The past month has been a difficult, challenging and shocking time for people living in South Africa. As many of the xenophobic attacks and brutal cases of Gender Based Violence (GBV) have played out in society at large, organisations have been affected in many different ways. As a practitioner I do work in one of the institutions directly impacted by a GBV cases that has been reported on, and it has featured prominently in discussions we’ve had about organisational issues and the leadership response to what is happening “out there” in the world.

Some individuals who work in large organisations benefit from the privilege of the relatively sheltered space that these companies potentially provide. At the same time more and more of these issues are, in my mind, rightfully so, seeping into how we collectively experience the workplace. There is great irony in this, as for most staff members the residual trauma of our country’s political past has always been part of their experience of rank, power and relationship in the workplace. The collective consciousness emerging now is partly because some people who have been blinded by privilege are now also starting to wake up to reality.

I love what Otto Scharmer says about the need to move from systems thinking to systems consciousness and that this means that “our job as leaders and change-makers is to cultivate the soil of the social field” (Scharmer, 2009). Tobias Stone also adds that “At a local level in time, people think things are fine – then things rapidly spiral out of control until they become unstoppable, and wreak massive destruction on ourselves” (Stone, 2016). This gives rise to cycles of social pathology, a cycle Scharmer calls Absencing that stands in stark contrast to cycles of Presencing. Here we go from downloading to destroying through the lack of consciousness in leaders and systems.

Here are some of the ways in which employees and organisations are impacted that we have seen in our work with organisations through the deployment of the InclusionIndex, a diversity and inclusion measurement and the subsequent interventions and solutions being implemented:

  • Team behaviours and conversations are changing and becoming more challenging. Examples of racist as well as patriarchal behaviour and toxic masculinity are being called out more and more. Some teams and leaders are growing as a result of this, whereas in other spaces this is leading to escalating tensions and conflict within the team.
  • The issues of xenophobia, unhelpful stereotypes and discriminatory behaviours that affect our brothers and sisters from other parts of the African continent are in the spotlight right now. In one client organisation, this is directly related to conversations around advancement and development opportunities, harassment in the workplace and questions being asked about conscious and unconscious bias in the workplace.
  • Indicators of mental wellbeing are not good across all levels of the organisation. Although there is a global trend indicating an increase in negative mental wellbeing experiences globally (Gallup, 2019), many organisations are expecting staff to “take one for the team” rather than addressing the systemic issues causing this decline. We know that organisational health impacts organisational effectiveness, which makes me wonder why so many companies still prefer to not take this as seriously as it should be.
  • The potential for a new wave of white hysteria around staying or leaving the country is impacting on conversations in the workplace too. As a white female I have noticed an increase in conversations around me that perpetuate white privilege and supremacy, some of them quite overtly. This is creating fault lines driven by privilege in teams and breaking down trust between colleagues in ways many white staff members remain oblivious or indifferent to.
  • Bullying and harassment are under the spotlight for organisations and leaders are needing to find new ways of responding to this, as slaps on the wrists, a blind eye or a counteraccusation no longer cuts it.
  • A lot rests on the quality of leadership from the line manager in charge of a team. If the leader is immature and doesn’t model inclusion, the whole experience in the workplace is impacted negatively. The need to fast track and build maturational intelligence is more important now than ever before (Kukard, Kettleborough & Greeff, 2019).

 What does this mean for us as Organisation Development practitioners?

The ability of every OD person to be present to the dynamics around issues of diversity and inclusion are central to issues of workplace engagement, performance and organisational culture. We simply have to step into the ring and have a way in which we work constructively and consciously with intersectionality and power in the workplace. Doing this while being extremely self-aware and self-reflective around the “self as instrument” and our own biases, privileges and wounds is more important than ever. We need to learn how to name issues and create spaces where we process what is happening in teams in a way that is right for 2019. We need to consider some really important boundary issues around what gets tackled and how and we need to measure and track what makes an impact and improves the inclusivity and culture of the places we work and serve as practitioners.

To do so we need to take issues of professional supervision and continuous education around these issues very seriously. Very few OD practitioners and coaches voluntarily seek out supervision, which means we run the risk of neglecting the “self as instrument”.

In a client meeting this month, a senior leader said that as much as the organisation is a microcosm of the macrocosm of South Africa and its issues, we need to be clear that it is not the role of the organisation to fix society. She said this with the certainty afforded to people with rank and privilege in the system.

I’ve been sitting with the comment and as I’ve been stewing I’ve become very clear that I don’t agree with her at all. Corporations are some of the most powerful, well resourced institutions in society today. In many ways the reach of the organisation surpasses that of religious and political institutions that have drawn maps and exerted control over the course of society in the past. People spend a vast amount of time in the workplace and it has a huge impact on the lived experience of the people within them.

Now I know that complex societal problems such as inequality, prejudice and discrimination are not sorted through silver bullets. I also know that it takes a lot more than conversation to mature a system towards greater equality, inclusivity and restorative justice. We have a hard and long road ahead of us. And at the same time I am cynical and critical of the line that it “isn’t the organisation’s problem to solve”. Surely wherever we start is called “here” and is worth the effort and investment of people who care.

In the same meeting, another more junior staff member noted that in the liberal culture of their organisation, there are some things that are being allowed that are just not okay. I realise there are many ways to define liberalism and liberal organisational cultures, but for now I am left pondering that statement too. Some organisational cultures that have become “nice” and are perhaps still holding onto some utopic ideals of rainbowism that was more appropriate for the 1990s than now, have permitted not-okay behaviours to flourish in the name of political correctness and minority politics.

I am really interested in what lies beyond and through that perspective. I am not suggesting a return to some organisational cultures and behaviours of the past. We are needing to grow into post-liberalism and we need to figure out what that means for Organisation Development approaches and practices.

One thing I know is that it requires me to be even more courageous and self-aware as a practitioner and I hope that my fellow OD practitioners will join me on this journey. We cannot afford the destruction of a cycle of Absencing. We need to be part of the process that increases systemic consciousness.

By Lucille Greeff

September 2019

References

Gallup (2019) Gallup 2019 Global Emotions Report. https://www.gallup.com/analytics/248906/gallup-global-emotions-report-2019.aspx

Kukard, J. Kettleborough, S., & Greeff, L. (2019) The Cartography of Life Series: Book 1. Expanded Identity Theory. Privately published

Scharmer, C. O. (2009). Theory U: Learning from the future as it emerges. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Stone, T. (2016) History tells us what may happen next with Brexit & Trump.

https://medium.com/@tswriting/history-tells-us-what-will-happen-next-with-brexit-trump-a3fefd154714

For more information on the InclusionIndex, visit www.aephoria.co.za