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Everyday Ubuntu for everyday success in organizations and teams

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Ubuntu is a Xhosa word from South Africa meaning that each person’s humanity is bound up with the humanity of others. “I am only because you are”.

The phrase is from the book “Everyday Ubuntu” (Mungi Ngomane, with a foreword of Desmond Tutu). Ubuntu means “if we can see everyone as connected to us, we will never be able to treat others as disposable or without worth”. We than can overcome division, in a world where the wise build bridges, not walls. I believe this philosophy has a lot in common with Relationship System Intelligence and the work we do with leaders and teams using a systems approach. “The basic principle of RSI - the foundation of Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching [1] - is the redirection of focus from the individuals within the system, to the whole system as an entity in itself. The strength of a team’s identity provides resilience and the resources necessary to navigate the constantly changing challenges organizations, families and teams face” [2]. We could also say “I am only because we are”.

In this article I would like to talk about the walls mentioned in “Everyday Ubuntu”. Illustrated by a unique three days transformational journey of a team. How subtle and easy these walls appear in any relationship and relationship system (organizations, team, family). Impacting trust, engagement, team motivation, productivity and sharing of information – all crucial for any organization who aspires to be the best in class and ignite the best in people.

What Safety does

Let’s look at the story about a team coaching experience where the principle of ubuntu was embraced in a very simple and profound way. The scene in this story is a group of 12 employees (high potentials and management level) from a waste management company of around 500 employees. The aim was to improve cross functional collaboration, connection and engagement, developing stronger leadership skills and communication. The underlying issues at stake were hierarchy culture, misalignment in and between teams and to a certain extend departments working in silo’s impacting the overall business performance.

The first step in the process of the three days coach journey was co-creating with the team a space of safety – an important part of embracing the principle of ubuntu. From the start, most of them were hesitant to really connect, only knowing each other from quick greetings in the elevator to their offices. And not surprisingly, we have a strong tendency as humans to judge others. We often don’t notice our cognitive biases at play. Judgement shuts us down and keeps us away from being open and curios to understand others.

We only dare to really connect and open up if we feel safe; the key to stay away from judgement and open up conversations about what is happening in a group, inside us, and explore why. Only than we can work towards the next important step, the process of group alignment which is exploring how the group wanted to be together (which is different and comes before aligning how to do things together). Through this process they felt more at ease and became more aware of their deeper values and how each one of them is at choice to shape a culture all collectively longed for: open, transparent, without judgement, with respect towards each other, with trust and reciprocity. To really live these values there must be a collective understanding and consensus what each value means and the behaviors that are in line with living these values. Easier said than done. In this example the team was able to build consensus and build bridges in the process of hearing all voices. They learned the value of leaving out judgements and assumptions as part of building trust.

What helped this particular team to build bridges instead of walls, was explaining how the brain works and how our body makes chemicals in order to protect itself constantly, especially in low trust cultures. This can be protecting ourselves from fear or loss of power which often leads back to past experiences and our own assumptions of how we view the world. We fall into our toxin responses or reactive behaviors: blaming, stonewalling /disengaging, or we defend ourselves. In other words, emotions bring us to the fight, flight or freeze mode.

What happens in the team is like in a spiderweb: if one string is tense or breaks due to fight, flight, freeze responses, the entire web will be impacted and will be less resilient. When one team member is triggered and judgement or tension kicks in, everybody is impacted (note: we can be triggered easily by an email, a tone of voice, a remark or not feeling heard). As human beings in relationship we go through constant changes and constant emotions. Especially in cultures of low trust.

“The addiction of being right”

These toxin responses, often we don’t notice the deeper impact, are creating walls between us and can be harmful for team relationships; it prevents honest, productive sharing of information and opinions. It helped explaining the team that especially the default we all need to be aware of during our day-to-day conversations is called “the addiction to being right syndrome” of Judith Glaser [3]. “What happens if we argue and win, our brains gets loads of different hormones like adrenaline (making you feel good and dominant) and dopamine (you are getting rewarded), so you feel good about winning. It’s such a good feeling that we want to replicate this feeling, so we get addicted to being right! [4] (for those who are curious to learn: notice in yourself when this is happening and stop yourself - I catch myself daily!).

