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Worker Values, Culture, and Community — Values Communication that Goes Directly to Workers and Supports Wellbeing

Robin M. Nicholas
Robin Nicholas Communications, USA

Originally published: Towards Better Work and Wellbeing, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Proceedings of the International Conference. Helsinki, Finland. 2010.


Effective communication celebrates workers by honoring their values and culture. Key technical information must still be communicated, but only within the greater context of workers’ core values of life, including family, community, dignity, and personal excellence. As humans, we reside in our knowledge — knowledge of who we are, what we know to be true, and our relationship to ourselves, our family, and our community. Effective communication engages this self-knowledge and these values in a human, cultural context that works best for each worker, giving workers the power they need to advance their own safety and wellbeing. In order to promote programs that support wellbeing, a context must be established where wellbeing can succeed. This is an environment that celebrates workers and their values, where each individual not only survives, but also thrives. In an environment such as this, the workplace can be re-defined as a community and a way-of-life, where workers take care of each other, discover themselves, and experience their own dignity, self-respect, and personal excellence.

Key words: Work, Values, Communication, Community

Introduction — Work and people

Work is not who we are. But in its most ideal setting, work can be an opportunity to express who we are. Indeed, work is one way that we bring ourselves to the world. Work is also an opportunity for people to discover, know, and understand themselves through their actions and relationships. In this way, work helps us to build skills so that we can bring ourselves even further to the world.

When we talk about work, we often speak in terms of productivity, especially product and service productivity. But there is another potential productivity at work — person productivity — the growth and development of each person through their work.

When we create an environment that empowers people, person productivity can flourish because workers have the opportunity to grow, come together, and create their best work. By its very nature, an environment such as this supports and honors workers’ values, culture, and community. This creates a supportive environment familiar to workers who then have the opportunity to develop the skills and the experiences that help them to live fuller lives.

So if the work environment that we create has the potential to empower people, the question is: “What are we giving each worker to take home?” After we meet the essential needs of health, food, shelter, and decent work, what can we provide for person productivity? Workers can take home salary and continued health, both of which are crucial. But in addition, we can give workers the experience of self-excellence and self-respect. We can give them an opportunity to express themselves through their work, and to have a greater knowledge of themselves. As a result, we can contribute to each worker’s entire wellbeing. Ultimately, what is the point of work?  Is it to be safe while being productive? Or, is it simply to be better at living life — which by default includes being safe and productive?

Safety as a core value

One way to consider the workplace as a place of values, culture and community, is to look at safety and what it can tell us about our work. In safety, we usually begin by asking the question, “How can we be safe?” The answer is usually objective, expressed in terms of work practices, equipment, safety policies, and regulations. But another question should come first, “What are we being safe FOR?” Here, the answer is subjective; it is about family, relationships, and emotions — and it is about values. Though we have often viewed ourselves as thinking machines, we now realize through modern research that as humans, we actually are wired as emotional machines that happen to think. [1] Both questions need to be answered, but in a specific order. First, we must answer, “What are we being safe FOR?” by honoring our core values and culture. Then we can apply our intellect to answer, “How can we be safe?” by developing safety programs and practices. First, we develop a human context of values for our work, and then we develop the technical content to implement our work.

Values, culture, and community

Values themselves do not stand alone but exist and arise out of our own cultures and communities. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines culture as, “…the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual, and emotional features of society or a social group, and…it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions, and beliefs.” [2] Nhlanhla Mkhize at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa says it more simply, “As human beings, we cannot act without employing background knowledge — that knowledge that informs our decisions. Some call it Culture.” [3] It is out of this knowledge and culture that our values arise, key beliefs that people consider most important and valuable.

Safety itself can be expressed as a core value: The individual’s life is to be celebrated and protected. This includes not only physical life, but also the qualities of life, such as family, relationship, self-respect, dignity, and personal excellence. All of these values contribute to a person’s inner health, which then contributes to their outer health. Without that inner health, our outer health and wellbeing are incomplete.

Bringing values to the workplace

We bring these values to the workplace by first celebrating the individual through the celebration of their culture, knowledge, and values. When we celebrate the individual, we help them to build self-respect and dignity. With this strength, people can reach out to take care of their family and reach out even further to take care of their community. In return, the community can provide the resources and compassion that further the individual’s self-respect and dignity as each individual pursues their own personal excellence. The workplace can be that community.

Once we have celebrated the individual, we can bring values to the workplace further by celebrating community. Community first begins as a location, a sense of place. Then, as people encounter each other, the community becomes a place of relationships; and as these relationships combine and recombine, community becomes a way-of-life. [4] The workplace can truly be community as a way-of-life.

The key technique to discovering values is simply this…listening. Nhlanhla Mkhize [3] says, “It is necessary to listen, listen, and listen again, not just with our five senses, but with a sixth sense — listening with the heart.” Larry Littlebird, a storyteller in New Mexico, says that all we need to do is, “Sit down, be quiet, and listen.” [5] Yaso Nadaraja at the Globalism Institute in Australia, tells us to go to that place “in-between” — resting in that place in-between cultures and individuals and listening to our common values. [6] And why are we listening? We are listening for the answer to that question, “What are we being safe FOR?” Here, safety is no longer limited to information and company requirements. Safety now becomes a personal, emotional, psychological, and for some, spiritual process.

