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Fair Exchange of Value - putting the social back into the design of workplace culture

Editor's Note

This article was originally published on Linkedin. The author of this article will be facilitating a workshop at the 23rd GRC Conference in Melbourne next week. Hope to see you all there!

Click here to learn more about the conference.

Long Read

As humans, we make meaning through our subjective world. Each of us has an inner subjective world - a unique frame of reference - where we interpret and respond to situations through a personal filter or “worldview.” This subjectivity shapes our perceptions of people and conditions so that no two individuals will see or react to a situation or relationship in precisely the same way. Instead, we will project onto every relationship and context, personal meaning and interpretations about what we see, how we feel, and why others behave as they do. Our filters or perceptions are shaped in childhood by significant others, and increasingly, by our digital world.

The world of business has a workplace language that can silence our subjectivity and, with that, consideration of our social needs from the work we do. It imposes, largely mechanistically designed processes, policies and frameworks in an attempt to shape everyday workplace human behaviour. The design of many of our existing business frameworks has excluded a rich understanding of the social needs and aspirations that drive our human behaviour. Consequently, they fail to shape the desired behaviour and attitudes or nurture the resilience needed to respond to an era of discontinuous change. The failure of workplace codes of conduct to set behaviour standards or, the Three Lines of Defence framework(3LOD) to manage non-financial risks, including conduct risks, are currently high profile examples of organisational-wide protocols that have failed to become embedded in organisational cultures. The absence of any ”facilitating social infrastructure” to harness the social commitment needed to make them work crippled them from the start. Even the Employee Value Proposition (EVP) frame begins with business’ performance needs rather than employee social needs.

The Australian Institute of Directors (AICD) last week flagged that a better grasp of organisational culture through measurement is now a number one accountability for aspiring business leaders. But let’s not just stop at the metrics. We can only address non-financial risk or conduct risk or governance accountabilities or ethical accountability when we recognise and understand the social meanings behind the metrics. Non-financial risks arise, in the first place, because of poorly designed interfaces between business practices and human needs.

Everyone is involved in building an organisation’s culture so that its always emerging rather than being cast in concrete. At its simplest, workplace culture is a set of social relationships that, for most of us, will determine the quality of our lives. Nurturing positive workplace relationships is as much about building consistency in perceptions, attitudes and social skills as it is in nurturing desired behaviour patterns. It is achieved by recognising social needs and emotional predispositions and harnessing personal motivations to align with organisational needs. Designing an appropriate social infrastructure begins with a focus on employees’ social needs and builds on foundation stones that ignite commitment – personal clarity around who, why, how, when and where in this organisation. Answers to these pivotal questions press the social levers that feed our workplace social needs:

  • affirmation of our sense of identity through congruence with our workplace behaviour standards

  • a sense of psychological safety because we know the rules of success are fair and applied consistently

  • a sense of belonging arising from our shared values and expectations of each other and organisational leadership

  • a sense of purpose from the work we do

  • a sense of learning and achievement because we are self-actualising from our workplace experiences

  • self-confidence because we are skilled to do the tasks required

  • empowerment because we know we can talk about what’s not working as well as what will work better for us

  • creativity because we are encouraged to seek improvement on the status quo

  • Designing enabling social infrastructures also means dismantling existing social barriers that are the shadow behaviours and emotions that take root when our social needs go unmet:

  • Our fears arising from our inability to understand expectations of us or from not having the skills to perform the tasks required or arising from the disconnect between stated organisational values and what gets rewarded

  • Distress arising from our inability to respond to the contextual challenges and known organisational risks that will waylay us

  • Our sense of isolation because of our vulnerabilities arising from our underdeveloped social skills or our unacknowledged personal cognitive biases inhibiting us from responding to change

  • Our sense of frustration and powerlessness in the face of uncontrollable workplace pressures be they interpersonal, contextual or technical

So let’s embrace our humanness and get to work to build the social infrastructures necessary to make the workplace more humane and sustainable. We know the business case shows that a healthy workplace culture also means a healthy bottom line return. Field research also shows its a powerful antidote to non-financial risk with high trust cultures enabling employees to send early warnings when risk emerges.

We can begin by extending our existing business frame of “Fair Exchange of Value” to include employees and help them to build the personal skills they need to flourish at work. So skilled, they can, in turn, honour the mutual obligation existing between employer and employee. Skilling employees will include guidance and opportunities for personal learning and development, as well as the technical skills necessary to respond to ongoing marketplace changes. We can consult and include employees ideas in designing organisational policies and processes that embed better social cues or “nudges” that work for them and encourage desired behaviours. We can use behaviour science insights to skill managers and leaders in leadership processes designed to press the social and emotional levers necessary to nurture a committed employee workforce.

All employees want to be successful at work. We need to leverage these social desires and build social infrastructure to help them realise their dreams. By so doing, we can breathe life into organisational policies and processes, so they become part of the living social fabric of the organisation. We’ve mapped a treasure chest of workplace insights from the science of human behaviour. Let’s use these new tools to build a new win-win business model for organisational and employee success.

(Extracts from Social Infrastructure workshop) GRC Conference Melbourne 18th October 2019.

Click here to learn more about the conference.

About the Author

Dr Attracta Lagan is a leading Australian business ethicist who has worked extensively in the corporate and government areas in Australia and throughout Asia. She is a subject expert in behaviour ethics and draws on the latest research from behaviour science to enable leaders to design workplace contexts where an ethical culture to flourish.

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