‘Tuko Pamoja’ – “We are in this together” / ‘Ubuntu’ – "I am because we are”

By Lionesses of Africa Operations Dept

The South African Scientific Community have done it again. They have found the next variation of Covid19. Following the Greek Alphabet in naming each new variant, the WHO jumped a couple of letters and named it Omicron.

Let us make two things clear.

South Africa finds these variations not necessarily because they are South African variations, but because South Africa is one of the world’s leaders in the scientific community in investigating and hunting down these variations. In a sign of how far ahead the experts in South Africa are, according to the New York Times (here): “European nations did not find the variant until after South Africa alerted them to it, demonstrating the gaps in their own surveillance efforts.” Following the alert from our friends in South Africa and having released a guide on how to find this new variant for the West, Omicron has now been found all over Europe. In Scotland cases have even been found with seemingly no outside contact with anyone flying in from southern Africa, but was community driven, questioning the knee jerk assumption that this new variant is all due to South Africa.

We would argue that exactly because of their successes and because of their own selfless recognition that the sooner the world knows, the better we can together fight any new variation, the world’s response to immediately shut down the southern African tourist season by banning all flights (or at least making it very difficult to travel South) is very sad to say the least.

Secondly, while the West continues its vaccination path of ‘me first’ and ‘me only’, Covid will continue to mutate in parts of the world where there are little or no vaccinations. The world is so interconnected, it really is true that no one is safe until everyone is safe, yet the West is already well into its booster jabs, whilst so much of the poorer world is still waiting for its first! The German health minister put it plainly (here) when he said that by the end of this winter, everyone in Germany will either be vaccinated, have Covid or be dead…if that is true of Germany, why not Africa?

Within these dark days, with such a weight of bad news hanging over our daily lives – just how do we motivate our staff? With potentially yet another major wave on its way it is enough to make us all pull the duvet over our heads and stay in bed – if nothing else it confirms our worst fears that maybe we shall never see the light of day again, but continue under the dark clouds of Covid for decades to come.

Throughout all of this we must recognize first and foremost: 

It is ok to be not ok! 

The understanding of mental health issues has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years thankfully. However, we are not experts in this, so this article cannot give advice in this field, but clearly we have to be aware at all times both for ourselves and for our employees. Across the continent there are some truly incredible Lionesses doing great things in this space to assist us during these dark times so we encourage you to look to them for guidance in these matters. However on a personal level, please keep at the back of your minds to be kind. None of us know how the others are suffering or what is happening in their private lives. Kindness is something we can all practice with ease. Kindness is not allowing people to walk over you, because you still have responsibilities to your employees, suppliers, customers, shareholders, et al, but there will be occasions when you can still be kind and other occasions when simply being fair but firm is all we need.

But motivation within the workplace in itself, is something else and it seems (if the 2020 Gallup poll is anything to go by), that we are simply failing in that area as they found in the US that just 36 per cent of staff are engaged at work, while 14 per cent are actively disengaged (here). ‘Actively disengaged’ are those who have miserable work experiences and spread their unhappiness to their colleagues. Just how sad is that! 14% are in this bracket, they get up each day and go to a company and workplace they dread. 

How can you change this or at least avoid the slippery slope that is demotivation within your staff at a time like this? Of course you can order your staff to be motivated, happy and positive – but guess how far that will get you!

Or you can hire an ‘inspirational speaker’ but as the FT says this often just creates a short term fix, a “sugar rush of motivation, but that will just evaporate on first contact with the office” (here). Although we would agree with the issue over many ‘inspirational speakers’ – you get what you remember and not all remember the powerful stuff, we are looking for motivation, not a warm and cuddly feeling, a day off work and free coffee! We need to change the thinking, change the mindset of employees so that over time they skip to work…not skip work.

It is this changing of thinking that is so important.

In the early 1900’s Alfred P. Sloane who took General Motors to the top from 1920-1950, suggested that we were doing management all wrong. He famously wrote that whilst we pay for the hands of employees, we forget that we get their heads for free.

