Saturday, 23 May 2015


No, this isn’t anything to do with food poisoning although that seems to be an on-going risk due to the often lamentable state of hygiene in certain stores and restaurants.

No, I mean organizational poison. Some organizations are toxic, both to their customers and to their staff.

A couple of years ago we ran a workshop for a company involved in healthcare and the people who attended were fantastic. They were energetic, fun and full of ideas on how to make their company better. The next week we did the same thing for another company, this time in the media business and they were even better. I have film of them dancing in the workshop, they were having that much fun. Then in the third week we did the same thing again with, this time with the employees of a parastatal.

What a disaster. It was like being at a funeral. People just sat there looking miserable, they hardly spoke and getting them to suggest ideas for improvement was like pulling teeth. And why should It have been any different? Why on earth should these people have invested their time, energy and imagination helping their employer improve when the organization was sick from top to bottom?

I take the blame. It was my idea to run the workshop and I knew what this organization was like, I’d worked with them before and it had been painful. All the people I grew to knew and respect there either left or did their best to do so and the ones left were miserable and unmotivated.

The problem was a mixture of management who didn’t give a damn and a resulting atmosphere that discouraged all the things that make a business thrive, things like energy, passion and imagination.

It’s not just companies, there are even some people who are poisonous.

Unfortunately some people are just naturally nasty. I know the more optimistic among us (and that usually includes me) think that people are fundamentally good but are corrupted by bad influences and experiences but whether or not that’s true there remain some people who are toxic to their customers and to their colleagues.

Many years ago I worked in a company that employed an American woman who’s name came from the word “Devil” in her ancestor’s language and I’ve never met anyone quite so well named. She was a truly horrible, vindictive person who rejoiced in other people’s misfortune. She only kept her job because she could briefly switch those attributes off when dealing with our customers. However, as soon as they’d left the building she returned to her normal nasty self.

Maybe you know someone like this as well? I know that I’ve met two in the last year, people whose approach to dealing with their colleagues was so unpleasant that the people working with them were desperate to leave, just because of that particular coworker.

One of these people had no idea, and what’s worse, no interest in the effect he was having on his colleagues. He had spread rumors about them, alleging all sorts of scandalous misdeeds, none of which were true, just to give himself an advantage over them. He conveniently overlooked his own shortcomings and was in complete denial about certain things he’d done which had damaged his employer’s business. I think he was a borderline sociopath and the report I sent in to his employer said so. My recommendation was very simple. He’s toxic. Fire him.

However reason prevailed and the person in question submitted his resignation a few days later, presumably knowing that if he stuck around long enough they’d do it for him.

Luckily in this case the management of the organization had the courage to take action but that’s not always the case. Managers often hide their heads in the sand and hope problems will sort themselves out. Unfortunately they rarely do. That’s what good management is all about: taking decisions for the best of the organization and, just as importantly, its customers.

There are even attitudes that are poisonous.

The one I despise the most is the view that somehow good service isn’t possible “in our culture”. A variety of people, and not only foreigners with old-fashioned views on race, believe this. I’ve heard it from politicians, business leaders, managers and staff of organizations from across the business spectrum. They feel that there is something in our national bloodstream that prevents us from being attentive, from being business-like and from being successful. They say it’s our attitude or our absence of a work ethic or entrepreneurial spirit.

I genuinely think that this view is not only wrong, it is the opposite of the truth.

Firstly because I know a large number of people who have started businesses here in Botswana that have become successful through those old-fashioned values of hard-work, commitment and flair. We’ve seen parastatals revolutionized, supermarket chains go international and a number of locally formed companies become hugely successful. Who says we can’t do it?

I also think it’s true that our culture actually allows us potentially to deliver better than average service. Ask people what they think are our national cultural values and you’ll hear them talk about respect, courtesy and community spirit, three of the most important factors upon which excellent service is based.

So why aren’t we exploiting these things? Why aren’t we making a point of them? Why aren’t we advertising ourselves as a nation that is friendly but in our own, slightly reserved way? Why aren’t we demonstrating real pride in our culture at the point where is matters most, doing business?

No comments: