Building workplace relationships, between management, and shop stewards.

Celebrating Humanity Case Study.
Workplace Relationships in South Africa.

It is possible to build workplace relationships,
between management, and shop stewards.
(“I feel like a celebrity because management recognises me!” Shop steward.)
(It was like it was the day of Reconciliation. We have agreed that as from now onwards we will work together.” Shop steward.)

Out of the era of Apartheid and the twenty ensuing, and often antagonistic, years – have come very hard negotiations, strikes and even deaths resulting from workplace disagreements – between staff, their representatives and management.

As has been seen more recently, the police force has been brought in on occasion, to quell riots and insurrection with tragic consequences.

Intense Workplace Conflict

In some of these more intense cases there appear to be other political and power-driven forces, at play – such as in the Marikana strikes. These unfortunate and unacceptable incidents go way beyond normal workplace challenges.
Celebrating Humanity teams have not yet dealt with these highly-charged types of conflicts.
As such, they are not included in this case study.

We would however, really appreciate the opportunity to make a difference in the future of the people involved. It may not be easy, but we are up to the challenge.

Management working with, or versus, shop stewards

We have been running these programmes since 2001, across South Africa, in Namibia, Swaziland and Zambia.

Our focus has been on the more common, difficult, everyday workplace relationship challenges, which exist within teams and fairly recently, between management and shop stewards.

This is a case study, on the latter, to highlight these challenges and the incredible results that the Celebrating Humanity Team Unity programmes are achieving, in resolving them.

The nature of the programme, the methodology and the measures that are put in place to bring long-term sustainability, ensure that conflict is easily resolved, comfortably cleared and left in the past. Common peer-created behavioural values and the resultant accountability help to build these unlikely teams, into cohesive and respectful units.

By the end of the programme – each person is left with the responsibility to manage their own actions, and guide the actions of their team members whilst still performing their roles and responsibilities – as shop stewards, team members and management.

This ensures swift, easy, responsible and mutually fair outcomes to negotiations and opens up communication at all levels.


The biggest challenges arise out of issues of disrespect and a lack diversity understanding – which result in ongoing and unnecessary conflict.

When this is recognised, as a challenge, management often deal with it in the traditional way – through lectures on diversity, prejudice, racism, history and Apartheid. This often has the result of alienating some people and making others feel “justified” in their poor behaviour – and seldom solves anything. In fact, it may add to the conflict and the separation of the perceived “groups.”

Another challenge is the concept of the separation of worker and management. A “them and us” situation has developed since the beginning of the industrial revolution. The two groups do not see themselves as colleagues – they view each other as the opposition. Each side is seen by the other – as greedy, opportunistic, disrespectful and selfish. And of course the old “racism” accusation will also often rear its head.

From this, the conflict is blatant and the emotional separation between workers and the management team is set. Any challenges are handled in an aggressive and combative manner. This is often emanates in a subtle, sneaky and dishonest ways.

Recently, a general manager spoke to us – before the interventions, about one of the shop stewards in his organisation, “He is such a wonderful person when we sit down and talk, privately. He will agree with me on many issues. But when he is in a meeting with other shop stewards, he turns into a totally different person and will actually deny that he has agreed, or discussed anything. It is like working with Dr. Jekyll and Hyde.”

Historical dynamics – still at play.

There was a time in South Africa when management was dominantly white and male. And the workers were dominantly black and male. The advantaged vs the disadvantaged.

This naturally led to a separation on the basis of colour, race and wealth. The two sides spoke of each other in terms of colour. The management team was known as the “Abelungu”, “Umlungus” (“whites”) and the workers were known as the “blacks”, or other more derogatory terms.

  • We received this feedback, in a 6 month follow-up session, “As a shop steward I was always working out of anger. (Before the course.)
    • I saw managers as my enemies – as “white” and “managers.”
    • I would not accept anything from a “white person”

Now I see people as people.

  • I treat all people as human beings.
  • I have let my racism go.
  • I feel so free.”

Fortunately the demographics, of the two groups, have begun to change – with other race groups and women entering the workplace.  Yet, managers, no matter what their colour, are still known as the umlungu (singular) – or abelungu (plural.) This now has more to do with their position as “the boss”, and the “payer of salaries”, than their race, or colour.

Division and diversity.

When people who work in the same business or organisation, see themselves as separate entities, it is very easy to for them divide and be in conflict. This does not only happen between workforce and management – but also within the teams at different levels. Such as, levelism, departmentalism, gender and education

Naturally, the normal human challenges of personality, disrespect, communication styles, working styles, religion, upbringing and attitude, also come into play. These surprisingly outweigh the issues of race and colour, as they are normally the challenges that are unfairly blamed on racism.

