Ubuntu: Synergy in the Workplace
August 14, 2023 by Heather Fuller
Ubuntu – it is more than a word; it is a way of life. It is an Africa philosophy. It means humanity and roughly translates to “I am because we are.”
It is an understanding and recognition that I can only be better if you are better. It is a concept that has been applied in different fields, disciplines, and contexts to bring individuals into a cohesive, working group which results in greater personal satisfaction while yielding an improved, overall collective achievement.
The basic core of this principle is not unknown to most of us. We have heard it expressed as “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” or “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Put simply, we are better when others are better. We can achieve more when we work as a team instead of when we are trying to outshine those around us.
The philosophy has been embraced by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, African President Nelson Mandela, and NBA basketball player and coach Doc Rivers. In fact, Rivers brought the concept to the Celtics when he saw his team as a collection of standouts rather than a cohesive group. He used it to get the individuals to work together as a team. To Rivers, the philosophy meant, “I can’t be all I can be, unless you are all you can be. I can never be threatened by you because you’re good, because the better you are, the better I am.” The effort resulted in an NBA World Championship title.
President Barack Obama spoke of Ubuntu in his 2013 eulogy of South African President Nelson Mandela. He said,
“There is a word in South Africa. Ubuntu, a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.”
President Obama’s words exemplify the essence of the concept – the practice of sympathy and empathy, compassion, solidarity, generosity, harmony and collectivity. Put into practice, it is being able to bond with one another with a humble and selfless recognition that if I invest in and better you, thereby I invest in and better myself.
In the workplace, Ubuntu can create a true synergy – through cooperation, individuals can come together to produce a combined effect that is greater than would have resulted if they had each worked alone.
As a trial attorney, I can attest to the necessity of working as a team. Litigation and jury trials require a lineup of individuals working together in order to achieve optimum results for our client. We have learned that while we may each have our own roles, cooperation and focus on a common goal enables us to provide the best representation for our clients and put us in the best position to increase our chances of having the desired outcome. Perhaps without even knowing it, we have been practicing Ubuntu all along.