Defend Truth


(Mis)management: The invisible closed doors that stifle progress


Amos Mavuso holds two law degrees. He is an advocate working for Sasol as an adviser.

Managers and leaders occupy a special place in any organisation, and bad managers are a huge threat to organisational stability.

How many times have you heard managers say, “I have an open-door policy; you can come to me at any time”? Reflecting on the managers that I have had since I started working nearly 20 years ago, it is fascinating how some of the managers who are personally deficient, untransformed and inaccessible can utter such a bald-faced lie.

The truth is that the manager’s door is often not only closed but locked to just about everyone that is beneath him or her. In many cases, the boss’s office is a freezer you walk out of firmly resolved to never again come anywhere near.

People who have truly open doors have open hearts. That is not part of any MBA curriculum. It cannot be taught. Truly open-door personalities never have to tell you about an open door because in their interpersonal dealings there is no need to talk about something so transparent and immediately known by co-workers. The workers are aware that the manager’s office door is open and only gets closed once you are inside, because everything you say there is in a safe space.

In real life, we never see each other’s hearts and we do not see the real doors. The real door in a truly non-racial, non-tribal, non-sexist and transformed workplace is you – that is, who you really are, stripped of the fancy corporate titles that you attach to emails and official documents. It is true that there are no bad companies, only bad managers and people.

When people say that Eskom or Steinhoff is a bad company what they mean is that they have bad managers. What distinguishes companies is the people running them and not the colour of their brand or the eloquence of their mission statement.

Of course, race matters in this context. But it is not the full and final story. The people who hounded out the SABC 8 were just as black as Thandeka Gqubule or Lukhanyo Calata. The moral and historical obligation to transform personal and organisational corporate culture rests on all of us, black and white.

In the preamble to the Constitution it is written:

We, therefore, through our freely elected public representatives, adopt this Constitution so as to… improve the quality of life of our citizens and free the potential of each and every person.”

The Constitution is the supreme law of our country and applies to all walks of life, whether in the public or private sectors. We should constantly check that our conduct “improve[s] the quality of life” of our workers and co-workers. Clearly, the fatalities we have in the mining sector fall short of this standard, as genuine transformation entails zero fatalities and zero harm. The tragedy of Lily Mine remains a festering wound that we seem not to care much about.

We need to be particularly vigilant how we treat black people and women in our workplaces. This group bore the brunt of many unjust acts in the nightmare of our past. Lately, there has been a dangerous narrative of revising this sad past to sanitise the rot that was apartheid and blunt its devastating impact on mostly black people and in particular black women.

An example of this is Helen Zille’s tweet that colonialism was not all bad. No human being should colonise any other people’s culture or territory. AfriForum’s Kallie Kriel told us apartheid was not a crime against humanity. The violence and pain that we see currently have a past and you cannot confront this past unless you look at our history with honesty.

The 19th Equity Commission Report says SA private companies prefer white males as managers. This may tell us about the slow pace of transformation, but it is hardly the full story. Who manages and leads an organisation and the manner in which it is managed tell us more about its sustainability, culture and the employees’ sense of belonging.

The activist and journalist Steven Friedman recently observed in an opinion article (Business Day, 9 October 2019):

“One reason for the continued racial tension in the middle class here is that those who control many areas of life, from which black people were barred by apartheid, have seen no reason to change what they do and how they do it. They assume that the rules and values which met the needs of white people under apartheid are best for everyone. And so, black people entering these areas of life are expected to fit into rules and habits which may not fit their experience at all.”

This is a rejection of the values underpinning our Constitution. One can only imagine the life experience of the many black workers and professionals in those companies which believe that black is tolerable but white is better, hence white males should be in leadership roles.

For all intents and purposes, black people and women are allowed to rise in organisations for compliance purposes but not for influence and responsibility. These are the closed doors in corporate South Africa. Transformation is not about the numbers. To improve one’s quality of life is a much broader existential question and responsibility. All of us want and need goodness in life. We want to belong and be appreciated by those around us. The invisible closed doors in corporate life capture the personal, organisational and existential deficiencies in post-apartheid society.

The closed doors deny access to an improved quality of life. Managers and leaders occupy a special place in any organisation, and bad managers are a huge threat to organisational stability.

People who should never be given the responsibility of managing people are let loose to ruin lives. We saw it in the SABC under Hlaudi Motsoeneng. Lives were ruined. Many are still hurting. One wonders how many Hlaudi Motsoenengs are out there managing organisations. DM


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