Behaviour of employees in the workplace is informed by their context

2015-10-14 08:21

Steve Biko contended that South Africa should be understood as a country in Africa first. It goes without say that the community in Africa informs the ways of socialisation that inform behaviour, which is predominantly a product of culture, values and the subscription to the religious beliefs of the concerned individual, including their history-- among other factors.

There are also overt factors that also impact on behaviour such as economic, political and legislative frameworks, not necessarily in that order, but these factors do also impact on behaviour.

All these factors form part of the discourse of ‘context’, and behaviour of an employee in the workplace is significantly influenced by these hidden and overt societal factors.

A recently published book edited by Horwitz and Budhwar (2015) alludes to the pivotal role that culture plays in Human Resources practices in Africa. Many researchers in the field of Industrial Psychology and Human Resources view Industrial Psychology as a discipline in excellent position to contribute to the advancement of how Human Resources Management in context is understood.

However, the discipline has been accused of being preoccupied with testing and implementing western theories with complete unconscious or conscious disregard for contexts.

Industrial Psychology as observed by Anderson and friends in their Handbook of Industrial/Organisational Psychology (IOP)published in 2001 is to “examine the extent to which and the way in which cultures influence individual and groups in organisations” (page, 386).

The application of the so called universal, and specifically Euro-America theories in the African context continues till this age in Africa. The Multinational companies have been at the forefront of modelling HR policies and practices according to the “best practice” paradigm, which completely ignores the host nations’ institutional context.

Long after the Dutch born researcher Geert Hofstede warned us not to disregard the significance of national culture in our understanding of national behaviour of organisations. Industrial/Organisational Psychology research has continued to implement Euro-American HR practices and policies in Africa and particularly the Sub-Saharan Africa.

Such a position taken by Industrial Psychology is due to the discipline’s reliance on the psychological theories and principles which have been criticised as untransformed and lacking contextual relevance and being indigenously Euro-America by scholars and psychologists such as Nhlanhla Mkhize, Augustine Nwoye, Nonkululeko Sandlana, Len Holdstock etc.

Psychology as a discipline has relentlessly continued to look at the African social systems with Euro-America lenses, and as a result, have sought to problematize the African way of life as Mamdani acknowledged in his account of how University of Cape Town frustrated his attempts to create an African centred studies unit.

Theories of convergence and cultural relativism have been ignored by mainstream psychologists and Industrial Psychology specifically. As one of the sub-discipline of Psychology, IOP has fallen victim of this phenomenon.

HR practices therefore continue to resemble the Euro-America social systems with African social systems overshadowed by the Afro-pessimistic attitude which sought to devalue the African personality and the way of life of Africans. As a result, we’ve seen Human Resources departments of major companies in South Africa continuing to measure intelligence the way it is understood in the Euro-America way of life—ability to speak English fluently, ability to count, and master math.

English remains the yardstick upon which articulation in that language is synonymous with intelligence. Africans sitting in as interviewers turn to judge candidates also on proficiency of spoken English language, academic records, etc. This is why people like Mr Hlaudi Motswaleng continue to be subjected to serious scrutiny by the media on basis that he doesn’t have the necessary academic qualifications and move beyond they misrepresentation of academic qualification.

Arguably, one would misrepresent their academic qualifications in this society especially in South Africa because so much emphasis is being put on academic qualifications as if it is the yardstick for ‘ability’. Germans put emphasis on academic qualification, Americans emphasis ability to perform a task and South Africa also puts emphasis on qualifications.

Now, owing to the recent socio-political and economic transition in South Africa over the past 21 years, the convergence models of fitting the man to the job dominate. Little is being done to restructure jobs to accommodate the different social systems that people bring to the job but instead too much pressure is being put on people to behaviour according to the dominant ‘expected job behaviours’ in South Africa.

The purported ‘failure’ of black people therefore is predicated on their inability to adjust to the demands of these jobs, these jobs demands not only performance but also certain patterns of behaviour, and in most cases, the Africans have to lose themselves in order to fit the requirements of these jobs and failure to do so, the resultant word is ‘incompetent’.

South African researchers especially in Human Resources Management and Industrial Psychology must explore theories like Neo-Pluralism and contingency models to ensure the broader social representation of values in the South African workplace and also the important consideration of contextual perspectives of understanding behaviour in Human Resources in order for the transition from Apartheid workplace to democratic-all-inclusive SA workplace to flourish.

This will help us explore South African unique workplace behaviour and develop our own theories that consider our own context instead of the international perspectives that we often implant in the South African social system when we do research.

Industrial/Organisational Psychology will need to incorporate ‘again’ ethnocentric strategies of doing research (fieldwork, observations, and interviews). The dominant survey quantitative methods have contributed to the testing and application of Euro-American theories and practices. Instead of rejection, these theories have found solace in the research front of Industrial and Organisational and therefore Human Resources areas.

So, we need to rethink our research approaches and find theories that promote pluralism and deviation from modelling African behaviour on the Euro-America ‘best-practices’ organisational behaviour approach. Certain behaviour constructs will be measured according to context and as it has been proven elsewhere, productivity of local companies could perform competitively and successfully if context of the employees both political, economic and social could be considered.

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