Being nine years old, I joined my dad driving a convoy of trucks across Tanzania, hauling a mobile well drilling rig to the huge refugee camps on the border with Rwanda. My dad was working as a geologist, and there was one other Norwegian in the crew of perhaps 20 people. This other Norwegian was managing the entire operation, and I remember there was a lot of yelling involved. A lot.
Being nine years old, you don’t know too much about management, but I certainly understood that this really wasn’t the way of doing it. At the same time, by now, I have felt those frustrations on my own skin, and I can understand why there was so much yelling going on. It still isn’t right, thought, and it is certainly not the way you are going to succeed in managing anything anywhere. But the frustration felt when engaging in cross-cultural HR-management is real, and can only be dealt with if you invest some time in understanding the underlying aspects that affect your HR-situation.
In this piece we will try to take you on a small journey into the realities of HR management in East Africa with the example of Uganda. And we shall not only look at how to reduce the infamous frustration levels, but rather focus on how to unleash the potential which can erupt, if you combine two cultures and management styles in the right way. We have, both of the authors, hit some walls with our foreheads and at times nearly ripped our own hair out. But there is no reason for you having to do the same, and this is why have put this down.
Before we get to the fun, hands-on, specific advice, we are going to bore you with some proper lecturing: Trying to give you an idea of where the people your are going to work with come from. What are their lives like? What are their concerns? And in what type of a society do they live?
A good start when trying to get to know somebody, and where they are coming from, is by asking “How are you?” In Uganda, you will most likely be baffled by the fact that often people you actually know will not reply the expected “Good, I’m fine”. You will be surprised to see that many respond, “I’m getting by”, “I’m struggling” , “I’m trying” or they will say; “fair, fair”.
The Struggle of Getting By
So why do they say this? You could of course just blow it off as some linguistic practice. It is not. They are indeed “Struggling, and trying to get by”. Why is this? You would expect that if you ask your own Ugandan employee “How are you”, and you provide him with a good job with somebody nice as you as the boss, they should for sure reply, “good, I am fabulous!” Well, we must keep in mind the type of society you are operating in. You have heard all the statistics before, but let us remind you that for instance in Uganda, half the population is younger than 15. All these kids have to go to school and be taken care of. We, in Norway, introduced “Folketrygden” in 1967, at a time where Norwegians had been allowed to vote for 153 years. In 1967, Uganda had been independent for 5 years, and only 19 years later, 1986, did the civil war end, and state building could finally begin. What we are trying to do is to put things into perspective. Because, for us Norwegians, it is hard to imagine the absence of governmentally funded social safety net and the implications this absence has. What we consider basic, such as education, health care, unemployment benefits, sick leave pay or maternity leave, are in these societies at its infancy. Even without the slight leadership hiccups in politics, it would be impossible for the Ugandan government to provide the same services as we do in Norway: In Norway, around 12% of our population is in primary school. If Uganda were to put all its kids in primary school, the equivalent number would be around 35-40%. And this in a country where the GDP per capita is 2,5% of what it is in Norway. No wonder people are “struggling”, “trying” or feel “fair fair”.
The Family Burden
But then, of course, you think: My employee gets a good salary and should for sure be able to afford school fees for his kids (men are expected to provide for this), and of course you also provide medical insurance for the entire family – something you should, by the way. The problem here is our understanding of the word family. We think of family as the nuclear family. Nobody in Norway would expect you to pay your wife’s half-brother’s funeral costs – which can amount to the thousands of dollars – just because you’ve got a job. In most African countries, that is different. Take the example of a good friend of ours, Mr G. He has, btw caused much of that hair-ripping frustration we mentioned earlier. Although with him, being a good friend, we talk about it and we laugh about it. But, when the school term starts, three times a year, Mr G. does not have too much to laugh about. He is one of 32 siblings (with different mothers), of which only 6 have formal jobs. Mr G. and his wife, both work and would, on their own be perfectly capable of taking care of their six kids. However, after one of his brothers passed away, Mr G. now pays school fees for 13 children, and has to come up with around 3’800 USD three times a year. And that’s before health care, clothes and books and transport.
Mr G. is an impressively capable man, has a huge network and he is one of those people you need when operating in a foreign place. So we tried to hire him formally. It was an absolute disaster. He didn’t show up on time, and we simply couldn’t rely on things getting done at a regular and predictable pace. The thing is, he was forced to do the deals and do the business that gave him the most money today. Because he has a family, that needs money right now. His sister’s daughter is in a private hospital, right now. If you have to choose between your employer and your family, what would you have done? This background shows you under what pressures and expectations your employees are operating. You have to properly understand this, in order to understand your staff.