This sets the foundations underlying workplace conflict, for poor, ineffectual and incorrect communications, difficult and protracted negotiations, work stoppages, go-slows, poor quality service, tardiness, absenteeism and limited productivity.

The resolution process.

Our Celebrating Humanity teams are normally called in when the situation has become extremely uncomfortable for all parties and when the business, or organisation, is being negatively impacted.

Often we get the call, when all other options have been exhausted. In the Limpopo province – of South Africa – we were told, “We have had diversity trainers and 2 psychiatrists here to fix this – what makes you think that you can make any difference?”

Fortunately, our teams are always up for the challenge. Whether it is at a late stage, in a new team, or when a team is just beginning to experience interpersonal challenges the outcomes are always positive.

(The programme was a great success in Limpopo.


These simple principles form the foundations for the successful resolution of conflict, or division, within teams.

1)   We never focus on the “trouble-makers”, or even the “problems.”

2)   We are guided by our belief – “At the level of respect all people are equal”. This ensures that we do not arrive with any judgement.

3)   We never focus on the problem, or the “problem people.” In fact, we do not even want to know which team members, have been the cause of the conflict.

4)   We build the African concept of neighbourliness, into the team. (In many rural areas neighbours will actually assist each other in building their homes – with no thought of compensation. This Ubuntu concept (Omakhelwana) of “building for each other” is carried into the team unity programme and into the workplace. We are here to build each other.)

5)   Some other foundational principles, include:-

  1. We add to each other.
  2. Respect people in the ways in which they wish to be respected.
  3. Life rewards action and not thought.

Our methodologies

1)   It is important that the facilitators understand, work with and develop their own understandings of diversity – in order to build understanding and remove misunderstandings based in language, race, culture and religion.

  1. These elements form a foundation of our inter-team competitions. And build the understanding of how we add to each other.

2)   Change instruments used include music, dance, competition, and fun and story-telling.

3)   Teams and individuals are built through:-

  1. Fun-based team games, skills development, diversity understanding, humanisation, interpersonal interaction and communication exercises, on the first day.
  2. On the second day the team how they will and won’t interact, they clear their historical challenges, and commit to their behavioural agreements.

4)   Sustainability is then assured, through on-going “relationship management meetings”, which are based in the code of conduct created in (3b.)

Case Study

A large hospitality group, in South Africa.

Our task – to develop working relationships and respect between shop stewards and management.

The programme – The Celebrating Humanity Mini-Harvest Diversity Team Building and Team Unity programme.

Actual challenges.

  1. An emotional distancing and separation of the two groups.
  2. Little or no understanding of their commonality of purpose, in the workplace. They all have a responsibility to ensure the smooth running of the business that supports their families.
  3. An unawareness and disregard of the critical roles played by both sides – as shop stewards and managers – in just, happy, effective and successful organisations.
  4. A distinct lack of diversity understanding from all sides, resulting in poor working relationships and often unfair, and unrealistic, decision making.
  5. Challenge communication techniques. Opposing sides would negotiate out of past history, previous interpersonal challenges and anger.
  6. Managers and shop stewards had numerous unresolved issues.
  7. There were hidden agendas on both sides.
  8. Workers and shop stewards generally did not feel empowered to discuss challenges with managers and vice versa.
  9. Mistrust, miscommunication and poor communication resulted in long and protracted meetings and discussions.


The HODs and Shop Stewards have:-

  1. Undergone the initial 2 day team unity programme.
  2. Determined a peer-created and managed code of conduct.
  3. Cleared past interpersonal challenges.
  4. Committed to the future relationship.
  5. And met in their first follow-up Values Circle meeting, to cement the relationship – after nearly 6 months.

The outcomes of this highly unique relationship-focused programme have been outstanding.

The following graphic shows the process.

The relationships and communication are maintained through ongoing monthly meetings. And each delegate has personal and ongoing free access to the facilitators, via email and phone.

Testimonials, feedback and comments

The following feedback was received at the end of the 1st Values circle follow-up meeting. The relationships have improved amongst all role players.


