Malawi, which is in southern Africa, is filled with a diverse range
of people with various backgrounds. Although most of the languages
spoken in Malawi and southern Africa generally belong to a group
called Bantu languages, the ethnic groups display unique cultural
beliefs and practices. The same can be said for religion.
Christianity, Islam, and various African religions dominate the
region and influence the people. Add to the mix that Christianity,
for instance, comes in diverse forms, such as Catholic, Protestant,
and Pentecostal, and you find multiple possible religious and
ethnic combinations. This only emphasizes the range of diversity.
Diversity and the workplace
The workplace is one place where diversity becomes more prominent,
and this is where religious and ethic undertones often come to
light. These can rein ugly if not managed well. While generally,
situations do not escalate to extremes, I constantly observe signs
that most people would describe as too trivial to attend to. This
often leads to insensitive ethnic and religious comments that can
influence team work. Sometimes, people put their religious and
ethnic values above everybody else's. Others, mock their colleagues
as belonging to a lesser religion or ethnic group.
During a recent supermarket visit, I found two employees openly
arguing about a religious issue. A Roman Catholic parade just
passed by carrying a crucifix. One of the store attendants, a
self-proclaimed born-again Pentecostal, believed this use of the
crucifix was an act of idolatry. Fellow customers and I were
neglected because the attendants abandoned their work to loudly
argue this topic.
At one of my previous workplaces, a lunch discussion got out of
hand. Ethnic groups in most of Africa have different approaches to
marriage. In some groups, a bridegroom has to pay the parents of
his bride-to-be. A discussion ensued where very strong opinions
were raised for and against this practice. Insulting words were
exchanged like missiles between two distinct camps. That afternoon
became filled with an atmosphere of tension.
Looking back at the two cases, it's clear that with a little more
understanding of other people's religious and ethnic orientations,
the same issues could have been tackled in a much friendlier
As a consultant, I interact with different groups. I observe and
experience subtle statements about religion and ethnicity. I notice
who sits with whom or who talks with whom more often.
This is when I propose that organizations invest in facilitating
more ethical awareness. Beyond this awareness, organizations need a
proper environment for people to talk about issues and honestly
share how prejudices about religion or ethnicity impact
relationships. This will enhance consciousness among people and
help them realize that they cannot ignore the everyday slights.
This way people and organizations can unlock performance potential
instead of wasting time belittling one another.