Kweku C. Eshun’s thoughts ….The Bipolar Ghanaian workforce:  Rethinking employee contribution to building a resilient economy

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A few years ago, President John A. Kufour said of Ghanaian employees “they pretend to work and we pretend to pay them”. This statement by the leader of the nation clearly reflected his exasperation as his administration failed to find a solution to the abysmally low productivity of the Ghanaian worker and its dastardly negative effect on the performance of the Ghana economy.

This situation remains unchanged. In spite of Ghana’s, and by extension Africa’s, claim to being endowed with rich natural resources our economy remains fragile and small with high rates of poverty, disease and hunger. Generally, the state of every economy reflects the aggregate quality, efficiency and output levels of its public and private organizations as well as its institutions as it interacts with the rest of the world. By implication, the differences between the leading world economies of the USA, China, Europe and Japan and the laggard economies of Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon for instance can be traced to significant differences in the innovativeness, output and efficiency of their public and private organizations, institutions, governance systems and management processes.

Extant empirical management literature confirms that the one critical strategic factor which determines competitive advantage, a prerequisite for sustained superior performance of any organization, is its human resource. This is because human capital, unlike other resources, possesses the unique capacity i.e. skills, knowledge and ability) to strategize, select, combine and process all resources (including itself) as well as operate the organization for the achievement of set goals. It is the people, employed at all levels within the organization, who take all decisions regarding the development and execution of strategies, plans and processes adopted by the organization. The quality of decisions and task execution at all levels reflect the cognitive capacity, knowledge, skills, experience, dedication, commitment and hard work of the human capital engaged by each organization. These in turn determine the success or failure of our organizations and by extension the performance of the Ghana economy.

The Mirriam–Webster dictionary defines employee as “one employed by another for wages or salary and in a position below executive level”. The same dictionary defines an executive as one who has “administrative or managerial responsibility” in an organization.  It is important to note however, that although directors (administrators) and managers are executive personnel they are also employed by ‘another’ for salaries. Hence essentially they are also employees operating at a higher level within the organization. This dichotomy of executive and workers / employees is for administrative and governance convenience only. We are all employees of the organizations we work for. We all eat and benefit from the same organizational pot. It is important to note that unlike other resources in the production mix employees are not owned by the organization. They only sell their services.

Following from empirical management research findings and theories as well as contemporary popular leadership literature scholars, practitioners and strategists continue to emphasize employees as the most important strategic assets any organization possesses. Extensive efforts and resources are therefore invested in activities which are aimed at optimizing employee contribution to the achievement of superior organizational performance.

These include specific employee training and development programs, adoption of elite talent management and reward systems and organizational structures which encourage full participation of employees in decision making at all levels, direct involvement in the development and implementation of strategies and plans and eventually the evaluation of performance results. Indeed, some strategists and leadership gurus even advocate putting employees at par with customers and suggest that organizations treat them as internal customers.

Other solutions anchored on theories in psychology and sociology propose that “employees must be inspired” to produce their best effort, “employers have the moral obligation to make sure employees look forward to coming to work in the morning”, leaders must boost employee self-esteem so they accomplish amazing things, being an employer is a privilege (really????) and treat employees like they make a difference etc. All these whilst paying employees remuneration befitting of their status as ‘demi-gods’ (my emphasis). Even worse, during financial crises, recessions and pandemics with devastating economic consequences entrepreneurs are still pressured to make concessions to ease the suffering of employees.

My initial reaction is “what arrant nonsense”? I understand that employees are important stakeholders in the fortunes of their organization so why do they need to be motivated to contribute to its growth and profitability from which they earn their daily bread, obtain the wherewithal to provide food, shelter, education, health and security for themselves and their families? Are employees not rational economic actors seeking to maximize utility from job opportunities? Don’t these employees benefit directly from organizations they work for in cash and kind?

Even in situations where employees work for small and less endowed firms don’t they use this opportunity to learn new skills and acquire knowledge which makes them attractive to the so called larger organizations which would not employ them otherwise? Why did they apply for the jobs in the first place? They were desperate to escape the dire and tough economic and psychological conditions they faced as a result of prolonged unemployment. Without the effort and munificence of public and private organizations / institutions how many employees would have been able to fend for themselves? What would have been their standard of living as they depend on welfare or the support of their families only? Why do employees forget that ‘they stand on the shoulders of others’ who sacrificed and labored before them to establish or build organizations they now have the opportunity to work for? The size, quality or potential of the organization is not important because if the employees had better options they would even quit their jobs unceremoniously. I simply do not understand or agree with this business of treating employees as internal customers. In my view this will be suicidal for any organization which adopts this strategy. My experience regarding the mind set of customers is frightening. The customer is constantly trying their very best to acquire goods and services at the optimum combination of the lowest price and the highest quality possible or even for free. Indeed, they are at their worst in a buyer’s market. They are not bothered even if the producer or supplier is receiving less than its cost of production.

