In South Africa, poor education and training perpetuates a climate where assumptions remain that lower level workers are unreliable, unintelligent, irresponsible and untrustworthy.
These kinds of assumptions unfortunately lead employers and their managers to expect that:
- workers have little potential;
- are unable to take anything but simple instructions;
- are in constant need of supervision; and
- are thieves that will steal when given the opportunity.
When leadership fails
Managers in this paradigm set up ‘threatening’ systems to ensure that employees are closely monitored at all times:
- video surveillance cameras in the workplace;
- attendance and time recording devices;
- over-reliance on discipline; and
- supervisors / managers who micro-manage and constantly police employees.
In turn, employees view employers as the oppressors and abusers who have to be ‘attacked’ through trade unions.
This dichotomy creates a nightmare for IR and HR practitioners who are caught in the middle, spending much of their time trying to ‘put out the fires’.
This ‘undeclared war’ between employees and employers obviously has a direct impact on productivity and profit. The true fallout however occurs with the long-term impact on the relationship between the parties. This is felt, not just in companies, but also across industries, as workers, through their trade unions form a brotherhood against their employers.
How do we address this problem and heal the relationship between these key role players in our economy? The starting point is to understand where the underlying attitudes come from.
Research has shown that if people are treated in a certain way, over time, they will soon begin to behave according to the expectations. This is known as the self-fulfilling prophecy.
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it is already true. The expectation that a particular outcome or behaviour will occur changes not only our own behaviour, but it also shapes the behaviour of others. This results in feedback that both parties unconsciously set themselves up to receive, reinforcing the original belief.
In other words, because employers expect a low return from workers, they treat them as such. Workers in turn, respond by being uninterested in their jobs and doing as little as possible (ducking and diving). Some do indeed steal from the employer who has, through his assumptions and resultant behaviour, become ‘the enemy’ – he is ‘fair game’! This results in unions contesting straight-forward dishonesty cases regardless of the merits. They have to be seen to be ‘fighting’ the employer.
Unknowingly, both parties are in a continuous cycle of reinforcing the behaviour they don’t actually want by their behaviour towards each other and the resultant responses. In the process stereotypes are created and reinforced.
The issues of course have deep-seated roots. South Africa’s past plays a huge role in these paradigms and, as long as people hold onto them, they will persist. We can do nothing about the past but we can acknowledge the hurt so that we can shape the kind of society we want to live in.
This means opportunities lie before us. Lewis B. Smedes, a renowned Christian author, ethicist, and theologian wrote: ‘Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.’
South Africa needs a strong economy if we are to lift people out of poverty. This means that we need not only strong employers, but also a strong engaged workforce. This strength does not lie in numbers but in confidence and commitment; the confidence and commitment to achieve remarkable results together.
This means that more than ever we need strong courageous leadership to stand up and role model forgiveness, unity, transformation, caring and humility. We need leadership that will take us forward.
“The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.” Ronald Reagan
Bruno Bruniquel & Bradley Pandy
Bruniquel & Associates