How to team build in a racially-culturally-and-personality-conflicted team – HR Pulse

Published on 15 Jan 2013 in HR PulseFor more articles relevant to the HR Community

Brian V Moore

In 2002, we were called in to Eskom by Bruce Moody, a high-level HR officer at Eskom. He said: “We have some heavy cultural clashes in a technical service centre in the Northern Province [now Limpopo].

Do you think that you can you do something to change the situation?”

“I am sure we can.” I responded. “What are the challenges?”

Bruce pondered for a while and said: “There are some heavy racial attitudes from all sides. In fact, I don’t really know why I am asking you! What are you, a white man and your Indian wife, going to do to make a difference? This is a bunch of tough hardliners. They have a long history of conflict and nothing that we have done has worked.

“Let’s get this clear: These are heavy workplace disputes!” said Bruce. “There is continuous backstabbing and gossiping. They complain that everything is wrong and nobody is to blame! They are totally unmotivated and their productivity is very low, which is resulting in poor customer service.”

Arthie, my wife and business partner, asked: “What do you think is causing this?”

Bruce gave Arthie a knowing look: “Well obviously there is very low morale among them because of the constant bickering. There is racism, prejudice, laziness, no ownership, no accountability and poor communication – and I mean REALLY poor!” He took a deep breath, shook his head, and continued: “This is a hugely conservative area where old attitudes die very hard. It could be the worst case that you could ever take on.”

I felt confident we could take on the challenge

We were almost overpowered by his statements, but I had no doubts. If I could work in areas, as a peacemaker, where bullets were flying, we could duck a few words.

“We can do this. When do you want us to start?” We were given two weeks to prepare.

We hit the ground running

We had to find ways to build relationships swiftly with groups of people who we had never before encountered in an area of the country where we had NO experience. We spent the time studying the history of the area, and the cultures and languages of the people in the team.

Arthie and I then put together the Celebrating Humanity Team Conflict Resolution programme for diverse teams. This fun, exciting, inclusive and enjoyable programme included celebrating diversity, diversity management, team building and a sustainable long-term team-managed code of conduct.

And so we set off to the town where the centre was located

As we drew closer to the centre, we passed a huge flock of vultures feeding on the carcass of a wild animal. I silently prayed that it was not an ominous sign!

When we arrived, Jan – the depot supervisor – greeted us. He then took us aside and pleaded: “You must just motivate them. They need it.” I looked at his stressed face and saw a man in pain. He was ready to explode. Another senior member of the team said: “If you guys mention racism, just once, we WILL walk out.”

We had to change the mood from the outset. We spent that night in the training room transforming the venue into one of celebration: Balloons, happy colours, hand-drawn posters and a very unique seating arrangement…

The next morning we found separated groups sitting together. They were grouped by colour, language and level. All in their own comfort zones. All spiritually, emotionally and physically apart. Some were obviously angry and others totally disinterested.

Then we began to help them to celebrate their humanity

Three days and 21 working hours later, the same people were sitting side by side at a family barbecue. Children played with children. Wives chatted to each other while the men cooked meat, spoke about cars, sport and laughed as they shared jokes.

They had experienced each other in a fun environment, shared wisdom, seen value in each other, worked as teams, cleared all of their past interpersonal baggage, committed to a code of positive behaviours and removing their negative actions from their lives.

15 months after the first intervention, Jan sent this feedback

“I had a group of 30 people from diverse cultures. They could not get on with each other:

There was continuous friction between the different race groups, and between people from the same race and cultural group. The people were negative and not satisfied with anything.

Complaints were the order of the day. This also placed our depot in a bad light with management.

We decided on Brian and Arthie’s training. The people were very negative about the programme initially.

As the course progressed, peoples’ attitudes changed from negative to positive.

Communication, respect and ownership improved from all sides by 100%. The respect between different race groups has been restored.

Some of the people who were negative have changed so much that they have been promoted to higher positions with greater responsibility.

The foundation of the entire course was so successful that the group is now going ahead with a leadership course.”

Now that was the change that we had been looking for!

via How to team build in a racially-culturally-and-personality-conflicted team – HR Pulse.

