Lessons from Schelling’s Segregation Model

Understanding its application in employee behavior

Muhammad Abubakar Siddique
Khadeeja Zaman

Schelling’s (1978) segregation model is a well-known sociological model of understanding human behavior. Although the model primarily focused on neighborhood preferences, its application can be widespread. Schelling represented each individual as a square on a chess board which represented the city. He suggested that even the smallest variations in neighborhood preferences can lead to distinct patterns of segregation in the society.

Based on his work, Wilensky (1997) developed an agent-based model to explain this phenomenon using computational simulation. In this model, there are two types of agents in a neighborhood; orange and blue. They get along with each other but at the same time each agent prefers to live with similar neighbors. To elaborate, each orange agent wants to live near at least some orange agents and vice versa otherwise they will be unhappy and move to another location.

Each agent wants to make sure that it lives near some of its own.

The simulation reveals interesting patterns about individual preferences. The major finding of this model is that in a stable neighborhood where everyone is happy, if one of the unhappy individuals move to stable neighborhood it disturbs the other individual’s happiness and they start changing locations too.

Even though this model was oversimplified and was used to test a neighborhood preference based on race, ethnicity etc. its findings can be used to draw lessons for organizations as well. Agents in the context of organizations, i.e. employees want to work in an organization where they can find similar employees in terms of skills, capabilities and preferences.

In a multicultural setting, employees usually have a diverse background, but organizational culture is a glue that helps them stick together. When a new recruit joins the organization, he tends to end up becoming similar to other employees in terms of values and relations in the presence of a strong organizational culture. He considers other employees as a family and the organization feels like home to him. An organization with such culture leads to high employee engagement. Similarly, another example is of personal referrals. Many of the organizations now a days use personal referrals for hiring. Personal referrals ensure that similar people would join the organization, further strengthening the values and norms.

A productive, positive, and supportive employee experience is directly proportionate to a high-performing company culture. It is simple, a strong culture creates a ripple effect and build an engaged employee base. Interestingly, according to Gallup, companies with highly engaged employees outperform their peers by 147% in earnings per share.

On the other hand, where organizational culture is weak, employees usually are less tolerant towards others. For instance if an influential employee leaves the organization then a few others follow suit. This is because their similarity index gets affected and they feel that similar people do not exist in their organization anymore who they can relate to. So to say, it is important for employees to feel connected to each other. Besides engagement, if organizations don’t encourage tolerance to diversity then most of the employees will remain unhappy because in today’s global world it’s difficult to have a non-diverse organization.

To sum up, each and every employee’s wellbeing is critical to an organization’s success, after all people are the most indispensable resource. Even one unhappy employee can disturb the environment of the whole organization. Organizations are like a body, even if a small part of the body is upset then it can create discomfort for the whole body. Organizations should promote a culture of tolerance towards diversity by creating cross functional, cross gender and cross ethnic teams while creating a shared value system.

To improve employee engagement, start by improving your company culture.

A high-performing culture is not built overnight, but once it seeps into the roots, it can bring many benefits and engagement is just one of the outcomes. Employee engagement is more than just engaging employees. It’s a one-one-one relationship between the organization and its employees in which employee wellbeing is a key to a happy environment.

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