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Diversity training in South Africa – Five keys for success.

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Diversity training in South Africa – Five keys for success.

Diversity training in South Africa is a hot topic. This is a country where in the not too distant past, you had legal racial discrimination in the workplace. This is also a country where organizations are currently forced by law to hire a more diverse workforce and to remove the barriers of development from previously disadvantaged groups. Because of this history and resultant legislation, many organisations focus on diversity management as merely an issue of compliance and “getting the numbers right” and don’t necessarily pay as much attention to the creation of an organisational culture that encourages the effective contribution of all employees to the mission and objectives of the organisation.

I grew up in a typical middle class suburban neighborhood in Johannesburg, obscured from the realities of what happened in vast parts of our country. In 1991 after having completed school and my stint of compulsory military conscription, and based on my head-space at the time, I decided to go and do two years of voluntary missionary work. In May of 1991, I arrived in Cape Town and was assigned to my first area. After a few hours of orientation, I arrived at what was to be my new home in Mitchell’s plain, in the heart of the Cape flats. Nothing could have prepared me for that experience. Despite the fact that South Africa was my birthplace and my home for twenty years, I may as well have been on the planet Epsilon Eridani, the closest planet just outside of our solar system.

I was way out of my comfort zone and over the next few months, experienced the phenomenon of culture shock over and over again and learned just how little I knew of South Africa and it’s people. During the course of the next two years, I had many wonderful and eye opening experiences. Whilst living in the township of Madadeni, just outside of Newcastle in Kwazulu Natal, I got to visit with the late Lucky Dube in his home. One night in Umlazi, a township in the south of Durban, my friend Peter Bowen and I were woken to discover that our neighbour from two doors away in U section, had their home petrol bombed. Political tension was high during those years and for a few “whities” living in the townships things weren’t always comfortable. We were living in the township of Kwa Mashu just north of Durban in 1993 when Chris Hani was assassinated. It was then that I really began to see how much of a problem racial division was in South Africa.

Twenty years before my experiences as a missionary, Alvin Toffler wrote his remarkable and insightful bestseller “future shock”. In his chapter titled “The 800th Lifetime”, he takes the last 50 000 years of our existence on the planet and divides them into lifetimes of approximately sixty two years and deducts that we are currently living in around the 800th lifetime. He then describes how of those 800 lifetimes our ancestors spent fully 650 of those lifetimes living in caves as hunter gatherers and then describes the accelerated nature of change from that point on. He describes culture shock as what happens when the familiar psychological cues that help an individual to function in society are suddenly withdrawn and replaced by new ones that are strange or incomprehensible.

This is exactly what I experienced those twenty three years ago. Toffler then goes on to explain how the concept of “future shock” is the ” dizzying disorientation  brought on by the premature arrival of the future” and describes it as possibly the most important disease of tomorrow. He argues that with culture shock, you have the comforting knowledge that you can return to the familiarity of the culture you left behind, but with “future shock” you have no such luxury. It is a time phenomenon where the accelerated rate of change in society becomes the super imposition of a new culture on an old one, the difference being that there is no going back.

In South Africa, we had a collision of both culture shock and future shock and many people in our organisations were completely unprepared for the changes that took place. There is no going back to that old South Africa now and still in 2014, twenty years after the birth of the new South Africa many are still coming to terms with the rapid changes that have taken place with regards cultural diversity in the workplace. There is still much to be done in terms of addressing the inequalities of the past and more change is something we can absolutely be guaranteed of. How can we improve our chances that our diversity training in South Africa is successful?

Diversity training in South Africa – 5 keys for success

1 – The CEO and leadership team must accept diversity as their personal responsibility

As with any serious business initiative, diversity training must not only be bought into by the senior leadership team, but they must drive the process themselves and accept responsibility for it’s outcomes. Diversity training must be part of an overall leadership culture that includes diversity as part of the vision, values and strategy of the organisation. It must be linked to key organisational objectives and leaders must model the attitudes and behaviors expected and hold others accountable in the process.

2 – Build a culture of inclusion

Many diversity management initiatives focus largely on issues of legal compliance and “getting the numbers right”. We may be attracting talent from a diverse spectrum, but we will never derive the real benefit of a diverse workplace, unless we create a culture of inclusion. The analogy that is sometimes used o illustrate this challenge is taken from the 1999 book “Building a house for diversity: How a fable of a giraffe and an elephant offers new strategies for today’s workforce” by Roosevelt Thomas Jr. If you had to liken your organisation to a house built for giraffes, a diversity management program would be effective in widening the door to let the elephant in, but the home wouldn’t be the best place for the elephant unless some major modifications were made to the interior of the house. If these changes were not made it would remain a house built originally for giraffes and the elephant would feel completely out of place.

It’s not enough to merely hire people from diverse backgrounds. If we want to use the collective genius of the group then we need to empower people by providing them with meaningful and challenging tasks and by giving them real authority within their span of control. We need to move away from the mentality of micromanagement and let people loose to dream, to dare and to take advantage of opportunities and to provide them with the resources and support to become successful.

3 – Communicate the business case for diversity and inclusion

There is a serious case to be made for diversity training and it’s link to the organisations success. Any company that can increase the skill set and contributions of the majority of its workforce enjoys a true competitive advantage. Some of the benefits of diversity and inclusion initiatives include:

  • More creative and innovative solutions, ideas and implementation and eliminate “group-think”.
  • A better understanding of the global demographics and the needs of an increasingly global market place.
  • Increased opportunities to attract talent from a global workforce and to attract a more diverse client base.
  • Improved employee performance.
  • Increased productivity.
  • Reduced staff turnover.

4 – Move beyond labeling and categorizing people

Traditional diversity training is designed to raise awareness of diverse cultures. When we do this we highlight the differences in people by labeling and categorizing people. We are trained to see the differences in people and not trained to develop the skills required to better understand our common humanity. When we label and categorize people we immediately start to form judgments and make evaluations. labels can create stereotyped images based on collective thinking, hearsay, our biases, our fears and can lead to an inability to separate people from their colour, culture, sexual orientation or any other form of diversity. A good diversity training initiative will provide delegates with a tool box of sorts to have more productive conversations and to work more effectively in diverse teams. Humility, respect, empathy and being genuinely interested in understanding other cultures is key to building better relationships.

5 – Encourage and appoint diversity and human rights champions

These individuals can come from a broad cross section of the organisation and their role would be to champion diversity within the organisation by promoting and raising awareness of issues around inclusion throughout the organisation. Get them to be creative and innovative by arranging different initiatives within he company. These can include things like:

  • Bringing people together from different backgrounds to celebrate different cultural events, share information, food and entertainment
  • Encouraging people from different backgrounds to get involved in the local community by providing service projects etc. Organisations which provide regular service in the community have reported shifts in attitudes from people involved.
  • Bring people together to discuss and debate different issues.



About the Author

Eddie Botes is a motivational speaker and trainer based in cape Town, South Africa. He is the founder of Leadershift, an organisation dedicated to inspiring and developing greatness in leaders, by providing world class training programs, entertaining and research packed presentations and state of the art profiling and assessment solutions.

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