A blog post by Rev Dr Neil Pembroke
Ubuntu is a humane and communitarian philosophy originating in sub-Saharan Africa. It has a lot to teach Westerners, saturated as we are with the spirit of individualism. Ubuntu views persons as interdependent entities whose deepest moral obligation is to become more fully human through expressing virtues such as openness to others, hospitality, generosity, compassion, and care. The mood of Ubuntu comes through clearly when we take note of two things. First, the Ubuntu credo: ‘I am because we are.’ Second, the way sub-Saharan Africans greet each other is not like us Westerners. We say, ‘How are you, today?’ They say, ‘How are we doing today?’
Too many of our workplaces are characterised by mistrust, alienation, competition, and bullying. Workers long for something better. There is a great deal of research telling us what the ‘something better’ is. Top of the list are things such as a sense of belonging, trust, a cooperative spirit, teamwork, and having fun at work. In interviews conducted by the researchers, a sentiment commonly expressed is the desire to be part of a workplace family.
A number of spiritual writers have made the connection between what workers want and what Ubuntu offers. Three things stand out: consensus, dialogue, and good will. An approach to decision-making shaped by Ubuntu differs significantly from one that follows the Western corporate paradigm. In the latter model, the approach is linear. The steps are these: identify the problem; determine the cause(s) of the problem; generate a number of viable solutions; choose the best solution; implement the decision. A quick and efficient process is the ideal. The Ubuntu approach, by way of contrast, is a circular and inclusive one. The amount of time that the decision-making process takes is not a major consideration. What is important is that sufficient time is set aside to ensure that all voices are heard and consensus is allowed to emerge. The goal is to preserve harmony.
A strong social economy in a workplace, moving to the second point, is built around intelligent, inclusive, and respectful dialogue. The enemy of such communicative action is mutual obstructionism. This dynamic emerges when members de-emphasise or even discount values and aims that are different from their own.
Dialogue requires a spirit of respect for, and desire to understand, the particularity and individuality of the other. Commentators on Ubuntu have observed that this is precisely the spirit that animates African humanness.
The third and final Ubuntu dynamic that is relevant here is good will. It involves wishing another person well; believing that another person is worthy of help; aiming to help another person; acting so as to help another person; and acting for the other’s sake; and, finally, feeling good in the knowledge that another person has benefited and feeling bad upon learning she has been harmed.
Organisational theorists talk about something very similar. It’s called ‘organizational citizenship’ (OC). OC consists of individual behaviour that is discretionary, not directly or explicitly recognised by the formal reward system, and serves to promote the efficient and effective functioning of an organisation. A good citizen of an organisation engages in actions such as (a) helping others who have heavy workloads; (b) willingly helping others who have work related problems; (c) orienting a new employee to the workplace even though it is not required; (d) considering the impact of actions on co-workers; and (e) being mindful of how behaviour affects other people.
If managers and workers were to learn about Ubuntu and think about how some of its ethical principles could be inculcated in their workplace, we would see a transformation. Ubuntu is one important key to humanising our organisations.