6 min read
22 Dec


We need also to create a new story, not just by bearing witness to the wrongs of unequal times, but by enabling people to envision a more equal future, showing that is desirable, possible and being pursued by people standing up together across the world. … The brutal, painful Covid-19 epidemic has highlighted once again the urgency of a more equal society. The damage it is doing is deepening the challenges we face, and it will not, in any automatic sense, generate the profound economic and social shift needed. But we can.  

Ben Phillips   

South African companies are under tremendous strain, caused by a perfect storm of factors ranging from corruption, dysfunctional government departments, global advances, a range of Covid-related challenges and many others. Surviving, much less bringing acceptable returns, has become a far more complex and necessary skill than ever before. With all these new and developing threats to a company’s prosperity and existence, I believe that now is an opportune time for most of our South African companies to re-assess their position and strategies as far as it relates to workplace culture, the way that they view and manage their employees, and how such culture impacts on these considerations of commercial success and an ever evolving ethical method of doing business in South Africa. 

Our corporate culture in general still, tacitly if not overtly, approach the consideration and implementation of business strategies as a zero sum game philosophy, where the one “side” gaining is the other “side’s” loss. This is simply no longer considered best practice in applied game or economic theory. A far more holistic approach is necessary, and it is of some practical value to understand that these new ethical change management principles are not soft option, philanthropic decisions designed to appease any specific section of society, but hard, economically viable and ethically imperative decisions that are undoubtedly in the best interests of the company / employer itself, regardless of one’s moral views. It remains one of the pleasures of my work to sit down with management and to show them, in measurable terms, how these principles, applied to the workplace and the employer / employee relationship in particular, is of benefit to the employer’s bottom line. These considerations should therefore be discussed and considered by management, and implemented where deemed appropriate. These workplace changes then are beneficial to the company as viewed from a moral, ethical or even purely commercial perspective. 

We will look at a few practical modern best practices that South African businesses should start implementing (if not done already), we will have a look at a few current prevalent practices that are harmful, and we will even briefly discuss what management members can do to change a reluctant company culture. A future article will deal with the actual change involving issues of diversity, race, gender, inequality and so on, while this article will deal with the initial structural considerations in developing and implementation of such workplace change programs. 


South African companies for the most part, if they consider changes to their company culture at all, tend to apply short-term, perceived commercially safe and uncontroversial programs of change management. These are often no more than a memo or two, a weekend seminar and other superficial, soon-forgotten platitudes driven by untrained and inexperienced staff. It appeases the collective conscience of some in management, and business continues essentially as usual. Why fix it if it’s not broken, right? 

 Up to here I have no quarrel with management decisions if that is indeed the parameters of the discussion. Any change management programs must show actual benefit to the company, and modern efforts at convincing companies to effect meaningful company culture changes because it is the right thing to do, as a result of threats or commercial pressures are, in my view, ill-conceived, unnecessary and plain bad strategy for all concerned. The entire discussion should rightly stand or fall on whether such company culture changes are beneficial to the prosperity and survival of the company itself. That speaks to the responsibilities of the leaders of that company, and any other considerations of moral and ethical value become wonderful but unnecessary additions to the debate. 

The actual figures and detailed arguments in support of a particular industry or company making these changes will of course differ from instance to instance, and require its own presentations and debates. In general though, there is sufficient empirical evidence showing that modern company culture change management brings about positive results in the areas of client perceptions, loyalty and retention, workplace harmony, productivity, staff and skills retention, a meaningful decrease in time and money spent on workplace conflicts (internal and external), operational challenges like absenteeism and grievance management, staff that are more conflict competent and a list of other very real benefits. Research show that organizational culture can profoundly influence financial results, in some instances by as much as a third of such financial performance. 

Harvard Business School professor John P. Kotter gives us eight steps on how to effect such change management and where to start (see the comments on smaller team involvement below): 

  • Establish a sense of urgency – examine the market and competitive realities (which would all support such change management),
  • Form a powerful guiding coalition – establish and guide a group with sufficient power to drive such efforts.
  • Create a vision – make the vision understandable, create real-world strategies to achieve the vision.
  •  Communicate the vision – to all that need to work at it, create buy-in.
  • Empower others to act on the vision – create momentum, enthusiasm and ability to contribute.
  • Plan for and create short-term wins – this creates enthusiasm, confidence and belief momentum.
  • Consolidate improvements and continue to produce more change.
  • Institutionalize these improvements and changes, including leadership development and succession planning.


As this simplified framework clearly shows, such change management can be considered, implemented and achieved in very real and practical terms. An important lesson that may not be apparent from the framework though is the caveat, borne out by experience, that such corporate culture change should not be rushed or expected to be successfully implemented in too short a period, and adequate provision should be made in allocating time for these changes to become a part of company culture. Any attempts at blatant short-term coercion into such changes are often doomed to failure, and effective, time-managed persuasion is the better management tool.   

