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The word “teamwork” has become so overused that for many it’s meaningless. “We’d like to see some good teamwork here.”  “Let’s work as a team and show some fantastic results.”  “This won’t be achieved unless we all pull together as a team.”  Team is a platitude thrown around by managers with very little expectation of any change in behavior.

Ubuntu-Buffalo-NY-thumb-375xauto-11146So, what is another way to focus on collaboration and teamwork without using the T-word?  Along comes the book, Ubuntu! by Stephen Lundin (co-author of Fish!) and Bob Nelson, about the African tradition of community and finding connections among  us not based on what we do, but who we are.  To accomplish this, we begin with a basic curiosity about the people with whom we work and elect to spend private time each week talking with colleagues about non-work-related things.

It’s asking these types of questions:
· What is important to you?
· What life experiences have shaped who you are?
· Are there hot buttons, or things you would respond negatively to, that we need to know in order to work best with each other?
· What things do you most want present in the time you spend at work?
· Where do you hope to be in 5 years?

Ubuntu defines relationships – not by focusing on our differences –  but by seeking what we have in common:  our common humanity, our willingness to value the success of the group over our individual accomplishments.  And when we find ourselves judging others, Ubuntu would suggest we look for the positive intentions first.  What is the opportunity here, rather than what is the threat?

This thinking is most clearly demonstrated in the story of Nelson Mandela and his amazing decision to invite his jailers to sit in the front row the day of his inauguration as President of South Africa.  It was this philosophy of Ubuntu that guided his decision.  The authors note, “The decades of apartheid did not end in a bloody revolution, as history might predict.  There was an ingredient in the African mindset that was large enough, wise enough, compassionate enough to prevent such a harsh response.  It was called Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a philosophy of unity and purpose, where our actions demonstrate a recognition and understanding that we are all connected.”


Interestingly, the Ubuntu philosophy does not tolerate someone acting in a way inconsistent with the mission.  If a person’s behavior threatens the “good of the whole,” that person must be challenged.  Ubuntu does not mean respecting bad work; it does mean respecting the person who does the work.  It suggests that there are natural consequences that must be allowed to occur – not as reward or punishment – but simply as a result.  Too often we suppress our frustration with others, rather than finding a respectful way to call individuals on their behavior for the good of the team.  The book challenges us to keep a log of the times when we were confident – and wrong.

So, let me ask you, would your team interactions be improved with these three Ubuntu steps:
1. Connect as people first.
2. Focus on what we have in common, rather than our differences.
3. Respectfully callout people whose actions are hurting the “community.”

The book also suggests that when we are in the midst of change, feeling unsettled and threatened, it is a time when support and collaboration of team members is particularly important.  Ubuntu would have us look for the person who needs a hand and ask how we can help.

So next week, instead of talking about teamwork – insert the word Ubuntu instead – and get people trying to figure out what you mean.  It might prompt some interesting discussion.

This poster of how to personally practice the philosophy of Ubuntu! might help you get started (free download)

Other leaders who have embraced Ubuntu!: Watch another short video with Bill Clinton and Desmond Tutu explaining Ubuntu! (click here)



If you liked this, you may want to read these:

It’s Time To Revisit Good To Great

The Leadership Pill

  • Deb,

    Thanks so much for sharing Ubuntu. It’s a great way to rethink teamwork. I really liked your post.

    I’m going to use some of these ideas to help an organization I’m a member of build a stronger connection.

  • This is an intriguing concept. It would be much better if Ubuntu were to replace the all too common expression BOHICA (Bend Over, Here It Comes Again) that is embraced by our society. this is because we have allowed ourselves to be separated into two groups. One has the power and is all too willing to use it to control and manipulate others. the other group is fatalistic, believing that they have no power and therefore must submit to that control and manipulation. Your article shows that there is a much better way.

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