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10 Ways to Create Diversity & Transformation in the Workplace

By Renias Mhlongo | Translated by Alex van den Heever

Renias Mhlongo was born in what is today the greater Kruger National Park. As a young boy Renias was responsible for 17 head of cattle; protecting them from lions, hyaenas and leopards resident in the area. His father’s rule was simple – come home with all the cows or not at all. Today Renias is recognised as one of the best wildlife trackers in the world. Alex van den Heever, his friend and colleague of 23 years, sat down with Renias to hear his thoughts on diversity and transformation in South Africa. Together with Alex, Renias has spoken internationally on the “The Power of Relationships” – their motivational presentation.

Here Renias offers 10 practical ways in which business leaders may improve their intercultural relationships and realise the power of diversity. The points below were translated by Alex. Renias’s home language is Tsonga.

  1. Demonstrate a willingness to engage

Sometimes we need to go out of our way to demonstrate, in practical terms, a willingness to engage someone from a different culture. For example, learn to greet in their language. At work, managers should know the important ceremonies held by his/her staff, such as the (Hluvula) ceremony which marks the end of a mourning period. Of key importance here is the act of seeking to sincerely understand. You will be surprised at the response to showing genuine interest in people – their jobs, their children and their particular life situation. Not only will this earn you respect but also deepen your understanding of fellow South Africans.

  1. Share knowledge

In this fiercely competitive world there is a tendency to hold onto knowledge and skills, often as a means of survival. If we are to build a transformed and productive country, we need to break this scarcity mentality and share. In fact, we have little choice – South Africa needs for its ordinary citizens to be active in developing the skills of those less fortunate. If every South African reached out meaningfully to someone in need, even just one person in your lifetime, it would not be long before we experience positive results.

  1. Learn the language

It’s really simple; you cannot hope to fully understand a person from another culture (or language group) unless you learn their language, or at least attempt to do so. Again, the emphasis is in the trying.

  1. Make use of public transport

This provides an informal opportunity to engage with ordinary South Africans, to understand their plight, for example, why people who use taxis are often late for work. Unless you have travelled on a train or taxi, you do not have the moral high ground to make comment to those who do use public transport.

  1. Visit their Homes

Try to visit and stay at the home of a person (work colleague or associate) from a culture different to yours. This is simple but profound. Productive relationships are formed when you understand the life story of the person you are dealing with – and this is what you will gain when you immerse yourself into someone else’s life at their home. The power of solidarity that comes of this simple act cannot be underestimated.

  1. Share meals

It is a globally recognised fact that sharing food and drink brings us together. This is fundamental in developing relationships in Africa.

  1. Share the company vision

Few managers and business leaders take the time to share information of the company’s performance (unless forced to do so). Workers want a greater understanding of how the business functions, the challenges it’s facing; the successes, the shortcomings, its financial situation, and the company’s vision. Again, the mere act of sharing these insights causes staff to feel validated and important. It binds them to the organisation.

  1. Do not generalise

South Africans love to generalise; to assign a label to someone or something they do not understand. Judging generalisations are borne of fear and intellectual laziness. Remember that everyone is an individual with a unique set of life experiences which shape their behaviour; even the taxi driver who cuts you off in the traffic.

  1. Personal Conduct

We often estrange people unknowingly. So, learn what is considered to be disrespectful behaviour for the various cultures with which you interact. And don’t be ashamed to share the same of your culture. Equally, learn what is regarded as culturally respectful, not just politically correct. For example, your office cleaner may be a highly respected member of his/her community and therefore should be greeted with a certain reverence and term. Find out. Your staff will be delighted that you took the effort to engage and demonstrate a public show of respect. Speak up if there are issues to be dealt with. Even the most sensitive, difficult conversations can be held if the message is delivered from a position of “I want to help this relationship”, as opposed to “I want to be right”. We all have the right to air our views, but do it with calmness, respect and factual accuracy.

  1. Search Yourself

Take a moment to delve deep into the shadows and find where you hold prejudiced thoughts and feelings. We all have them. If not acknowledged, this hidden intolerance will become evident when you least expect it. And people notice the very subtle, yet obvious, acts of bigotry.

To book Renias and Alex and hear them tell their true story, click here.