Modern change management best practice advises four steps for such a persuasion campaign: 

  • Convince employees that radical change is necessary, demonstrate this where possible.
  • Discuss and roll out a preliminary plan, collect feedback, announce the final plan (consultation is suggested, consensus need not be a goal at this stage).
  • Manage employee mood, through inter alia constant communication and encouragement.
  • When the time is right to do so, reinforce behavioural guidelines to avoid backsliding and loss of momentum.


But here we get to a very important and, for some, a counter-intuitive point to bear in mind in such programs. As necessary as the programs discussed above are, their timing is crucial. Case studies show that programs in themselves do not generally lead to lasting change, and we often see this in the South African corporate landscape. People may participate in such programs, but meaningful, lasting and transcending change needs something different to happen, especially in South Africa given our specific conflict history. 

The missing step is, far too often, the realization that individual behaviour is powerfully shaped by the organizational roles that people play, and the larger programs need to understand and incorporate that in the greater strategies. The real start of this journey is therefor to put people in a new organizational context where these changes are lived out, where new roles, responsibilities and relationships are imposed on them. Once that has gained some momentum, the larger scale programs discussed above can be implemented. 

This initial process, known as “task alignment”, works best in small units and teams. Timing and sequence (as with all change, diversity and conflict management) are crucial, and the following steps should ensure success: 

  • Mobilize commitment to actual joint business problems and how to overcome that through change.
  • Develop a shared vision on how to organize and manage for competitiveness.
  • In these teams, ensure consensus as far as possible, competence for the enacting of it, and team cohesion as far as possible.
  • Spread change to all departments, at this stage, without coercion from top management.
  • Now start moving over to the other steps discussed above, such as formal policies, structures.
  • Monitor and adjust as discussed.

 Culture is highly ingrained in the way that people work, and this is (probably for that same reason) also a highly efficient tool in teaching and encouraging change.   


Change management deals traditionally with a few prevalent and pervasive management errors and structural inheritances that, over time, become very difficult to eradicate. While most of these individual leadership or systemic errors are to be found in workplaces internationally, they create additional toxic workspaces in the South African workplace environment due to trust and credibility deficiencies, inequality in resources and abilities, cultural realities and perceptions and so on. 

Judge Edwin Cameron reminds us that “Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of fear and hatred are not isolated, they remain embedded and they demand courageous, deliberate work.”   

Management often fails to step up to this challenge. It is not comfortable to think that the workplace under your leadership has these issues to deal with. Their presence is regarded as a management failure, and so get denied, minimized or postponed. Misconceptions, bad or outdated advice and past experiences of time and cost considerations often lead to a further denial of these problems. As these problems start manifesting in the workplace, it then becomes customary to resort to more top-down authoritarian measures, rule-bound management, harsh disciplinary processes and other ineffective measurements. In the process an increasingly toxic working environment gets created, with a measurable link to all of the negative symptoms and results mentioned above. Cyclical conflict become more prevalent, and workplace relationships start being harmed, often irreparably so. Add to this other popular workplace measures and company culture errors such as an ongoing hostile relationship with labour unions, real or perceived employee disrespect, poor communication on important decisions and management starts working against itself, with predictable adverse consequences for everyone involved. 


Meaningful change in company culture often comes from, and is greatly aided by, individual managers that have a sense for what is needed, who can, from inside the existing company culture and operational challenges, see the fault lines and how they can be improved. Great leaders see this and make such managers an important part of change management programs.  But, of course, these change agents are often overlooked, ignored or purposefully side-lined. 

How can they nevertheless seek to play an active role in such company culture change? Let’s look at a few examples. 

  • Live your values – demonstrate your understanding of and willingness to change through your actions, your language, your dress, who you speak and sit with.
  • Avoid directionless negativity in the workplace – change the lenses through which people see things and problems. There is manager exhibiting racist behaviour? What are we going to do about that? Be practical. Turn gossip into energy.   
  • Use opportunities to affect real change, show the benefits of such change to the company.
  • Develop and work with allies, and include “opponents” in your efforts, not as confrontational and aggressive events, but to show how opposition, different values and dialogue can be a source of power, how diversity can be a company asset if correctly applied.

 Changing company culture for the better so that it reflects and respects the various people working in it is complex, time consuming and necessary work. The South African experience often shows a skepticism towards such work, a skepticism which is born out of the use of outdated techniques, ineffective use of programs, using untrained or inexperienced staff, seeing these programs as grudge projects and so on. The efficient use of modern best practices inevitably leads to significant and positive changes in company culture. Modern effective leadership simply demands an in-depth assessment of any company culture. In these times of change, this is a long overdue project for many employers. 


  • Further references, courses, coaching and study material are available on request.

(Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for any further information

(c) Andre Vlok 

December 2021

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