June 25, 2018

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Ubuntu for Organizational Success

It was the beginning of the 2007-2008 National Basketball Association season. During the off-season, the Boston Celtics had added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to their roster, two perennial all-stars, to join their superstar player, Paul Pierce.

The team looked great on paper, but:

  • Could these players work together as a team?

  • Would each of them be willing to take fewer shots?

  • Would they play defense?

  • Would they play team basketball rather than try to run up their own individual statistics?

These were the potential problems Coach Doc Rivers needed to address.


These are the same problems most organizations face everyday. Employees are concerned about their own personal interests or the interests of their department rather than the interests of the organization as a whole. Consider these, all too common, examples:

  • Motivated by the company's sales incentive program that rewards individual performance, sales people of a manufacturer of industrial test equipment ruthlessly compete against each other. They hoard sales leads, encroach on each other's sales territories, and refuse to share with their coworkers what sales techniques work for them.

  • The CEO of a hospital laments, "We can't get everyone on the same bus here. The Emergency and Surgery Department don't speak with each other, the nurses and the pharmacy are at odds, and the nurses on the East Wing are at war with the nurses on the West Wing. We have lost our sense of 'we' here. We have become an organization of separate silos. When employees say "we," they refer to their own department or floor instead of the hospital. They have no loyalty to the hospital."

  • The CEO of a major national food service company is concerned that when he assembles his direct reports to discuss important issues for the future of the company, nobody is wearing a "company hat." Each Vice President is only thinking about how a decision might impact his own department, not on how it will impact the whole company. He realizes that he is the only one in the room concerned about the future of the entire organization.

  • Senior consultants of an international human resource consulting firm are encouraged to cross-sell the consulting services of their colleagues to their clients. But few do so. Instead of thinking about what's best for the firm, they are concerned only about their own personal revenue and billable hours. They worry that their colleagues might jeopardize their solid relationship with their client.

  • The president of a small liberal arts college said to the management consultant he has hired, "It's like herding cats here. Each department head is constantly vying for budget dollars and nobody but me seems to care about the future of our institution."


Take a lesson from Doc Rivers. He instilled in his players the importance of team play and sacrificing one's own personal interests for the sake of the team. He adopted the South African Bantu language word "Ubuntu," as the rallying cry for team unity. It roughly translates to, "I am because we are."

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African cleric and Nobel Peace Prize winner, explains, "Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality - Ubuntu - you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity."

Doc Rivers constantly spoke about Ubuntu to the Celtic players and impressed upon them the importance of living the philosophy. The players embraced Ubuntu. They shouted it during practices and at the end of their pre-game huddles.

This strategy had a profound effect on all of the players, ranging from the superstars (i.e., Garnett, Allen, and Pierce) to the role players on the team. The results are now in the record books. The Celtics went on to amass the best record in the NBA and win the national championship.

Here are five approaches you can use to implement the Ubuntu philosophy in your organization:

  1. Communicate the Ubuntu Philosophy to All Employees Explain Ubuntu to all employees and why it is so important for your organization. Tell them that everyone needs to adopt a company "we" perspective and lose their silo mentality.

  2. Catch People in the Act of Using the Word "We" Incorrectly When people use the term "we" to mean their department, work group, or any entity other than the entire company - look them in the eye and simply say, "Ubuntu." Then have them rephrase their sentence.

  3. Make Certain Your Internal Systems Do Not Conflict With Ubuntu Many organizations have institutionalized metrics, incentives, and rewards that contribute to internal competition, and we-they thinking between work groups. Identify these systems and procedures and change them so that they promote team play and cooperation.

  4. Elevate Internal Customer Satisfaction Throughout the Organization In many ways, each department of an organization is a "customer" of the other. Conduct an annual customer satisfaction survey in which all employees rate the level of internal customer service they receive from each department in the organization. Compute the Organizational Internal Customer Satisfaction Level (OICSL) by averaging the internal customer satisfaction ratings across all departments. Challenge the organization to improve the OICSL. Re-measure each year to track progress and identify needed improvements.

  5. Conduct the JFK Exercise In his inaugural address, president Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Conduct workshops pairing each major work group and department in your organization with the goal of identifying what they can and will do to help the other department.


Take a lesson from the 2007-2008 world champion Boston Celtics. Ubuntu is a philosophy that can radically improve the effectiveness of your organization. It requires a sustained campaign of education to change the mindset of employees, as well as revamping current metrics, policies, and procedures.

- Bruce L. Katcher

Bruce Katcher, PhD is President of Discovery Surveys, Inc. His firm conducts customized employee opinion and customer satisfaction surveys. I am very much interested in your views on this topic.