Thursday, 2 June 2011

Do workplace values and attitudes change significantly from one generation to the next..?

It's important for organisations to understand the values and attitudes of the people they employ. If individual and organisational values are congruent then engagement will be high, goals will be shared more readily and the culture is more likely to sustain high performance. If values are not aligned tensions and conflicts may arise over goals and how to achieve them.

The workplace is a reflection of the society in which it operates and will therefore be subject to the same influences and factors which drive change in the wider environment. If significant change in values and attitudes were experienced in the workplace from one generation to the next then it would suggest that the same changes must be taking place in society at large.

Values, which help to define a person’s sense of what is “right” and “wrong” are formed early in life and determine what might be an appropriate course of action or outcome in a particular situation. Once formed, evidence suggests that individual values will be enduring and will be held throughout the course of a person’s life. Whilst values tend to be general in nature, attitudes provide a more specific focus on the people and objects within our environment and as such are more subject to change. If values are influenced by social circumstances then it’s likely we will “inherit” at least some of our values from parents and those closest to us in our early years (friends, neighbours, family members, nursery and schools etc.). The degree to which they change from one generation to the next will therefore be limited to some degree; however the way in which we apply these values through our attitudes may be subject to greater change.

Take, for example, a value that everyone should be treated fairly. In a single culture society our concept of “fair” might be based on what’s best for the resident population. In matters of employment, promotion, remuneration etc. it might be considered “fair” to favour people from within our own society and to treat “outsiders” differently. As society becomes more multicultural then our attitude about what is “fair” might change to reflect that everyone should be treated on an equal basis, regardless of their nationality or ethnicity. Our value of “fair” hasn’t changed, but our attitude of what is “fair”, or our interpretation of “fair”, has moved significantly. Over time, we may reflect this change in attitude in the way we articulate our value. For example, our value may become everyone should be treated fairly and equally

Organisations need to work hard to keep up with shifting attitudes which can often change overnight. Consider how the 9/11 tragedies will have changed attitudes towards security in the workplace; the value of needing to feel secure remains constant, however the attitude of what makes us feel secure at work changed significantly from one day to the next. 

Taking everything into account, it's unlikely that values will change significantly from one generation to the next but will evolve more slowly to reflect changing attitudes which can change dramatically in the blink of an eye. If this is the case in society at large, it is also likely to be reflected within the workplace.