HomeOpinion & AnalysisRe-imagining the workplace: Values are the brick blocks of organisational culture

Re-imagining the workplace: Values are the brick blocks of organisational culture


Just before I finished penning last week’s episode of this column, I had a discussion with a colleague about the importance of values and how this was a complicated subject if we really wanted to go to the depth of the issue. We spoke about the connection between values, activity, practice, and the formation of culture in any organisation and we noted that values were not to be prescribed and then written on the walls of an organisation for employees to read and practice.

Every organisation wants to be associated with a certain culture and there are some people who have either lost their jobs or failed to join an organisation because they were considered culture misfits and so would not perform well if given a chance to join the organisation.

This is important to consider because, while individual competence is critical, collective competence is even more critical because the workplace is a place of teams and communities and if there is a disconnection in the way different people work, productivity is affected negatively. This makes organisations want to define their cultures and manage the entry point to make sure the right people come in to join the organisation not only in terms of functional competences but cultural ones also, taking into consideration one’s ability to work and thrive while sitting in a community, group or team.

A lot needs to be considered when people are brought into a group, team or community to achieve a certain goal. Thought needs to be given to this person’s experience and background. I know that interviews are the method we use to sit with someone and ask them about who they are, their experience and character and that’s fine but we never really get to the bottom of issues and interviewees are taught how to respond to most interview questions. They go in there knowing full well what to and not to say even if it might be true about them. We all know because we have been taught to talk about our weaknesses, for example, in such a manner that they sound like strengths. No one will tell interviewers that they have a problem of violence or untidiness even if they had those weaknesses. A joke is told of a man who decided to be frank with the interviewer when they asked him about his weaknesses and the conversation went frankly like this,

Interviewer: So, what are your weaknesses

Interviewee: Well, my biggest weakness is that I like women.

Now this came as a big shock to the panel of interviewers, some of whom were women. You can imagine the awkwardness brought about by this answer to a very serious question.

Interviewer: But that’s a problem for us Sir because as you can see, we have a lot of women in this company and that would present a big challenge for you.

Interviewee: The fact that there are many women is the reason why I applied for a job in this company. Please sir, understand me.

And there was deafening silence in the interview room. Would you have employed this person if you were interviewing? What’s interesting about this example of a debacle is that we come knowing full well which answer we expect the candidate to give, and the candidate also comes knowing which answers not to give. We don’t really care about the truth here but about the correctness. It is to a large extent an untrue process and hence the failures we then have to deal with when employees begin to show their true colours when they are already employed. This comes with a lot of behavioural costs in the form of acts of misconduct, litigation when we try to dismiss employees who would have begun to fail in behaviour and performance.

My sense is that we do have a sense of what we want but we don’t create working systems to ensure that we get what we want. The interview as we know it is now a tired method of screening people for performance and behaviour. It’s like placing two people together who have been taught and coached not to dare tell the truth. The guy who said he loved women disturbed an archaic system and confused everyone. The truth is that he might actually not even be the only one with that weakness but just one of them. One day we will talk about the weaknesses of the interview as a method of hiring. A subject for another day.

What we want to establish today is that every employee comes to the workplace having experienced life and developed attitudes towards certain things, consciously or unconsciously. It is scientific truth that values are formed based on one’s experience (Taranczewski 2018), and this is an important subject in the discipline of personal mastery, a growing course in personal development and performance. It is these values that contribute to the formation of an organisation’s culture and not the ones written on the walls of the organisation’s building. The culture of the organisation becomes the dance between the different people’s lived experiences that gave birth to certain values and the written ones they might not even understand, and herein lies the problem. It is like trying to fry live chickens. They will definitely try to jump out of the pan because they are not used to the temperatures the pan presents and it is a reflex action to want to escape. When employees are reduced to beings who have to learn values from someone, many problems come up and an organisation finds itself with cultural problems and of course consequently performance and productivity problems.

My argument is that if values are formed unconsciously as a response to one’s environment, then if an organisation is going to change them there is need, not for just cognitive learning and teaching of values but for maybe a whole process of learning and unlearning that starts with self-awareness. Eckhart Tolle argues that the subject of ‘who am I’ should become part of the school curriculum of course without wanting to indoctrinate young people. If there is going to be change in an organisation and subscription to a collective set of values the organisation needs to create a new experience for the employee to re-experience things and choose to change their value system. Attempting to change someone amounts to a worst of resources that include time as a resource and of course money because as Marilyn Ferguson put it; No one can persuade another to change, Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be opened from the inside. We cannot open the gate of another, either by argument or by emotional appeal.

Values are an integral part of culture in any organisation and there is no wishful thinking that can fix this intricate matter. If organisations are going to maximise their collective muscle then every employee must be assisted to be themselves when they join an organization and be willing to negotiate a new and collective definition of values. This is not something that happens overnight in an interview room but a process that should not stop because one thing about change is that it never changes.

  • Bhekilizwe Bernard Ndlovu’s training is in human resources training, development and transformation, behavioural change, applied drama, personal mastery and mental fitness. He works for a South African organisation as a Learning and Development Specialist, while also doing a PhD with Wits University where he looks at violent strikes in the South African workplace as a researcher. Ndlovu worked as a human resources manager for a number of blue-chip companies in Zimbabwe and still takes keen interest in the affairs of people and performance management in Zimbabwe. He can be contacted on bhekilizweb.bn@gmail.com

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