Lately, there are 2 things that catch my eye when browsing LinkedIn: The amount of vacancies, and the number of posts on employee engagement. It makes sense. When talent is scarce, you want to do everything you can to retain your best employees. All the articles on employee engagement that pop-up in my feed, list the same focal points; offer an attractive salary, make sure the employee has development opportunities, have an empowering management team in place that promotes two-way communication and allows employees to express their opinions and offer ideas, while working towards a common goal.
Looking at myself, yes, this is the kind of company culture that would definitely work for me and keep me happy. But I’m Dutch. Can this Western approach be copy-pasted to East Africa? Probably not!
Jody de Blois-Eijsenga, the co-founder and intercultural trainer at InterAct, agrees with me. “Managers should be careful not to project their European values on their East African employees when it comes to employee engagement. There are a number of things that are vastly different in the company culture in, for example, Kenya. For one, employee empowerment is a very Western concept. Most companies in Kenya have a hierarchal structure and employees see their managers as trusted leaders who provide relatively detailed work instructions and take the difficult decisions. A Western manager might have to adapt to a more directive style than he/she is used to and be more present at the work floor, overseeing processes. Where this could be interpreted as micro managing by a European employee, it’s seen as a sign of engagement by the Kenyan employee and is the foundation for building trust within a team. Besides being actively present at work, managers working in Kenya who have prioritized building personal relationships with the team, have been more successful than the ones that adhere to the Western ideal of carefully separating our work from our private life.
Another major difference is how we see appraisals and personal development plans. Yes, Kenyan employees want to grow, but their first priority is making sure they can provide for their families and send their children to school. Salaries are not only used for the nuclear family but will often go towards helping out the extended family. So when employees receive an appraisal, which results in a development program but is not in directly linked to a salary increase, managers might be met with some disappointment.
Cultural differences within East Africa
It’s complicated though, within the region of East Africa, each country, sector and even company is culturally different. When dealing with employee engagement, my best advice would be, don’t assume you know what makes your employees happy. It may well be totally different to what you think.”
Join the fun!
There are also similarities between the company cultures in the Netherlands and East Africa. Looking at the Western literature on employee engagement, one focus area that always comes up is, making sure employees feel they are part of the team. This also holds true for East Africa. However, the way they go about achieving this goal is slightly different to how it’s generally done back home. Like in the Netherlands, a favorite tool for building a strong team is having a good time together during a social event. In East Africa, it will require a bit more active participation from your side though. No standing on the sideline. You don’t need to hold back and be “cool”. Join in the fun! So, next time the music is pumped up at a company social, put on your dancing shoes, get out of your comfort zone, and join your team on the dance floor. Chances are it will bring you more than just an evening of fun!
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