They always have various supplier options and play them against each other. Once you treat employees as customers they will develop a customer mind set. Employees with a customer mindset go to work each morning trying to find ways to fleece their organizations whilst they contribute the least to targeted performance. Certainly, employees with customer attitudes and behavior will hold their organizations hostage and are a danger to the firm and even onto themselves. Yes, employees are important but in my book they come a distant third after shareholders and customers.

After a calmer and deeper examination of existing management literature on strategies for enhancing employee contribution to organizational performance I find that two major issues must be recognized and clearly understood even as we adopt these solutions. First, I realized that these popular ideas and strategies applied in management practice are based on theories and findings from empirical studies carried out in the advanced western countries that have strong and resilient economies.

These technologies driven advanced knowledge economies have their very own unique contexts which are radically different from the conditions prevailing in under-developed or emerging economies. Specifically, their market structures, well-developed formal institutions and work cultures etc are markedly different from those experienced locally by Ghanaian / African organizations that borrow, adopt (or rather copy blindly?) and apply these employee management recommendations. Solutions which work for organizations in these advanced economies therefore cannot be imposed on, or successfully implemented in, Ghana lock, stock and barrel. We urgently need to find solutions which adequately capture and reflect the real local conditions which influence the attitudes, values, behavior and activities of Ghanaian employees. Secondly, these ‘imported’ solutions which advocate the special and focused treatment of employees refer to high impact and very highly productive human resource only. These western solutions are anchored on the careful selection and employment of highly skilled, experienced, highly motivated and creative employees as the key strategic guiding tenet for sustainable high organizational performance.

These high performance employees are markedly different from average or mediocre employees. They are highly educated, skillful, possess a positive mindset, have a ‘can do’ attitude and they are goal oriented life-long learners who are willing to do more than the absolutely necessary minimum work required of them. The progress of the organization depends on these highly productive employees who make exceptional and innovative contributions at all levels of the company structure resulting in its sustained growth and resilience. They are great ambassadors of the organization and reflect its corporate aspirations at all times. This is the type of valuable employee deserving of special recognition and even elevation to customer status western literature refers to.

Unfortunately, the generally poor quality output of our technical and general tertiary educational institutions means that industry and the public service in Ghana do not receive high impact personnel inputs necessary for superior organizational performance. Mr Senyo Hosi, the CEO of Chamber of Bulk Oil Distribution, captured this situation during the University of Ghana @ 70 celebration when he stated “…. You are churning out people with degrees not people with an education. Not people with skills on how to live. …… You guys are not doing anything that is relevant for the future and you won’t get people wanting to employ the people out of this place. Your MBA students, many of them I will not hire. …….. This is a school of mediocrity. ………… Your children don’t have skills which make them viable for the future. They don’t have a thinking. They are robots! Even that robot koraa they can’t even do it.”  Harsh and brutally frank as Mr Hosi’s comments may seem they correctly reflect the dire practical experience of organizations and employers across both public and private sectors of the Ghana economy. Both MSMEs and large organizations (including multinationals) persistently make the same complaints regarding local human resource inputs. This situation is further aggravated and complicated by the sense of entitlement these half- baked graduates portray at their workplaces. They expect to be paid for minimal work done simply because they hold a certificate. They show little or no initiative and are completely ineffective when the working context is mildly complex. To wit, they pretend to work. They require continuous close supervision thus limiting the productivity of their superiors / management and the performance of the organization as a whole. Their personal values and behaviors are at variance with those required to build strong organizations. The critical issue in an increasingly knowledge based world economy is their abysmally poor trainability levels. Their inability to think through slightly complex problems and proffer innovative solutions means organizations need to reduce roles to the barest and basic mechanical components. It takes much longer, at great cost, for organizations to train management personnel. The added specter of employee parochial interests means it is difficult for management to build effective teams to deliver set goals. Furthermore, as exemplified by the threats by Teacher unions (GNAT, NAGRAT, TEWU, CCT etc —- Daily Graphic, February 17, 2020) in response to the deliberations of the Pre-tertiary Education Bill by parliament these mediocre and average employees, who pretend to work and cannot deliver high impact performance, depend on the collective ‘bullying power’ of their associations and unions to protect themselves, their parochial interests and squeeze more than they deserve from organizational coffers. Note that I have deliberately decided not to complicate this article by including employee corruption, pilfering and even outright sabotage of the very organizations they work for. The work culture and socialization of the employees of the industrialized and advanced economies are certainly different from those of Ghanaian employees and this informs the individual character and response of the two different sets of employees to the same management stimuli. The acute lack of a big picture and long term perspectives regarding work by Ghanaian employees seeking only their parochial interests means Ghanaian organizations (both public and private) are generally weak, cannot build strong balance sheets and therefore lack the resilience necessary for surviving any crisis (economic or biological) and successfully competing on the international stage. Eventually, these aggregated weak organizations caused by ‘employees pretending to work’ results in a weak economy of Ghana which cannot meet the needs and aspirations of its populace.