The Class Society – Inequalities
Another thing you have to understand is how most African countries are significantly class divided. Although there is room for social mobility, there are enormous fundamental differences in values, exposure and perception of the world. You as a manager have to deal with this class society. In order to run a successful business, you will have to engage with employees from all these different layers,especially if you are managing an SME. And even more challenging, you will have to get all these people to work together and be respectful of each other. The cultural difference between a middle class girl from the capital of Uganda and her cousin from the village is bigger than between that middle class girl and us. You as a manager have to be sensitive about these things. When you invite your staff out for drinks, you have to make it perfectly clear that everybody is invited and not only the upper ranks. This will not be taken for granted. You have to understand that when you arrange a gathering in the evening, in order to build that desirable collective motivating atmosphere at your workplace, you will need to discretely pay for your youngest female employees’ cab ride home, otherwise they will not be able to afford to come. And you will have to tell them this on beforehand; otherwise they will simply not show, as they cannot risk moving without a cab at night. Norwegians are too often too naïve and in denial about these inequalities, and you need to address these things straight on in order to build that collective “one” you so much want to.
Hierarchical Management Structures
There is, in fact, yet another thing Norwegians are naïve and in denial about. Most African countries practice very hierarchical management structures. This is closely related to the mentioned social layers, but it goes beyond that. Starting off at primary school, Ugandans have been exposed to a strict hierarchy where you do as you get told, and say what you believe is expected for you to say. You don’t voice your mind to superiors. This is in fact very difficult to deal with, coming from a culture as ours where management should be much more democratic and based on consensus and discussion. This is not only an area where we have made many mistakes ourselves, but it is also an area where we see most mistakes being made by others. Equally, however, this is where we as Norwegians can differentiate ourselves, and make the small difference that makes all the difference. Because people are people regardless of culture: everybody wants to feel listened to and feels empowered when involved in decision-making and discussions.
Some Guidelines for SMEs
At this point we would like to return to what we promised you in the beginning – giving you some pointers that will help you not only to avoid new unexplored climaxes of frustration levels, but also on how to realize the upsides of combining two cultures. The following insights will, mainly apply for SMEs or smaller subsidiaries of international corporations, as when running significantly bigger operations; you have entirely different resources at your disposal.
Dealing with Being on the Top of the Pyramid
Let’s start with the hierarchical management structures. Although we are used to, and love, our flat management style, you have to appreciate what your employees expect from you. You have to be the boss, and you have to step into that role firmly. However uncomfortable you may feel about it. You have to behave as if you expect the respect that comes with that sort of authority. Otherwise you will end up with an office of headless chicken. It is needless to say that your company, even if small and in the start-up phase, should of course have clear cut rules, employment policies and regulations, and that you need to use this authority to enforce these from day one with outmost consistency. As a foreigner you will be scrutinized like nobody else.
This does not, however, mean that you have to be a dictator. It rather means that you have to be a leader which leads in a way your employees can relate to. Then, once that is established, you can start breaking down those artificial barriers. But you have to do this in an institutionalized way. You have to create formal forums to begin with, where ideas and concerns can be voiced, and show that you take all input seriously. Something we regularly do is to have sessions where I ask everybody to say one positive and one (constructive) negative thing about each person in the room, including themselves and, of course, including the boss. The latter normally surprises them, and takes some time and trust to get going. You will be amazed about how self-critical people will be, and how willing they are to improve themselves.
Breaking Down the Hierarchy
At the same time as you have to maintain a clear hierarchy in some sense, there are so many ways in which you can break it down as well. For instance, let’s say you are at a seminar with your office, and there is a buffet and a line to get lunch. It is more or less the norm that the senior staff will bypass this line and serve themselves first. Don’t do this yourself. And even more importantly: don’t allow other senior staff to do so. And if they do, tell them not to. This also counts for other scenarios, where your senior staff treats others with, what we would call, disrespect. Your senior staff doesn’t such things because they are bad people, they are just used to doing it that way. But it does not mean that it is acceptable. Of course you have to walk the talk and be a good example yourself.
