What we all can learn from the African philosophy of Ubuntu

When competition gets in the way of achieving goals, companies need to evaluate their procedures and, perhaps, re-evaluate their priorities. I am not referring to outside competition -- what I'm talking about is the competition among co-workers.

All the cogs in a machine have to be working in concert to maintain productivity. When the human cogs go out of sync, the machine groans and sputters. Regardless of their individual strengths, all the parts must coordinate for peak performance.

Teamwork takes on a much bigger role in tough times. When the team shrinks and fewer players are responsible for results, one underperformer can have a huge impact.

For example, Joanne retires and management decides not to replace her. Her job is split between Andrew and Heather, who are promoted and assume those new responsibilities in addition to those already in their job descriptions.

But Heather doesn't do things quite like Joanne did, and Andrew didn't anticipate that he'd have to work so much harder. So folks who used to depend on Joanne's cheerful efficiency try to work around the new arrangement, but the results are disappointing.

This scenario has repeated itself in companies across the country. National hiring statistics indicate that job creation is proceeding at a snail's pace. People with jobs, even jobs they don't love, don't want to be the next to be downsized. If they are reluctant to look for another job, they must learn how to adapt and work together.

In preparation for a family trip to South Africa, I previewed a fascinating new book "Ubuntu!" It addresses the importance of teamwork, based on Ubuntu -- the African tradition of teamwork and collaboration.

I highly recommend this book, written by Stephen Lundin, co-author of the bestseller "Fish," and Bob Nelson, author of another bestseller, "1001 Ways to Reward Employees." These men are authorities on employee attitudes and performance, and I value their insight.

According to the authors, "Ubuntu is a philosophy that considers the success of the group above that of the individual." This concept is told in a fable about a workplace where a newly promoted manager cannot find a way to get his team to work together, and who often ends up trying to cover their mistakes himself.

One day, the manager's boss comes to him in frustration about the performance of his department and explains how customers are being adversely affected. She is very clear about her expectations for improvement. His job is in jeopardy because his management style is allowing too many mistakes.

One of his employees, Simon, is an African M.B.A. candidate who works at the company while he finishes his degree. Simon is a stellar employee whose work is exceptional. He offers to help the manager catch up, and then explains the Ubuntu philosophy to him.

The manager is intrigued enough by what he has learned that he shares it with his boss. Among those lessons:

•Ubuntu does not mean respecting bad work; it does mean respecting the person who does the work.

•Ubuntu is a compassionate philosophy, but it is not soft. When the group is threatened by an individual's behavior, that person must be challenged.

•Expect the best from others, and you're likely to get it.

•There are two levels of recognition in Ubuntu. The first is to value others simply for what they are. The second is to value others for what they achieve.

•As long as there are employees who think of themselves as "little people," the work of Ubuntu is not finished.

Of course, there is a little twist to the story: The manager learns that Simon was a respected businessman and Ubuntu practitioner in Africa before he came to study in America. As his American manager puts this philosophy into practice, results improve dramatically, as does employee satisfaction.

Mackay's Moral: There is no "I" in team, but you will find "us" in success.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman and author. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or send e-mail to harvey@mackay.com. His column is distributed by United Feature Syndicate.

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