The Rainbow Nation was founded on a heartfelt concept: empathy. The ability to understand and share the feelings of others with the capacity to place oneself in another’s position and act from that perspective.
Empathy manifests in showing care for people, having a desire to help others, experiencing emotions that match what others are feeling, discerning what other people are thinking or feeling and, importantly for South Africans, making less distinct differences between themselves and others.
But, the ability to visualise oneself as another person is a sophisticated and difficult imaginative process. Possibly like no other nation, South Africans understand this difficulty. It would be quite impossible to fully document the entire spectrum of innate and acquired prejudices and biases inherent in our society.
Nonetheless, 1994 saw the birth of a dream led by the empathetic qualities of Nelson Mandela, which, like the proverbial mirage, keeps teasing, taunting and skipping elusively into the future.
A nation is no more than a large organisation. A national survey of South African employees across a wide range of different organisations conducted in early July 20211 yields interesting insights into what differentiates employees in highly engaged and functional organisations from disengaged and debilitated employees. No doubt, we can draw parallels and lessons for the large organisation, South Africa.
To begin, what does it feel like to work in a highly engaged company? The first word that emerges from the research is ‘motivated’. This feeling of motivation is supported by pride, inspiration, commitment, happiness, excitement and thankfulness. Would it not be nice to find South Africans describing their citizenship in such words?
Conversely, what does it feel like to work in a highly disengaged company? Expectedly, we begin with ‘unmotivated’. This apathy is underscored by feelings of being uninspired, frustrated, stressed, stagnant and tired. Sadly, I think many would agree that this is the overall sentiment in South Africa currently.
The way we feel drives the way we behave. Behaviours found in highly engaged organisations reveal that employees have a keen sense of purpose in their work, actively listen with an open mind, constantly make constructive suggestions, share knowledge, display enthusiasm and, in general, have a positive outlook on life and work. Would this not be a set of demeanours for South African citizens to aspire to and expect of their leaders?
Again, reflecting on the converse, highly disengaged organisations are full of people who constantly challenge each other, indulge in corporate politics, complain, make sarcastic and destructive comments, and tend to waste time and effort on irrelevant matters culminating in a culture of procrastination and never getting things done properly. Sound familiar?
Companies that enjoy high levels of engagement have a culture fundamentally driven by good leadership. Remember empathy. Employees in such companies feel valued by their leaders and managers; they feel cared for. In support, such organisations uphold the values of openness and transparency, equal opportunity, effective and efficient administration and a great sense of teamwork and coordination. Those who remember the voting queues of 1994 will recall their hope for just these cultural ambitions for our country.
When this leadership is in place, and the resulting benefits to the workplace have matured and settled in, the fortunate organisation invariably finds itself with an enviable reputation, underscored by trust and dependability, stability and persistence, calm and peacefulness – the ideal environment for imagination, innovation and the ignition of an active and vigorous economy.
These are the ingredients for a better life for all.
Could it be that there are lessons from business for our country and its leadership? There can be no reason why not. The analogy is sound both economically and culturally, notwithstanding the major legacy obstacles to overcome.
As demonstrated by South Africa’s first post-democracy president, empathetic leadership is called for to lead our dear country out of its current quagmire – leadership that inspires the confidence of its people; reliable and trustworthy leadership, leadership, which communicates clearly and regularly, paying attention to the needs of the country’s people, and leadership that is humble, respectful and impartial.
These are the qualities proven by research to drive fine, highly engaged organisations. These are also the qualities taught to us by Madiba, forgotten by many. Let’s hope that we now have the leadership in place to fill a voluminous pair of shoes and put Madiba values back into gear for an engaged South Africa.
1. Research Source: Bateleur Brand Planning (Pty) Ltd, National Employee Engagement Survey June 2021