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World cup unity – a tonic for organisational change?

If national pride is measured in flag visibility, South Africa has surely blasted off the scales of the national pride barometer. The 2010 FIFA World Cup has been nothing less than a momentous success, and while some are concerned the current groundswell of patriotism will fizzle out into a listless hangover come the end of the tournament, there is much hope that the country, organisations and businesses can continue to leverage off it for years to come.

After all, times when whole populations – especially those as diverse as ours – come together in a true show of national unity are rare things. They are to be savoured and celebrated, but more importantly, they are occasions to be learnt from.

Companies and organisations, for example, could benefit if they find a way to translate the culture of cooperation that has blossomed around the world cup into the realm of organisational change and diversity management. The result could be more inclusive, high-performing and competitive organisations – places where the discourse around employment equity moves away from compliance to that of collective benefit.

Because, besides all the most obvious benefits, the world cup has finally proved that there is one common South African identity, something that many have struggled to pin down in the years since 1994. Support for the tournament and for the national team has known no boundaries – white Afrikaner men alongside soccer fanatics from Soweto, businesswomen in Sandton, farm-workers in small towns and students in cities have all waved the flag high, showing that no matter who we are, we are South Africans first.

More surprisingly, perhaps, is that it has brought home a very strong sense of our ‘Africanness’ as well. South Africans of all races – once so quick to cite tenuous family ties to places in Europe or Asia – have instead celebrated their connection to the continent; their pride in being African.

Had the tournament not been such a major triumph – had the prophecies of the doomsayers come true – the effect would no doubt have been vastly different. South Africans would probably have retreated into their characteristic pessimism over the country’s ability to deliver on all fronts. Failure would surely have pushed people apart.

That is why it is so crucial that the moment at hand is not laid to waste. South Africans must build on this renewed sense of patriotism and on our new symbols of success – world-class stadiums, upgraded airports, new roads and transport networks and a high-speed rail link more associated with Singapore than Sandton in the shape of the Gautrain.

Companies, too, must harness the spirit of togetherness and apply world cup lessons in pride and identity to their own contexts. The world cup has shown that common identity can be a powerful motivator for collective achievement, and that celebrating accomplishments goes a long way to fostering that collective sense of identity and pride.

Organisations wanting to benefit and learn from the world cup must therefore build corporate cultures that are wholly inclusive and that emphasise the commonalities of their employees, rather than the differences. They also need to connect each and every individual worker to the greater purpose of the company. The media and politicians did a fantastic job in making every South African feel connected to the overall success of the tournament and organisations can, and should, do the same.

This is because numerous HR studies have shown that when people feel united, when they feel valued and important, work ethic and loyalty are significantly enhanced. Too many South African companies are still stuck with an inherent sense of separateness – whether between different levels of company hierarchy or due to opportunities being skewed along racial and gender lines – and this creates mistrust, disloyalty and below par performance.

The key to overcoming these obstacles and to creating truly inclusive organisations does not lie in employment equity or BEE. While legislation has its place, it highlights our differences, and that – the world cup has shown us – is counterproductive to cooperation.

Most importantly, the world cup has taught us that diversity is best managed with commonality. What connects us is far more important than what makes us different and companies that recognise this and build corporate cultures that ride on the current wave of national togetherness will be those that benefit the most from the world cup legacy. The final whistle may have been blown, but the moment of opportunity for South Africa and its businesses is certainly not gone.

Craig Arendse is the MD of Mediation and Transformation SA. He has over 20 years experience in the mediation and transformation field and has consulted to international organisations, including the World Bank.

Craig Arendse