retention of personal values is more important than absorbing any new values just for the sake of “fitting in”. This creates a lot of stress and conflict within a person and the group. Even if these individuals don’t claim their separation overtly, their refusal to absorb any new organizational values will create a great deal of cognitive dissonance and other acculturative stresses. Inevitably, this will have a negative impact on  both individual and team performance, productivity, dynamics and collaboration.

Marginalization is undeniably the most stressful tactic with the bleakest prognosis for organizational outcomes. Individuals who use these strategies care about neither their own personal values, nor, the company’s norms. Individuals who feel marginalized feel like they don’t belong anywhere; they have a hard time finding their place or their role within the organization. Marginalized employees most often feel completely neglected and abandoned by their co-workers and supervisors.

 Integration is the best way to transition into new situations.

Initiatives and strategies that give fair importance to both personal values and organizational values are generally the least stressful, and most sustainable acculturation strategies. Individuals who tend to adopt these strategies adjust the easiest, and are the happiest. Integration produces a greater sense of inclusion and loyalty within people and within groups of any size. Integrative initiatives are the best option for a group or organization’s inclusion goals.  Options that allow for a blending of personal and organizational values enable the employees to have greater positive self-esteem, and a greater sense of personal validation of their membership in the organization. Integrated groups also have the greatest amount of thought and leadership diversity, and are generally just happier, healthier and more sustainable.


Ultimately, any plans or actions that allow individuals to be able to express their personal values within the organizational context are more likely to be successful and sustainable for the organization. So far, the focus of this article has been on employees at the individual level. Acculturation is both an individual and group process, however.While on the individual level, acculturation happens within and between people, on the group level, acculturation happens inside and across all levels, and all hierarchies of the organization.

Business-hand-write-Organization-Chart-in-Technology-Virtual-Screen-for-Business-Building-ConceptThe group effects of acculturation strategies can be examined by looking at social and non-business structures within the organization. Companies that embrace integrative strategies will have more initiatives that foster employees’ personal growth and development. Members of these organizations generally report being happier, and are more loyal to the organization. These types of companies also tend to have better reputations in the general public, and a greater sense of goodwill in the community.


Change, especially in the context of the business world, is undeniable, and can sometimes lead to catastrophic failures of epic proportions. In the past, changes in leadership, management, operations, and, brand image have resulted in terminations, bankruptcy, plummeting share values and decreased goodwill in public perception. Understanding the processes that individuals and groups go through during change is crucial; it is the only efficient way to maximize chances of organizational success.