Sunday, March 6, 2011

Trust after Trauma

Ben was there when the mob murdered a close colleague. They crushed his skull with home fashioned pangas and stabbed him in the chest with a length of sharpened rebar.

Ben, a recent graduate from Stellenbosch University and a member of the HR team, had joined a group of officials that went to the arena of the West Rand mine to appease a few thousand striking workers. As they made their way to the centre of the arena, they were mobbed and attacked by a group of chanting and crazed strikers. Dragging their severely wounded and dying colleague with them, they all sprinted for the car, bundled in and drove through a gauntlet of rocks, stones and panga slashes until they were able to reach the relative safety of the mine offices.

It was 1986 -- one of the most turbulent years in the history of South African mining and labour. Not too far away, two policemen had been “necklaced” coming to a fiery end in the middle of burning tyres. Elsewhere, rival union officials were put on a platform and stabbed with sharpened metal rods and sticks until they lay in a lifeless heap in front of the jeering crowd. Hostels had become “no-go” areas and resembled war zones. Underground, all kinds of material – nails, rebar, metal sheets and tempered steel rock drills – were being fashioned into spiked clubs, spears, knives and swords that could rival Excalibur. It was if all were preparing for settling old scores and a final showdown against rival unions, tribal factions, management, the system and the white government. Of course, there was labour unrest elsewhere as part of the political turbulence in the mid 80’s. But none could rival the intensity and violent nature of the mining industry.

Mining is a tough world. It breeds tough people. I remember the months I spent underground as part of a “gap year” in the 60’s before going to Holland to study. I was appalled and simply not prepared for the conditions we all had to work under, conditions that my father had endured for nearly 50 years before succumbing to miner’s phthisis. Yet I marvelled at their high spirits, the singing and chanting of shoshaloza songs as they made their way to their work areas, sometimes crawling more than 100 meters through 1½ meter high tunnels. More than the paltry pay, camaraderie kept them going. Like soldiers, they hated the war, the system, the circumstances and the higher command.

But they loved and fully trusted their brothers in arms, sometimes even the white miner “boss” and occasionally even the “shift-boss”. They had to. It was dangerous work in a dangerous, unforgiving place. They had to watch each other’s backs and mostly looked up to their immediate supervisor, the miner or shift boss, as being part of that brotherhood. It was a place of tangible, unconditional trust. It was also a place of tangible, uncompromising distrust.

For years I questioned the wisdom of the Wiehahn Commission for granting a general labour franchise in the absence of political franchise. It transferred the “struggle” to the workplace, introducing a political dimension which we are still having to live with today and with which none of the Wits Mining Engineers, M.B.A. graduates and HR yuppies of that time were equipped to cope.

It was the palpable distrust in mining and the need to equip industry leadership with tools to deal with it that led to the Chamber of Mines launching “Industrial Leadership”– a comprehensive research project aimed at diagnosing the causes of distrust and developing methods of enhancing trust. This project was headed by my brother, Etsko and after being “privatised” in the late 80’s it became part of our processes when I founded Schuitema Associates in 1990.

As with all knowledge, many of the key findings of enhancing trust in leadership were known. In the 70’s already, these principles had been thoroughly articulated by Robert Greenleaf’s Servant leadership whose memorable quote: “The great leader is seen as servant first, and that is the key to his greatness” says it all.

The findings of the Industrial leadership project were expanded with many more clients and in many different fields. The criteria for trust remained the same. Trust is given or withheld on one simple principle: whether the person in command has the subordinate’s interest at heart. We found too that this was not necessarily a soft “bleeding heart” quality. It seldom had anything to do with pay (unless pay levels were atrociously low) or working conditions (again, unless they were totally unacceptable by industry standards.)

You can try this for yourself. What would you expect from your immediate boss that would make you trust him or her? The criteria we found could be placed under two categories – care and growth. They are always present in any relationship of power. The “care” category covered things like genuine interest in the person’s welfare, living circumstances, family, birthdays, etc. The “growth” category dealt with perceptions of development, training, empowerment, career opportunities, etc.

But perhaps the most important finding was that these things are not expected from higher up in the command structure, but at first line supervisory level, in other words, the immediate boss. What the findings were telling us is that trust in business leadership is not forged by having some iconic leader at the top, but the treatment received in that crucial supervisor/subordinate relationship. The more this leadership line is unable, or does not have the power to care for or enable and empower the subordinate, the more trust is eroded. Clearly, it is a matter of degree and not all staff decisions can be in the hands of the first line supervisor. The extent to which they are disempowered from doing so, is the extent to which a void is created in trust – a void that is quickly, albeit artificially, filled by the shop-steward.

The model proposes one simple principle, that a vital role of leadership at any level is the care and growth of the immediate subordinate. It has to become the most important part of their job description for which they should be held accountable.

I met Ben as my client contact a few years after the arena incident. He had moved on to become the Human Resource Manager at the mine. His main job was to enhance trust between the workforce and leadership. This would have been a supreme irony if it were not for Ben’s passion and character. It always intrigued me that having been given every reason to distrust the workforce, he ended up promoting trust.

So I called him this week to ask how he did it.

“I have a fundamental belief in the good of most human beings,” he said. “Even at the time, I believed that most on all sides were sincere in trying to resolve our differences.”

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