Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Should Societal Culture Be Sent Out of the Office?

*Please note that, in this article, pronouns such as he, his and him apply to persons of either sex.*

Perhaps, it is not hyperbolic to predicate that the influence of culture on persons with a common origin is inseparable from their manner of communication. As a subset of our daily routine, we always exchange words and other units of expressions with the entities in our environment – be it people, pets or nature. When we relate in this way, we achieve communication. However, it is possible for the cultural values observed in the society and applied in our communication efforts to diminish our effectiveness in the workplace. So, should societal culture be sent out of the office? Read on.

            Among the Yoruba people for example, respect is an indispensable cultural value that is exhibited during communication. Even in the simple effort of exchanging greetings, the Yoruba culture makes it imperative for participants to respond respectfully based on their age differences. In a two-party greeting, the onus is on the younger person to offer respect to the other party involved in the process. This portends a recurrent occasion where the confidence of a younger boss in executing due authority over his older subordinate is checked. If they are both from the Yoruba tribe and the boss, as is expected of him, delegates responsibilities to the older subordinate, the question of deliberate disrespect will emerge. Yet, to achieve his objectives and remain effective, the boss, who is also accountable to those above him, must assign several responsibilities to the older but junior colleague. He might even be expected to rebuke and mete out penalties to him when necessary. An instance where the senior but younger colleague perceives an offence from the older colleague will also surface occasionally. In such a situation, the young boss may be intimidated by cultural barriers and shy away from confronting his subordinate. This is the bag of unpleasant responsibility which several young managers have to bear.

From my observation across multinational, international, government and indigenous organisations, a higher percentage of young but highly effective managers who belong to the Yoruba tribe use their discretions in resolving this culture issue. Resultantly, there are two schools of effective young managers’ thought. On the one hand, there are those who place a higher priority on the culture esteemed by the workplace. To these young managers, the issue of age difference is merely secondary or even negligible. As long as you are their subordinate, you will give them the respect deserved by their office and deliver as expected; whether or not you are old enough to send their own grandfather on little errands in the community. On the other hand, there are those who put the culture of the society first and try to balance it with that of the organisation.  Such managers show concern for the impression their subordinate would form about their leadership style. So, they tend to relate with their older subordinates through respect and subtle orders. They address them with culture-based respect when sending them on official errands and when the need to reprove arises, they meet it respectfully. In summary, while observing cultural obligations they ensure that the pursuit of their official objectives is not handicapped by the cobweb of societal culture. But each approach has its pros and cons and the choice of what school to follow ultimately depends on the belief system of the individual concerned.

Sometimes, the observance of societal culture in the workplace breeds corruption, lack of accountability, lack of transparency in reward system, unhealthy politics and other forms of indiscipline. Countless scenarios of where high regard for culture harms the effectiveness of employees can be found in many governmental organisations in Nigeria. It is often said that, due to poor accountability, government work is the easiest job anyone can do today. This time last year, the Nigerian government was making rigorous efforts to absolutely unearth the existence of ghost workers in various subsets of its labour force. That is why the HR policy in many promising blue chip and multinational companies esteem a corporate culture that either underrates the values of societal culture or defines such values in a different tone. In the end, the overall objective is to create an atmosphere where employees relate well with one another in the pursuit of the company’s strategic goals.

On a personal note, I believe respect is mutual. True respect is earned by offering it to others first. The key is to treat others the exact or nearly exact way you would like to be treated if put in their position. I think societal respect should be esteemed in the workplace if and only if it complies with the behavioural pattern stated in the company’s template. In such cases, it behoves young bosses and team leads to balance office commands with obvious elements of respect. Otherwise, if the company thinks that the practice of societal culture is only good in the society, employees would do well to reserve it for after-hours.