Work contracts are a complex web of social and cultural dynamics

Without loyalty, employees don’t go the extra mile that’s needed to make a business competitive. Shutterstock

Psychological contracts in the workplace are fragile bonds. This is true all over the world. In South Africa they come with their own set of unique challenges largely due to the country’s history of racial discrimination.

A psychological contract is the unwritten set of expectations between employer and employee – as well as between workers. Along with the formal employment contract, it underpins all workplace relationships.

Breaching the contract can damage relationships irreparably and lead to a number of undesirable outcomes. For example, it can have a negative impact on employee loyalty. Without loyalty, employees don’t go the extra mile that’s needed to make a business competitive.

But when properly nurtured, psychological contracts can unlock productivity and boost growth. Organisational behaviour researcher Margarita Mayo argues that employees only go beyond what’s expected in the labour contract when there’s an emotional relationship based on employee loyalty and the identification of the employee with the company and its mission.

For loyalty and identification to flourish, employees – particularly the younger generation – are increasingly needing recognition and a voice when it comes to their employment conditions and workplace relationships. This is particularly important in South Africa. The country’s apartheid history deliberately deprived people of their voice. Employers who don’t acknowledge this are treading on dangerous ground.

Communication is key

World-renowned expert and scholar Denise Rousseau has described psychological contracts as motivating workers to fulfil commitments made to employers. But they only work when workers are confident that employers will deliver something in return.

Psychological contracts include an intricate and complex web of social and cultural dynamics. These go beyond simply setting workplace expectations or maintaining strong team bonds between peers.

But the difficulty with these contracts is that very often key aspects aren’t clearly communicated. And in South Africa diverse cultural and personal needs must be taken into account. For example, people from different social backgrounds might have different communication styles which can be influenced by language. Organisations that don’t deal with these complexities face a greater risk of causing misunderstandings in the work place.

Generational differences

On top of this South Africa is recovering from a unique set of historical circumstances and inequalities. Change is often perceived differently by different generations.

Beyond the usual differences between Baby Boomers – those born during the post–World War II years – and Millennials, South Africa’s inter-generational differences carry their own unique stamp. This is because of the country’s history. For example those born after 1994, or the “born frees”, have a vastly different experience to their parents of their place in the country – what is known as inter-generational disjuncture.

In South Africa generational differences play out in a number of areas. They can affect, for example:

  • people’s attitude towards employment equity policies;

  • what constitutes a reasonable work-life balance, and

  • different understandings of when time off should be given for cultural observances.

Generally, Baby Boomers prefer teamwork where they’re in charge. Generation X, a generation that came after the baby boomers, tends to favour teams where individual contribution is valued.

The Millenials, the generation typically born in the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, show little allegiance to their employers, but higher levels of loyalty to their work and their peers.

This underlines the need for new approaches as this generation increasingly moves through the workforce. Building sound relationships between all parties within the workplace becomes more important than ever to foster loyalty.

Uniquely South African solutions

The good news is that there are uniquely local solutions to these challenges. For example, the African philosophy of Ubuntu, has a key role to play in achieving more humane and productive workplaces.

Ubuntu is underpinned by values of generosity, hospitality, friendliness, care and compassion as well as accessibility and affirmation. Lovemore Mbigi, renowned South African author, argues that within the organisational setting, Ubuntu means remaining focused on caring about people and the environment around them. That links well with the expectations that Millenials have globally.

Human resource professionals are also probing the opportunities that the inter-generational offers in terms of relationship building. A system of ‘reverse mentorship’, for example, allows for skills transfer between generations. A Baby Boomer or Generation X colleague may offer a Millenial experience and insight. The Millenial, in turn, might bring new knowledge of updated skills or technologies.

Additionally, bringing Ubuntu into the workplace can build and consolidate interpersonal relationships where effective cross-generational collaborations can flourish.

Start at the beginning

All workplace challenges can be navigated more easily if well-understood psychological contracts are in place. But their often unspoken nature makes this tricky. And it starts even before the job interview. Prospective recruits form expectations based on branding, and the wording of job advertisements.

It’s therefore crucial for managers to ensure that communication is clear, considerate and respectful. And that mutual understandings are clarified to avoid the breakdown of trust.

If employee relationships are at the heart of retaining the competitive advantage, then successfully navigating the complex territory of a psychological contract in South Africa is central to this. The success of companies depends on mastering an intricate navigation of demographics. With focus, respect and clear communication, it can be done.

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