A bean is revealed when you open its shell…

A bean is revealed when you open its shell. – Zulu proverb.
(First written in 2004 and very relevant now to the xenophobic incidents in Alexander and Diepsloot – Johannesburg, South Africa.)
We live in such a wonderful country. We have had an incredible past and that strange history has been used by many of us as a catalyst for personal change and growth. And sadly others still hark after the past, or operate as if nothing has changed!
And change it has! South Africa has gone from skunk nation status to a place of beauty and wonder. A place where all people can live their lives with self-respect and respect for others.
I can remember when it was difficult to move around the world with a South African passport. When people in love could not be married – by virtue of their colour or race. Where we were separated into groups, denied or benefited by virtue of our birth. When cars were driven across the beautiful highways of our nation at 70kms an hour because of fuel sanctions. (A trip from Johannesburg to the coast took up to 12 hours in holiday season!)
It was a time when we were so divided that we did not know how others lived. And we did not know or understand the realities of life for people who were not white.
I am delighted that Apartheid has all passed behind us. I am excited to be a part of this new country where we are an example to the world. I am happy to be a pioneer laying the groundwork, through affirmative action and employment equity, for the children of the new generations. Sometimes it is hard to be white and male in South Africa. But nowhere as hard as it was to be “non-white in Apartheid South Africa! Yes, we are the new “voortrekkers”, we are the “star fleet” boldly opening up new frontiers and horizons. And we are opening up our country to all of it’s peoples. What a legacy to build for future generations!
Arthie and I are delightfully and ecstatically married. In the old South Africa this would have been impossible! We would have been hunted down & exposed. Here is a piece from http://www.fact-index.com/i/im/immorality_act.html that shows just how far we have come.
“The Immorality Act was one of the most controversial legislative acts of South African Apartheid. It attempted to forbid intermixing of couples of different race both in the area of marriage as well as casual sex.
Mixed marriages and the immorality act became the first major pieces of apartheid legislation. In 1949 mixed marriages were banned in South Africa. In 1950 the act was followed up with a ban on sexual relations between blacks and whites.

One of the first people convicted of the immorality act was a Cape Dutch Reformed minister; he was caught having sex with a domestic worker in his garage. He was given a suspended sentence and the parishioners bulldozed the garage to the ground.

On the grounds of the Immorality Act, the police tracked down mixed couples suspected of being in relationships. Homes were invaded and doors were smashed down in the process. Mixed couples caught in bed were arrested. Underwear was used as forensic evidence in court. Most couples found guilty were sent to jail. Blacks were often given harsher sentences than whites.
In 1985 the Immorality Act and Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act were both repealed.”

The full extent of forgiveness in our country from 1990 until now will never be quantified. It has been hugely miraculous that we are where we are now.
Imagine my surprise when attending a recent birthday party for a 3 year old, when the other young parents banded together. And allowed a few of their group to make loud comments on Arthie and my relationship. “These mixed marriages are not on,” said one. After a few more similar comments another stated. “At least the child came out o.k.” Referring to our son Lliam who has a light Italian complexion.
Arthie has always maintained that we are indeed a mixed couple. “One boy and one girl. That is a good mix!”, she says. And of course any couple comes from mixed backgrounds. They were raised differently by their respective parents, with different morals, in different homes and in different circumstances. And some times even when your complexion is similar it is hard to mix. Have you ever heard the one about “My mother-in-law…?”
Back to the kiddies party. We did not feel aggrieved. And we felt no hurt from the “injustice” of their words, we only felt the pain in their souls. These poor & misguided people were still living in a mind-view set by a law repealed nearly 20 years ago. Most of them were only 5 or 6 years old at that time! I wondered what their parents taught them & how they programme their own children.
Yes, we wish that one day they will find love and peace. And that they too can be human beings first and not live in judgement of the first thing that their eyes see.
Which leads me to a Zulu proverb. “Uhlubu’ dlube ‘khasini” Literally – “A bean is revealed when you open the shell.” It is used when one is surprised by the wisdom, skills or talents of another, or when a person does something amazing that you do not expect. This is similar to the English proverb, “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”
Somehow we were being judged by our ‘colours” and a muddled perception of a “perfect relationship”. Just as others are daily judged, by people from all backgrounds, by their religion, race, language, favourite sport or soccer side, hair colour, heritage and education. And anything else that makes them different to the judges.
Arthie and I have the most beautiful relationship. With our marvellous uniquenesses we add to each other. We grow each other and complement each other. We are soul-mates. Ours is a match made in Heaven! Our multi-lingual 3 year old son Lliam is a stunning, loving, warm and intelligent child.
So before you judge us – take time to get past the shell. We may be three very beautiful beans! When our true selves are revealed you may find something special within. The multi-diverse people of South Africa are all incredibly unique beans in diverse shells. They are the reasons that we have such a marvelous country. They are what makes this such an exciting place to live in!
My greatest understanding is that people, who are different to you and I, add to us. They bring wonderful knowledge, wisdom, traditions and cultures. They bring new ideas and new views. And they only add to us when we open the shell, question, experience and delight in their uniqueness.
Let us step away from our simplistic programmed assessments and move into today. Right here, right now, with the human beans (beings) who make you and I human. As Arthie and I have discovered, there is so much freedom in being human first and anything else much later.
(May 2008 update – This story pales with the shocking and horrific incidents of xenophobia in Alexander and Diepsloot townships. And to a less visual extent in Government and the workplace. We all have a right to a life, a right to opportunity. Xenophobia is absolutely unacceptable and we ALL have to stand up to it, and to those who perpetrate and perpetuate violence and prejudice – in the name of their “people.”

There is only one race and that is the human race!)

Brian V Moore©
Mthimkhulu International 24 May 2004