When Cultures Clash: How Supervisory Skills Training Can Lead to Peace, and Support Productivity
10 September 2013.
Lesotho – Even though Mpho Likonela knew he was lucky to have a job given Lesotho’s high unemployment rate, until recently, the textile factory worker awoke most mornings overcome by a feeling of dread. Each day he went to work in the factory’s cutting section, the 33-year-old was subjected to verbal abuse by a short-tempered supervisor. If Mpho cut the wrong piece of material or laid out fabric incorrectly, he was rudely reprimanded in front of his co-workers by the supervisor, rather than corrected in a polite and encouraging way.
“I sometimes wished I could call in sick just to have a day without an encounter with him,” Mpho recalled, before adding, “but alas, even a day’s worth of wages is something I cannot afford to miss. I have a wife and two children that I have to take care of, and every cent I make counts.”
The constant criticism demotivated Mpho and affected not only his self-esteem, but also his work performance, exacerbating the situation as he and other co-workers were then targeted constantly by the supervisor. He remembers thinking that if only his boss would teach him to do the problematic tasks correctly, maybe the work environment could improve, and he would stop making silly mistakes.
“I felt so much under pressure to do the right thing, to avoid the shouting and the trips to the Human Resources office,” Mpho recollected.
However, just when his work situation appeared desperate, Better Work Lesotho, a joint initiative of the International Labour Organization and the International Finance Corporation that aims to improve compliance with labour standards and competitiveness, started to engage with Mpho’s employers. And the environment began to improve.
One of the keys to this change was the establishment at participating textile factories in the country—including Mpho’s employers—of Performance Improvement Consultative Committees (PICCs).
As part of Better Work Lesotho’s engagement process, after the program conducts an assessment of a factory’s compliance with international labour standards and national labour law, a Better Work Lesotho Enterprise Advisor assists it to establish a PICC. The committee, which by design has an equal number of management and worker representatives, is then tasked with the development, implementation and monitoring of factory improvement plans to address areas of non-compliance.
By having a bipartite structure, PICCs also aim to improve social dialogue in the workplace and promote a sustainable way to engage in effective workplace cooperation.
“We elected one of our co-workers to become a PICC member,” said Mpho, “and he often tells us what is discussed at the committee. Then one day he told us that supervisors have been sent for supervisory skills training. It was a whole new concept to us and we said we would see if it would benefit us as workers.”
Compliance assessments and advisory services are part of Better Work Lesotho’s core services, and are offered as a package. In addition, the program also offers participating factories access to training courses on issues that frequently affect the garment sector, including human resource management; occupational safety and health; and dialogue, discipline and disputes (e.g. verbal harassment of workers by supervisors).
Given the global nature of the garment supply chain, misunderstandings due to communication barriers or cultural differences are common. In addition, reducing cases of verbal harassment can be challenging as it requires an individual to change his or her behavior.
Better Work Lesotho’s latest compliance report, which covers 14 factories, reveals that within the contracts and human resources cluster, the highest non-compliance rate is in the dialogue, discipline and disputes section. The program noted non-compliance issues in over three quarters of the factories assessed, “due to workers in 11 factories being verbally harassed by supervisors who use inappropriate, offending language in their communication with workers.”
To address this pervasive challenge, a Supervisory Skills training course was developed focusing on soft skills, such as effective communication, motivation of workers and creating a friendly working environment. It is one of the most successful courses in Better Work’s curriculum globally.
Mpho claims that when his supervisor came back from the Better Work Supervisory Skills training, he was a totally different person. He acted more humbly and approached his staff with respect, which prompted many of them to question why Better Work Lesotho had not been contacted earlier.“His new approach has made a whole lot of difference in the cutting section. When there is a problem, our supervisor will call us as a team and point out the mistake. We will discuss as a team what went wrong, and the possible solutions. We take care of the quality of the work we produce, as we now understand that it is a collective effort.
“Even on an individual basis, [our supervisor] will approach us with utmost respect and show us where we have erred, so that we can talk about the problem and solve it in an amicable way. He has stopped shouting and belittling us,” he said.
Mpho went on to say that he and his work colleagues feel valued and honored to have their supervisor overseeing their duties.
“Better Work Lesotho has groomed him into being a reasonable supervisor. He is still very strict on quality. But we now understand why he is, as he explained to us the importance of producing quality work. We now feel that it is our responsibility to ensure that we produce quality work, unlike before when we just worked to push our targets,” he concluded.
Looking to cover more of the industry, including factories where workers’ and supervisors’ cultures may clash, the program has now started to offer training on supervisory skills in Sesotho, English and Chinese. As Mpho’s story shows, developing critical soft skills can lead to benefits employers and workers, with visible—and sometimes not so visible, but no less important—results.