  • There is better awareness of myself and of how other people operate.
  • I have a much better working relationship with the GM, now that I understand the difference in our communication styles. I am visual and he is audio. This helps a lot in our relationship.
  • (GM) I was more on a computer than in communication with other people. I was not used to being with people regularly on a face to face basis.  It has been hard to make the change. I now realise how important it is to cultures and the personalities.
  • We find that working with the Yes values before the meeting changes the tone of the meeting. It is far more easy now that we are not focusing on the negatives.
  • We have much better relationships with the shop stewards.
  • I have found that it is really important not to treat people as you want to be respected, but is more important to treat other people as they want to be respected in terms of their own cultures.
  • My biggest thing has been to trust my staff and let them do things, and letting them make their own mistakes. (How has it worked for you?) Well they have shown me that they can do the work!
  • Being respectful and humble opens up communication – my team treats me in the same way.
  • I have made sure that I call each person by their name – and this has built the relationships by ensuring the human touch.
  • I have been listening more – and it is making a difference.

Shop Stewards

  • Now at work – I feel like a celebrity because management recognises me!
  • I  have changed (Shop Steward)
    • I am greeting with respect.
    • I am treating all people with respect.
    • I am always getting my team to work with better teamwork – as we all have a common goal.
    • There is much improved communication with various HODs.
      • I didn’t know the shop stewards and now I do.
      • I am getting to know people better and letting people know me better.
      • I really love the interaction – the GM even talks to us – it really builds trust.
        • The atmosphere has really changed dramatically – it was a real mess.
        • We can now talk.
        • I have noticed that there were people that no-one would talk to.
        • Attitudes have changed.
        • “As a shop steward I was always working out of anger. (Before the course.)
          • I saw managers as my enemies – as “white” and “managers.”
          • I would not accept anything from a “white person”

Now I see people as people.

  • I treat all people as human beings.
  • I have let my racism go.
  • I feel so free.”

Outside observations

  • As a shop steward who did not attend the course, I have seen huge changes in the team.
    • Previously I was always getting people coming to me and complaining to me about how a manager had shouted, or sworn at them. I am not getting any of those complaints anymore. I am now dealing with the normal day-to-day challenges on behalf of the staff.
    • Recently somebody came to me to talk to a manager on their behalf. Because of the new atmosphere, I told him to go and speak to the manager directly. Two days later he came to me and said that it was all sorted out. He was so excited.
    • My job is so much easier now.
    • I was not at the team building but I have experienced a big difference.
      • The directors are speaking to us. We know them and can interact with them.
      • If you are sick they understand and find ways to help you.
      • It is great.
      • We have really benefitted. At our unit there was a separation between Shop stewards and Management.
        • But what I have realised is that we were all together as a team, helping each other.
        • Through our communication we managed to come up with solutions for things which we were failing to resolve.
        • It was like it was the day of Reconciliation. We have agreed that as from now onwards we will work together.
        • We have agreed that they will visit us more often and we sit and discussed what was not happening before.
        • We have learnt to listen to each other and to acknowledge each other.
        • It was a reward to me, I would like to recommend that we should have this twice per year and that the training should flow down to our Junior staff or everyone in this unit.
        • Together we can achieve the strategies of our business.
        • I have really enjoyed it!!!


Other Interesting Outcomes

  • Our family life has changed. I am able to also able to be with them as individuals.
    • I had a problem with my son – he was struggling at school, until I came to the course. I found out that he was a visual learner. I spoke to him and was able to help him – and went to his school.  From being right at the bottom of the class he is now excelling, he is now the best.
    • I am very grateful.
    • It is easy to tell people what you like about them, it is not that easy to tell them what we do not like.
      • I have organised regular meetings to do that – we call it a TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission).
      • It was quite hard at first but the guys are speaking up.
      • We don’t keep grudges – we clear anything that upsets us.
      • Sometimes it is something really small – but it sits heavily on that person. Small things can really burn a person.
      • Now at work – I feel like a celebrity because management recognises me!

Outcomes – after 6 months.

  1. There is a definite and visual improvement in the respect, understanding and communications between staff members, shop stewards and management.
  2. There is acceptance of the roles and responsibilities of both shop stewards and management from both sides.
  3. Relationships amongst managers, and amongst shop stewards are also far better.
  4. The relief at finally clearing issues, and discussing challenges, is palpable.
  5. Team members are now open to direct, clear and respectful communication.
  6. The respect extends to all team members and to clients.
  7. Workplace conflict is now resolved, within the code of conduct, by any of the affected parties who completed the course.
  8. Negotiations are friendly, fast and fair.

A Tswana proverb perhaps reflects the strongest outcome.

“Ntwa kgolo ke ya molomo”
(The highest form of war is dialogue.)
Meaning that there is no need to fight, if we talk about issues, we will find resolutions – peacefully.


Brian V Moore – Director, Celebrating Humanity International

Contact details

Mobile: +27 643 4457

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