What is a work ethic and why has the lack of it been infused in the Filipino stereotype? We are familiar with such national archetypes as Juan Tamad, the benign but lazy individual, with common perceptions that government employees are corrupt and self-serving, or that Filipinos will generally remain lazy and inefficient unless you find them working overseas.

Where are these perceptions coming from and do they hold water? In any case, what should we do about it?

But first of all, what is a work ethic? In the Random House unabridged dictionary, it is defined as a belief in the moral benefit and importance of work and its inherent ability to strengthen character. S. M. Lipset, in his book “Public Interest,” defined it as the cultural norm placing a positive moral value on doing a good job because work has intrinsic value for its own sake. Lipset even goes on to point out that this philosophy was a relatively recent development.

In the “Historical Context of the Work Ethic,” a paper written by Roger B. Hill, Ph.D., the writer states that work, for much of ancient history, has been hard and degrading. According to Hill, “Working hard–in the absence of compulsion–was not the norm for Hebrew, classical, or medieval cultures.” It was not until the time of the Protestant Reformation, all the way to the beginnings of the New World, that physical labor became culturally acceptable for all persons.

Much has changed since the times of the Romans and the Greeks wherein manual labor and hard work were equated with shame and non-productivity, since slaves generally could spend their whole lives working without hope of uplifting their social status. Now, after historical developments on the social and economic landscape, and widespread acceptance that hard work and labor usually leads to profit and self-reliance, these changes and other trends have paved the way for shaping the philosophy of the work ethic.

Two types of management models
To date, we have two types of management models in the workplace: Theory “X”, which refers to the authoritarian management style characteristic of scientific management; and Theory “Y”, which supports a participatory style of management. Theory X was based on the premise that the average worker was basically lazy and was only motivated by money and neither wants or is capable of self-directed work. This kind of model led to the specialization and division of jobs into simple tasks, with the aim of increasing worker production and consequently, increased pay. Meanwhile, B. Jaggi, in “Management Under Differing Labour Market and Employment Systems,” defined participatory management as “a cooperative process in which management and workers work together to accomplish a common goal.”

This second model was different from the first in that instead of top-down, directive control over workers who were perceived to be unproductive without close supervision, the new model stressed that giving the worker decision-making powers provided valuable input and enhanced employee satisfaction and morale. This second model came as a result of alternative theories that found workers not to be intrinsically lazy, but who were instead adaptive to their environment. Where a workplace lacks challenge, professional growth and other motivators, workers became lazy. When the situation was reversed, the proponents of this theory found workers to be creative and motivated.

Contemporary work ethic
Today, thanks to the age of IT, most white collar jobs are now best suited to a participatory style of management, which has proven to be more effective in encouraging a healthier work ethic among workers. Today’s jobs in the information age now have high-discretion characteristics and require considerable thinking and decision-making on workers. This way, giving employees enough authority to make decisions on their own will facilitate greater efficiency in meeting the needs of customers and that of the organization.

Such jobs, as are available to us today, now afford greater self-expression and produce more self-fulfillment among workers. It’s not surprising to find that today’s young professionals, compared to their parents’ or grandparents’ generation, now perceive work as good and rewarding in itself. This is the ideal situation that lets a healthy work ethic breed in the organization.

In fact, most young people entering the workforce today anticipate talent and hard work as the basis for success rather than luck. In essence, information age workers expect application of a positive work ethic to result in rewards. The consequence is that this breeds impatience if progress is not experienced in a relatively short period of time.

Work Ethic and the Filipino
Where does that leave us now and the Filipino phenomenon? Suffice it is to say that, along with such global and western developments in workplace cultures, the Filipino has also managed to imbibe that into his psyche. The world’s high demand for Filipino nurses, caregivers, IT workers, and other employment opportunities overseas attests to the fact that the Filipino is not intrinsically lazy, and does in fact exhibit exceptional hard-working characteristics.

On the other hand, what is the reason for sub-standard worker performance among Filipinos in their own country? The principles elaborated earlier in this article should answer this question. The country, most infamous for its penchant for cheap labor, perhaps also due to its own economic imbalance have trained most Filipino workers into thinking that working hard in the country leads to little progress, as opposed to working abroad, wherein the same kind of effort here, can be rewarded 3 or 4 times more overseas.

I also think that this situation leads its own vicious cycle. Employers who generally perceive their workers to be intrinsically lazy are more bound to employ the Theory X type of management. As occupational theorists have already indicated, such authoritarian type of management fails to maximize the full growth and potential of the worker, and consequently, that of the company.

Perhaps a deeper insight into this situation will enable both employers and employees to reorganize and pattern themselves against more effective management models for the good of the organization and the people.

By Lolita Villa