The Balancing Act
In preparation to this presentation, we asked one of my Ugandan staff: How do you strike this balance, of maintaining authority but at the same time connect with your staff? His answer was: “Do what they do, go where they go, sit with them, somewhere, but in the beginning you have to take the lead.” In other words, don’t just sit behind the walls of the Serena. Go to the wedding. Go to the funeral. Visit her village. You can become friends without becoming best friends and compromising your formal relationship. An example: Our Ugandan employee and our boss in Laboremus, Philip, were out for a few drinks after work. At some point, Philip spent some good time explaining, with passion, why time-keeping is so important if our cooperation shall work. And how every minute, for which you let ten people wait, you waste ten minutes. Within six minutes, and hour is lost. Rather than just lecturing everybody in a top down manner at office about how frustrating African time can be, he spent some good time explaining why this is so important. He maintained his authority as the boss, but at the same time spoke by addressing this employee as a person, and not a subordinate. This sounds awfully simple in theory, but trust us, few people manage this well.
Give Incentives with Impact
Now, let’s assume you get all these things right, you lead well, you have created an atmosphere of mutual respect and where ideas can be voiced. Then you are doing everything correct, right? Well, not quite yet. Keep in mind what we said about the lack of formal safety net. In Norway, you can nominate somebody as the employee of the year and give her a useless inscribed plate and some stage time on the annual Christmas party, and you will have the happiest employee on earth. Because, this employee already has enough money for her rent, has medical insurance and does not have 13 kids to pay school fees for. In Africa, people are really struggling to make ends meet – and with a job comes a lot of social obligations. Whereas we believe throwing a huge
Christmas party is the coolest thing we can possibly do, this is not the case in Uganda. They would much rather have the cash than being invited for dinner where one dish costs a week’s salary. Much rather, give them a shopping voucher at Christmas so that they can send some stock back to the village or simply give them a small cash bonus. This is not because people are cash greedy, but because people are struggling to get by.
Build a (micro-) Safety Net
But then again, everything is not about money. You can help people in so many ways that won’t cost you much as an employer. For instance, a great boost to employee motivation is to institutionalize and formalize a salary loan scheme, where employees can borrow cash from the company at zero or minimal interest rates. If they come asking you for money they usually don’t do this for fun. They do it because there is a good reason for it. If you know them well enough you will know the difference. But if you don’t give them a loan, they will often have to borrow it on the black market at crazy interest rates or from people with draconian collection methods. This will again make your employee try to do extra jobs next to work in order to repay this and you will lose a focused employee. Or, for instance, most employees will have difficulties getting a mortgage or a loan for building a house or buying a car. Take the time to write them a recommendation letter, and suddenly the bank will say yes. Also, give your staff long contracts – of course with provisions of breaking them off, but this type of stability has, in addition to a symbolic value, a high value when applying for loans, getting insurance, or asking for a down-payment scheme on a car. And let trusted employees use the company car for going for weddings and funerals out of town. It won’t cost you a lot but it will mean the world to them.
The Confusing Conclusion
If you look back at what we have said so far, you might be confused. In one way we ask you to respect and adhere to the way things are managed in Africa, and at the same time we ask you to stick to your principles and bring in your own values. But that’s exactly the point. You do not want to create a Norwegian enterprise in Africa, nor create yet another African one. Don’t accept that things are just as they are. And I cannot stress this enough. At the same time, you cannot bluntly impose a Norwegian management style without appreciating where you are operating.
Your African employees are struggling. However, it does not mean that we should have lower expectations to them, or demand less from them professionally. They are perfectly capable of coming on time, follow rules and routines, constantly improve in what they do and become self-driven and fabulous independent employees. As one of our Ugandan employee stated after being in Oslo; imagine the potential in us that could be unleashed if you reduce the struggle of the everyday life in Africa! As we have seen, this can often be done at a limited financial cost. But in order to address these concerns you need to understand their realities, and this is what this piece is all about.
How Many Baskets?
As one of our senior programmers in Uganda told us: Africans literarily live by a proverb you probably have heard before: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”. This means that most people will always have more than one professional engagement in order to make ends meet, or to cope with an unpredictable employment market. Therefore, in most cases, a working place is just one of many baskets and this makes it extremely difficult for us to manage staff, as they will act fundamentally different from what we expect. However, through directed and conscious efforts, and by providing some of the safety net that is lacking elsewhere in society, you might very well get your staff to put all their eggs in one basket. And that basket should be yours.
This is an adapted version of a joint presentation held at the Norwegian African Business Association’s (NABA) Summit of 1st November 2013. Both presenters, Lucrezia Biteete & Marius Koestler, have been professionally active in East-Africa since 2005, both are Advisors at NABA, and both hold managerial positions at Laboremus Oslo AS – an Oslo based IT-software consultancy with a subsidiary in Kampala, Uganda. They are also brother and sister.