Africans still struggle to call their bosses and older colleagues by their first names


But HR consultant Edwick Mabika says this has an adverse effect on innovation and engagement.

referring to one another on a first-name basis is an important aspect of a positive culture for an organisation in this era. This is one area that has had slow progress across the African continent mainly due to how respect is taught and instilled from a young age. A culture of respect, honorifics of the elders' deference, distance, and formality has been inculcated in us and addressing elders on a first-name basis is regarded as disrespect. In an era of globalization, however, life in the corporate world is different from the normal life that people live in society and this is why there is likely to be workplace clashes on this issue. This can particularly be a challenge for people that have to manage employees who are significantly older than them. 

Many executives and managers insist that they are addressed by honorifics that reflect their seniority or title but this does more harm than good. 

Niccolo Machiavelli once said that “It is not titles that honour men, but men that honour titles.” A title won’t increase one’s ability to create impact and the ability to drive change.

Having a culture dressing all colleagues on a first-name basis and avoiding titles contributes positively to psychological safety. Individuals feel they can speak up, express their concerns, and be heard by their superiors. This creates a sense of the workplace being a safe space to share ideas, which in turn leads to higher productivity, collaboration, creativity and engagement. Employees can speak up and this contributes to organisational effectiveness. Rather than a hierarchical organization where fear is predominantly and status differentiation is emphasized. 

As per this Harvard Business Review article, when a young person is obliged to address someone as Mr. or Ms. they immediately establish themselves as either a) younger or b) lower status, neither of which is particularly helpful to their cause professionally. 

"Demanding an underling use a more formal title now seems ridiculously outdated and perhaps even pompous," reads the article. However, it is surprising that many organisations on the African continent are yet to recognise this.

Professor Morand says bosses and workers are better off when they call each other by their first names because it sets the tone for a more collegial relationship.

He says that, for culture to be successful in organisations management should take the leading role. As this can be highly uncomfortable for juniors stuff to implement calling superior employees by name if employees call top officials by a title and last name, they are openly corrected in a friendly way.

Organisations with a positive culture and that want to have a competitive advantage over others have recently become culture aware of such small things and its impact to the success of the business they have turned to use first name and more friendly titles.

Employees are attracted to companies that are not only financially successful but also are culturally successful. Old habits die hard for all of us this must be reinforced with clarity and specificity the behaviour you’re looking for.

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Pamela Xaba is the founder of Nonkosi Creatives, and has over two decades of experience as a corporate HR professional. She is passionate about diversity and inclusion both in workspaces and society.