Back to my experience.... during the three days, the team had to practice to recognize the default (toxin) behaviors during various experiments, under stress and pressure (like on the work floor or at home). For example, they performed complex tasks under time pressure, so they repeatedly learned to recognize their own reactive (fight, flight, freeze) behaviors in the midst of heated discussions and tension to get a task done. The magic happened when the team learned to be observers of themselves. The capability to stop when they fell into the “addiction to being right reflex” and reflect what was happening in the heat of the moment. Revealing in itself.

Being at choice

The tools they applied: they first agreed and aligned when and how to give feedback to each other the moment assumptions, dominance or judgmental communication entered the space (“with humor, with clarity and compassion”); this accountability part reminded them what they wanted for their culture. Curiosity about their own behaviors and about the many qualities they collectively possessed, informed their culture and was slowly casting out their fears (we all have fears of speaking up, fears of giving or receiving feedback, fears of failure).

The team also agreed to work with a 3-step approach when they felt triggered during a conversation or discussion (“stop, listen actively and with curiosity”). To learn a whole new way of (active) listening and staying away from fight/flight/freeze responses is difficult when fear or anger kicks in, especially on the work floor or when you are tired from a day work; but through new awareness and lots of practice the brain makes new connections, rewires and the more practice the easier it becomes to stay away of being reactive. The good news, we have super brain powers to pursue long-lasting behavior change, but it is not easy and takes collective courage, practice and discipline. This is what the group showcased. The result: they became aware, as a whole, how to improve the quality of their conversations. In turn this transformed the quality of their relationships, leading to a culture of trust, collaboration and high engagement.

The team experience described here was transformational. The energy different after three days of collective work: open faces, the drive to get the best out of each other, the conversations shifted from being transactional to transformational, they trusted each other, so they shared what they felt, not afraid anymore of being vulnerable and open to change negative patterns. There was more laughing, openness and tears because they could feel so connected.

The team experienced how to operate under pressure with ubuntu in mind, constantly aware what they wanted their culture to be (I am because you/we are), even if values where breached and things went wrong. The ability to observe, reflect and learn from reactive responses is powerful. The moment this happens, full flow of information sharing takes place, and increased creativity and productivity brings teams and organizations to higher grounds.

My main message is that we will always find ourselves in reactive behaviors, impacting us negatively in the heat of a difficult task or discussion, on the work floor and at home, but with embracing ubuntu, and with the tools described above, at least we can build the capability to stop ourselves from building walls and instead keep working on building bridges.

About the author:

Elisabeth van Loon-Muller is a consultant, trainer, ORSCC certified Team- and Leadership Coach and Leadership Circle Profile™ practitioner. As former Board member of ICF Chapter Oman she contributed to its mission to create awareness around the benefits of coaching to individuals and organisations. She lived in Africa and the Middle East and recently moved back to the Netherlands. Elisabeth have witnessed how relationships between individuals and teams blossom when they embrace ORSC principles. The more leadership teams in organizations become aware of how this works for the bigger system, the more we can cultivate collective courageous and healthy leadership which is so needed in a divided, complex and volatile world.

[1] The Organization & Relationship Systems Coaching Program by CRR Global: a groundbreaking model for coaching relationship systems.

[2] CRR Global Inc, White Paper, 2014, written by Marita Fridjhon, Anne Rod, Faith Fuller

[3] Judith E. Glaser former CEO of Benchmark Communications, Inc. and Chairman of The Creating WE Institute, author of four best selling business books, including her newest Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results (Bibliomotion, 2013)

[4] Judith E. Glaser, Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results (Bibliomotion, 2013)

Elisabeth Muller - 5 August 2021
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