When we listen, we have opportunities. We give the other person the opportunity to be themselves, to hear themselves think, and to resolve problems, including safety problems. We also give ourselves the opportunity to demonstrate respect and treat others with dignity. [7] When we listen, we start answering the question, “What are we giving workers to take home?”

Another key technique for bringing values to the workplace is values leadership. Here, the leader identifies and understands the values of the individuals and communities in order to lead them. The leader becomes one with their working community. Managers and workers are equal partners, and workers have the opportunity to lead managers. [8]

Finding balance — Leadership and community

For values leadership to succeed, it requires balance. Vertical, top-down management when left unto itself has the potential to be out-of-balance and to greatly increase stress simply due to the nature of hierarchy. This leaves people at the bottom of the hierarchy feeling a loss of control, a loss of being able to contribute, and a loss of predictability. This in turn creates greater chronic stress and the triggering of adrenaline and cortisol chain reactions. [9] Ultimately, this results in the potential increase of accidents and ill health.

However, the vertical dimension of top-down management can be balanced by the horizontal, integrated development of workers and the work community. Here, values leadership provides the physical and social resources that support workers’ values, culture, and community. Values leadership can support workers by building relationships between managers and workers and amongst workers, emphasizing one-on-one conversations and personal interactions.

Values leadership can further support workers by listening and by demonstrating caring and compassion, providing soft power for everyone — not power exerted over people, but rather, power that is shared amongst people and even willingly given away from one person to another.

When we celebrate the worker and the community, we are looking at the whole workplace for the whole person. This means moving from a workplace where we merely survive to one where we can thrive. Surviving is first and foremost, but eventually, it must lead to thriving — because the gift of being human is that we not only survive, but we can ultimately thrive as individuals and communities. Indeed, Martin Buber described it well when he noted that as human beings, our greatest gift to each other is when we make life possible for each other. [10]

Ultimately, values communication that celebrates the individual and the community is about the messenger as much as it is about the message. Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” [11] This means that it is not only about what we communicate; it is also about how we communicate. When we take care of each other, our actions become the communication. We, ourselves, become the message.

Some examples — Speaking to worker values

Within the essential dynamics of listening and values leadership, there are multiple day-to-day practices that can help communicate values and celebrate workers and community. Safety champions can advocate for workers’ wellbeing, and act as the link between company leaders and the local worker community. Simple, private one-on-one conversations can help build relationships, which will strengthen the work community. Encouraging workers to openly celebrate their values with pictures of family and friends can honor important qualities of life. Whenever possible, simple statements of values can be integrated into key safety messages and trainings. Workers can be encouraged and rewarded for sharing stories about lessons learned and how safety incidents have affected their lives. And specific values such as family can be directly and openly integrated into the work community.


When we celebrate worker values, culture, and community, we have the opportunity to create work in its most ideal setting. Work can become an opportunity to express who we are, and to discover, know, and understand ourselves. Work can become a means where we not only protect each other’s bodies, but we help nourish each other to thrive emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. Through work we can contribute to each other’s wellbeing and help each other to flourish. Indeed, wellbeing in the workplace is, in some ways, a symptom and by-product of a thriving, healthy, work community. In order to bring our values to this community, it is important to honor the human context where our values reside. For they cannot be assigned to the intellect alone, but instead must be honored in the personal and subjective realm of values, culture, and community — the human, creative realm where we live, experience, and interpret our own personal lives.


[1] Damasio AR. Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. G.P. Putnam, New York. 1994

[2] United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Universal declaration on cultural diversity: The General Conference. 2001.

[3] Mkhize N. A primer: Doing research in traditional cultures. DOE Human Subjects Research Database Web Site [Online]. Issue:12. [September 2010], 2005. Available from:

[4] Mulligan M, Humphery K, James P, Christopher S, Smith P, Welch N. Creating community: Celebrations, arts, and wellbeing within and across local communities. Melbourne: RMIT Print Services. 2006.

[5] Hosono H (Director). Travelling our splendid world: Be still, sit and listen well. NHK – Japan Broadcasting Corporation. 1993.

[6] Nadarajah Y. Communities in transition: Propagating a yield of violence. In Cervantes-Carson A, Cromer G (Eds.) De-naturalising violence: Trans-disciplinary explorations, Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press. 2010.

[7] Servan-Schreiber D. I’m feeling your pain – Really. Ode. 6:7. p. 54. 2008.

[8] Reicher S, Platow M, Haslam A. The new psychology of leadership. Scientific American Mind. 18:4. p. 22-29. 2007.

[9] Ferrie J (Ed.), Work, stress, and health: The Whitehall II Study. Council of Civil Service Unions/Cabinet Office, UK. 2004.

[10] Buber M, Buber-Agassi J (Ed.). Martin Buber on psychology and psychotherapy: Essays, letters, and dialogue. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. 1957.

[11] McLuhan M. Understanding media: The extensions of man. Cambridge: MIT Press. 1964.

Copyright © 2010 Robin M. Nicholas