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What we can learn about Inclusion from the San People of the Kalahari - image banner

What we can learn about Inclusion from the San People of the Kalahari

By Jai Thade, Head of Content

If I were to ask you what you think the most successful civilization in human history is, which one would you think of?

The Greeks, who were parents to democracy? The Egyptians, who constructed elegant structures like the Pyramids that still stand the test of time? The Mongols, whose unimaginably massive empire stretched from the Pacific to the Mediterranean Sea?

These are all great contenders. However, if we were to measure “success” by the metric of endurance over time, then the San People of the Kalahari Desert (also known colloquially as “Bushmen”) are arguably by far the most successful in human history. An unbroken chain of San people has existed in Southern Africa for the last 150,000-200,000 years!

They have survived despite living in an environment that is particularly harsh – the Kalahari Desert is incredibly hot and dry, with a scarcity of water and vegetation.

Anthropologists like Richard Lee and James Suzman, in their study of the San people, tried to examine their cultural practices to distil what this incredible endurance could be attributed to. One of the lessons was that each tribesperson feels a sense of strong kinship or belongingness with the rest of the tribe. This is paired with a sense each of them carries that their unique contributions are central to their collective survival. It is a hunter-gatherer society, where each individual is engaged in a task that is key to survival.

They would foster a greater sense of belonging through community practices like gift-giving and dance, and leverage uniqueness through the effective assignment of different responsibilities to different tribe members. It is because of such a balance that each member in their society tends to be focused on their collective wellbeing and what they can individually contribute to that. This mindset and the balance they have struck between supporting uniqueness while offering a sense of belonging is no doubt a factor in their evolutionary success and endurance as a people.

What organisations can learn from the incredible endurance of the San People is the crucial role of focusing on and carefully balancing a sense of belonging while encouraging employees to leverage their uniqueness. Not feeling like you belong, and the consequent feelings of isolation can be extremely harmful to both their physical and emotional health.

Employees who feel a sense of (a) Comfort, ease, and freedom in being themselves and (b) Being supported and encouraged by others – will feel “at home” in their workplaces. This feeling of being “at home” emerges from organisations striking a balance between belonging and uniqueness – feeling truly supported by your team & organisation because you are allowed to authentically be your unique self each day.

This feeling of being “at home” gives employees a sense of psychological safety, which is crucial to innovating and taking chances that result in creative breakthroughs. By effectively leveraging what makes employees unique, organizations can find strengths that can’t easily be replicated by the competition, and also leads employees to believe that their work is valued and contributes to the organisation’s success overall. Therefore, organisations must communicate and show employees that each of them as their own unique selves belongs to the organisation!

This article is taken from on of our programmes  called “The Role of Belonging and Uniqueness in Inclusion” . This programme takes learners through the science and stories behind how these concepts emerge and what organisations, teams and individuals can do to satisfy these needs for employees to feel they belong.