Ironically, it is instructive to note the marked difference in attitude and behavior of the same Ghanaian employees as they engage in ‘voluntary’ work for their faith-based organizations. Indeed, a major driver for the accelerated growth of faith-based organizations in Ghana is the large and deep pool of free labor they control. The very same mediocre to average Ghanaian employees who run down their commercial organizations work conscientiously and free-of-charge for their religious organizations. Apart from making mandatory weekly and monthly cash contributions these employees invest their own additional cash and time in evangelizing to win converts (this is akin to wining new customers), teaching, facility management, member management and other administrative duties, project management, providing services during ministration like singing and ushering, providing security services and  financial services  etc for their religious organizations. Employees have been known to actively contribute to infrastructure development of their faith-based organizations in cash and kind. They work effectively in teams, portray a humble, learning attitude and require minimum supervision when in religious settings. The same employees productively and innovatively utilize skills and knowledge acquired in the commercial environment in the religious context with brilliant outcomes. They are indeed high impact ‘voluntary workers, and highly productive members of faith-based organizations. All this while they simultaneously ran down the very commercial organizations which provide them with jobs, training and financial security which enables them feed their families, secure shelter and literally keeps body and soul together. It has been reported anecdotally that a lot of employee religious activities are carried out using company resources during official working hours. Unfortunately, extant literature does not provide statistics on this phenomenon or quantify its effect on employee productivity. Clearly, Ghanaian employees choose to act differently under commercial and religious environments or contexts with markedly different results. They devastate commercial and public organizations whilst driving the accelerated growth of their faith-based organizations. Ghanaian employees do not pretend to work when engaged by their religious organizations. They apply a different value system. Why? What is their motivation? What are the socio-psychological mechanisms driving this seriously bipolar work character of Ghanaian employees? How do we bridge this performance divide so Ghanaian employees actively contribute to the building of strong and viable commercial and public organizations necessary for constructing a resilient economy of Ghana?

Extant socio-religious literature identifies the development and rapid dissemination of a dominant Prosperity Theology or Gospel by faith-based organizations as a major influence on the beliefs, and consequently the bipolar behavior, of believers. At its core Prosperity Gospel emphasizes that the accumulation of individual material wealth (and by implication poverty eradication), opportunities for personal development (breakthroughs), improved personal physical health and spiritual safety can only be attained via spiritual solutions, faith and divine or supernatural intervention. Generally, Prosperity Gospel makes no connection between the crucial issues of collective national development or the need for believers to contribute to socio-economic systems improvement and individual success. The mechanisms for achieving these supernatural blessings include seed and faith sowing, positive confessions of faith and contribution to the religious organizations’ growth in cash and kind for multiple returns from God. Contrary to traditional religious teachings which stress salvation, frugality, patience, honest hard work and contentedness Prosperity Theology encourages believers to seek lavish living which they claim reflects God’s gifts and blessings. The aggressive promotion of the Prosperity Gospel and its promises by well-organized religious entrepreneurs permeates Christian, Islamic and Traditional African Religion religious groupings where most Ghanaian employees fellowship. In their search for divine and supernatural intervention Ghanaian workers spend more time, cash and effort on meeting the demands of their faith-based organizations to the neglect of their duties in public and commercial organizations. Indeed it is instructive to note how they always attribute their personal success on any front directly to God and the support of their faith-based organizations which benefit from increased contributions. Their commercial and public organizations which provide the platform, training and resources for their socio-economic development are barely given any credit and may even be discounted as a contributing factor to their progress. This was aptly captured when my house help whom I decided to mentor and support financially through an apprenticeship program declared boldly after rejecting my offer:  “It doesn’t matter what I do or where I go. If God decides to bless me, he will bless me.” Within 3 months his used clothing business failed miserably and he became an itinerant gardener’s assistant whilst awaiting his supernatural blessings.  Similarly, Ghanaian employees in general do not believe their employers, the commercial or public organizations, by themselves are the source of their potential wealth and wellbeing. They therefore have no attachment to, or pride in, the growth and development of these public or commercial organizations. Indeed, in Ghana’s increasingly digital and knowledge based economy workers possess unique information and skills which makes them very mobile occupationally so they believe they do not need to grow or stabilize these organizations even as they milk them (including outright corruption and sabotage) for personal gain. They can always jump or evacuate a sinking ship as they pursue individual prospects for success as defined by Prosperity Gospel advocates. Unfortunately, smart religious entrepreneurs (and their formed alliances and networks) who have recognized the powerful motivational forces of employee selfish interests and their inordinate desire for wealth continue to aggressively use new mass communication media (internet, TV, radio) to propagate the remedies espoused by Prosperity Gospel in a bid to direct the flow of financial and other material resources as well as free labor to their faith based organizations at the expense of public and commercial organizations and the economy of Ghana. Not surprisingly, some literature refers to these religious entrepreneurs and their faith based organizations as “business empires” given their aggressive salesmanship and marketing strategies used to organize and mobilize (or divert) funds which could have been used for the broader purpose of growing Ghana’s economy.