What he wrote then still applies now – yes we do get their heads for free, but do we use them? It sadly appears not – 100 years later! Although data shows that a massive 90% of good ideas do not come from the C-Suite, we still run this age old model that solutions to problems or issues cascade down from above as a very interesting lecture by Professor Richard Jolly of the London Business School suggests (here).

He suggests that for the vast majority of business, their employees simply turn up, fix what they have to fix, turn what they have to turn, write what they have to write, get paid and go home. How do we change this? How do we make people really care about and become mentally invested in the company?

The issue lies with bringing your people inside the tent with you rather than having them thinking they are on the outside.

The big word over the past ten years and even more so during Covid has been ‘LISTEN’. But listening is no good if it is not safe for the employee to speak, they require a safe environment within which they can do this. It should be clearly stated that respect to others’ views are paramount in meetings – that does not mean that one has to agree with everyone just so that no feelings are hurt, simply that all ideas should be given a respectful answer. This means you have to look out for people getting defensive if there has been a point made against their department. Of course simply making a point does not make it true, we all see things through different eyes and hear through different ears, we all have different understandings, but they still have to be respected, listened to and answered.

Likewise – “Don’t come to me with a problem without a solution!” – What rot! And rot it is, because then people who see problems first – such as those on the front line, in the warehouse, delivery drivers, sales – all of whom see and deal with customers and suppliers daily or perhaps even the engineers deep in R&D, might think that what they see is not important, is being solved already from above, or that because they cannot see the solution, they had better just keep quiet…and this starts the rot in the company. Yet if they aired the issue, perhaps those who have the advantage of being apart from the particular issue, can actually see the wood from the trees and find a solution. As CEO would you not rather know there is a problem? 

Jo Owen, the author of “Smart Work: The Ultimate Handbook for Remote and Hybrid Teams” recently wrote in the FT(here) asking the question: “How can we create the conditions where staff rediscover their intrinsic motivation?” 

He suggests that such “Lasting motivation comes from finding inherent satisfaction in work, not from the promise of pay or promotion.” 

He suggests that there are four key pillars:

  1. Peer support – and this also leans of the issue of a safe space. If your peers do not respect nor care, then work must become intolerable.

  2. Responsibility – the art of letting go and not micro-managing.

  3. Build mastery and growth” – this is not just formal training, indeed Jo suggests that such training is only 20%. What is important, if not essential is ‘informal learning on the job’. Here we are talking of ‘mastery’ and that can only come from responsibility, making mistakes within a safe space and through mentoring. It is not just the current job that this trains for, but also the next, and the next, so that all employees can see the potential they have within a company for personal and career growth.

  4. Tell them Why! – Why we do the work we do. Why it matters. Why this creates real meaning and purpose. Allow them to become invested in the bigger picture.

There is no doubt that dealing with people is not easy (some make it look easy) and dealing with employees (all of whom are different, with a different sense of humour, different issues outside of work, different concerns, and different likes and hates) of course has its pressures. But by treating everyone fairly and remembering that we all would much rather come to work skipping than dragging our feet, we can work together to build something with purpose and meaning.

As Gallup found:

People want purpose and meaning from their work. They want to be known for what makes them unique. This is what drives employee engagement.

And they want relationships, particularly with a manager who can coach them to the next level. This is who drives employee engagement.

No one pretends that the last two years have been easy and most recognize sadly that we are not out of the woods yet. But by acknowledging this and working to include our employees, to lift them up, to give them in their work purpose and meaning, we can get through this together and will be better for it.

The Swahili words ‘‘Tuko Pamoja” and the Zulu ‘Ubuntu” say it best. 

We are in this together, a shared sense of purpose or motivation. 

I am because we are.

Although we are hopeful that the West will start to recognize this in its dealings with Africa , now is the time to truly show your employees.

Stay safe.

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