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Organisational culture and use of first names

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Good morning ladies and gentlemen,” he addressed the staff on his maiden town hall meeting, “my name is Ansel Achara. I am your new MD. You can call me Ansel, or if you prefer my initials, A. A for short.”

But the staff could not bring themselves to call him ‘Ansel.’ They either called him ‘MD’ or Mr. Achara. The company does not have the culture of calling bosses by their first names. He is the first person that would attempt to break this unwritten tradition. Despite his repeated assurances that that was the way to go in the modern business world, the staff politely declined to call him by his first name. He gave up further attempts to change their mindset. Old habits, they say, die-hard.

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IK faced a different dilemma when he joined a leading new generation bank in Lagos. Fresh from the prestigious Harvard and coming from a culture where you called everyone by their first names, he assumed it was not only a universal way of relating with one’s superiors and subordinates but also the right thing to do.

However, when he called the MD by his first name at a board meeting a few days after he assumed duty, he received a rude shock. He was told curtly that he should address the MD as ‘MD’ or by his last name preceded by a title. The top shots of the bank frowned at the imprudent young Harvard graduate, who failed to treat the dignified position of ‘MD’ with some respect. IK had never felt so embarrassed all his life. Not intending to be in the bad books of the MD or anyone for that matter, he quickly adapted to the company’s ‘way of life.’

Imoyi’s case is more pathetic. Even after receiving several stern verbal warnings and a strongly worded memo from a consulting company, which recently offered him a job, he still could not bring himself to call his bosses by their first names, as was the company’s culture. He comes from a culture that accords deep respect for elders. He carried this inveterate culture into the workplace.

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Heartily sick of Imoyi’s rigidity, his direct boss angrily summoned him into his office after some time to find out why he found it so difficult to call his superiors by their first names. He said Imoyi was embarrassing the company with this unbecoming conduct. He told him point-blank that it was either he adapted fast to the firm’s way of life or he should start looking for another job. Not intending to lose a job he just got, poor Imoyi had no choice but to fall in line with the company’s organisational culture. Such is the predicament new hires and some people who frequently switch jobs, have found themselves in.

If you find yourself in this dilemma you are not alone. Many employees often struggle to bridge the deep cultural divide they encounter when they first assume duty, particularly in a multinational setting.

For instance, it is not unusual to find Nigerian workers addressing their superiors as Mr. ‘first name,’ or Auntie ‘first name,’ in the office, whether they are employed in the private sector or the public sector. If they choose to be more formal, they may prefer to use socially acceptable sobriquets such as CFO (Chief Finance Officer), HRD (Human Resources Director) or GM (General Manager), when talking about their bosses. It is difficult to separate people from the culture they grew up with. It is like teaching a right-handed man how to use his left hand in old age.

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Generally, the use of first names is common to Western cultures where employees instinctively address one another by their first names, regardless of status. But in Nigeria, this can be an exercise fraught with risk. Such a foolhardy action may be viewed as a sign of poor cultural upbringing. In fact, in some organisations, particularly Western multinationals, where first names are part of the normal work culture, some Nigerian employees may find it difficult calling their superiors by their first names.

Hofstede’s cultural dimension theory, which is one of the models for dimensionalising national cultures, describes Western nations as having individualistic cultures, while Africans have a collectivistic view of life. Individualistic cultures encourage ‘I’ consciousness, whereas collectivistic cultures promote the “we” consciousness. It, therefore, implies that people from individualistic and collectivistic cultures may not communicate in the same way. It is imperative for multinational companies to understand this fact as they try to implement their organisational culture across the different countries where they operate in.

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Some scholarly definitions of culture may help to put this discussion in the right perspective. According to Hofstede (1994), culture is the collective programming of the mind, which distinguishes the members of one group or category of people, from another. Weaver (2005) views culture as the way of life of a group of people, which is passed down from one generation to another through learning. This transmissibility of culture is what keeps the fabric of society together.

Organisational cultures often prove challenging for some multinationals to implement in their overseas subsidiaries, particularly after mergers or acquisitions, or during cross-border expansion. The reason is that societal and national cultures appear to be more firmly rooted in the human mind than organisational cultures learnt on the job.

So, as multinational companies expand their tentacles across the globe in search of new worlds to conquer, they should be sensitive to cultural differences that exist among local employees.

Dr. Mordi is a corporate communications and government affairs practitioner based in Lagos.

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