How do we shatter this pervasive employee parochialism and its attendant behaviors which undermine and destroy our commercial and public organizations? How do we practically eliminate or minimize cognitive dissonance resulting from the bipolar character of Ghanaian employees?  Pretending to pay employees is definitely the wrong solution for breaking the cycle of employees pretending to work and fleecing our commercial and public organizations in the process. We are in urgent need of a radical paradigm shift in employee belief systems to confidence in the ability of commercial and public organizations to deliver long term community and personal prosperity. How do we rescue our employees from the vice-like grips of Prosperity Theology peddlers and re-channel their focus from individualist agendas to investment in broader and longer term patriotic and integrity-filled contribution to the building of a resilient economy of Ghana? As daunting as this task may seem Ghana has no choice but to embark on this citizen-transforming journey with the necessary commitment or remain marginalized. Although suggestions and analysis of comprehensive and detailed solutions fall outside the scope of this article I suggest a few critical issues which require urgent attention. First, it is imperative that Ghana selects a crop of experienced political, public officials and business leaders used to solving complex management problems who in practical ways exemplify and demonstrate the levels of sacrifice, commitment, honesty, integrity and hard work we demand from employees to lead and champion the change we desire. Top management teams of commercial and public organizations must be held to very high performance and accountability standards with real consequences in terms of benefits and punishment. Organizations must work, and be seen to work, for the long term benefit of all stake holders including fully contributing employees. The naïve business strategy which dictates a tactic of pretending to pay employees has failed abysmally and must cease.

Addressing the genuine concerns of employees and paying fair remuneration whilst demanding full concentration and contribution to company performance is a smarter and more sustainable strategic option. Consistently and transparently applying regulation rules without fear or favor will ensure that employees can correctly predict outcomes of their behavior and encourage them to subjugate their parochial interests to the achievement of national agenda. The Japanese and Singaporean management models which provides career-long employment opportunities for generations of families and the needed management discipline respectively are examples we can study, modify and adopt. Above all, Ghana must develop and revamp its vocational and tertiary institutions in order to consistently produce crops of highly trained, practically relevant and industry-ready graduates with the capacity to unravel complex phenomena and ready to sacrifice or fight for the development of public and private organizations so they in turn contribute to the building of a resilient Ghana economy. In the spirit of the Greek concept of Paideia, education and socialization of our well-rounded graduates should emphasize the subjugation of personal goals to the national agenda. Yes, I recognize that there are many other environmental, socio-economic and political factors which provide a complex backdrop to Ghana’s economic development and should be addressed as well simultaneously. However, without the resolution of the Ghana employee bipolar conundrum we are already doomed to failure because a nation without a critical mass of skilled, creative, productive, technology savy and altruistic human resource fully committed to making their contribution to its development cannot compete in a globalized world. Every effort must be made by our leaders to change the narrative regarding commercial and public sector employees and the resilience of Ghana’s economy. What is Caesar’s must indeed remain Caesar’s.

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