Most programmes we design and deliver include at least two one-on-one coaching sessions and between 10 and 15 days of group process. During this time, we get a good feel for where people come from and what they are busy with. One of the most noticeable factors we have witnessed recently was what we came to understand as the long-term impacts of childhood poverty on management style and work behaviour, and we noticed these behaviours right across all race groups.
We started to notice these patterns in coaching sessions and in workshop discussions, and then we later got input from participants in workshops through a process of facilitated dialogue. We have been exploring these ideas in workshops for a year with over 100 people.
Participants noted two kinds of impacts; those that referred to how they felt about themselves and those that spoke to how they behaved in the world. The first group of impacts reported by participants included the ongoing experience of intense anger, low self-esteem, jealousy of those that “have”, a sense of hurt as well as variable levels of shame. Also noted were ongoing difficulties with trust and a sensitivity to experiences of abandonment.
For most of the participants (Junior and Middle Managers), these long-term feelings meant that they worked harder than others in order to achieve more and thereby safeguard themselves and those they loved against poverty. For many, their primary strategy for achieving success in the workplace was micro-management and their leadership style was authoritarian. Many participants produced stories of extremely adversarial relationships in the workplace, conflicts brought on through needing to stay in control, be right even when wrong and through the rough treatment of their subordinates and sometimes their peers.
As a result of these stylistic factors, we anticipate that these same children of poverty would be less likely to be promoted into senior positions and if they were would probably have difficulty in loosening up their detail orientation in favour of a more strategic approach. This then would be another glass ceiling of poverty, framing life opportunities for a whole life.
We found this information, anecdotal as it was, very useful because we/facilitators/coaches don’t always see the socio-economic impacts coming through in work behaviour and usually ascribe dysfunctional work behaviours only to psychological socialisation. Perhaps we need to start looking wider in order to really understand management behaviour and the real impacts of widespread impoverished childhoods on leadership, particularly in South Africa and other developing countries.