Mixed emotions: A result of groupthink

Mixed emotions: A result of groupthink

Sitting at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, waiting to catch a flight to Europe from the country of my birth, I was reflecting on my trip to two well-known game reserves in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. I was inspired to write this article to share the range of emotions I felt about what I had experienced: from wonder to pride, followed by frustration and eventually extreme nervousness and embarrassment.

The journey started at a private game reserve some 60 km north of Richards Bay; we were amazed and spoilt with the five-star service we received – probably the best I have ever experienced during my travels over the past 30 years to most continents on the globe.

Sitting around the fire each night, mesmerised by the flames, I stared into them, letting my thoughts drift to many memories of my life in South Africa and especially trips to the African bush over many years. At the same time I could hear the chatter of international guests amazed by the wildlife they had seen during the day and excited about being in South Africa. Zulu dancers arrived on one of the evenings, performing their warrior dances with pride while the sound of wild animals echoed in the background, which made me feel so proud of being a South African.

The second game reserve we visited was no different. Fires at night, barbecues, and good South African wines, all whilst sharing stories and proudly promoting South Africa to those with whom we were engaging.

When the in-group works

Being in the bush, there were clear rules to be followed when we were on game drives. We also had a security guard or park ranger walking us to and from our villas and the public areas. Prior to our first game drive, the rules, hazards, and risks were clearly explained to all, much like induction training programmes in the industry.

When out on the game drives there were no signs displayed to warn people about how to behave. There were no symbols stating that people should remain silent so that others could experience the sounds, or prohibiting people from exiting the vehicle whilst in the bush. Everybody in our vehicle respected the rules explained by the game ranger, however, and respected the rights of others.

I recall one person requesting if he could take a photo of the group, which he wanted to place on social media. However, before doing so, he asked for everyone’s permission: a true sign of total respect for everyone.

When stopping for early morning coffee or sundowners at the end of the day (we had two game drives per day over a week), people remained in close proximity to the vehicle. They did not wander off into the bush or to the edge of the water, where they would have been close to the hippos. Those on the game drive followed the rules, making each drive pleasurable and memorable for all involved.

I had switched off from daily routines, felt relaxed, and enjoyed the time, because those with us created positive group dynamics.

Leaving paradise …

When crossing the boundaries of the two game reserves in which we had stayed, it was as if we were entering a very different world: one that took that pride of being South African and almost turned it to shame. The relaxed feeling I had experienced during the 10-day retreat disappeared in a matter of hours; my mindset shifted from relaxation to frustration and nervousness.

I could also see the change in the body language of those travelling with me in my car, with two of my three companions being international guests. So let us look at the three fundamentals of workspaces, as well as the psychological and cultural aspects of what we experienced outside the boundaries of the African bush.

Physical control issues

On sections of the motorways on which we were travelling, from the northern parts of KwaZulu-Natal down to the greater Durban area, there were roadworks being conducted, which I later heard were due to the damage caused during the recent floods that had been experienced in the area. Speed limits were displayed requiring motorists to slow down from 120 to 80 km/h. Well, shockingly, I was driving slowest of all, keeping exactly to the 80 km/h speed limit. All the other cars were overtaking us; nobody else was following the speed limits displayed on the road signs.

Psychological issues

We were surprised by the safety signs displayed with the words “Please Don’t Kill Us”, which were obviously posted by the contractor company working to improve sections of the motorway. Well, when observing the speed at which the majority of vehicles were travelling, it was clear to us that the signs meant absolutely nothing to the drivers using the road.

There was little or no regard for the safety of those working on the roads, never mind those in other cars. I know one thing for sure, I would hate to be one of those employees repairing the roads, placing my safety in the hands of drivers who have no respect for any of the rules and don’t care two hoots for the safety of me or my fellow employees.

Things continued to negatively surprise the four of us in the car. When stopping at a red traffic light in one of the cities, a driver of a SUV that had stopped behind us started sounding his hooter at me, wanting me to drive through the red light. Obviously, I disregarded his behaviour and waited for the traffic light to turn green before proceeding. He was frustrated at my lack of cooperation, while I was irritated by his behaviour and my passengers were horrified. As social beings, we affect the behaviour of others: consciously and subconsciously, as well as positively or negatively.

Approaching the next traffic light I reduced my speed, coming to a halt as the light turned red. The driver of a light delivery vehicle, however, increased his speed as if he was a plane about to take off. He drove straight through the red light, with absolutely no regard for the safety of the vehicles approaching from either side of the intersection.

Things continued to spiral, as very much to our shock we were waiting at the red light when a driver squeezed between us and the car next to us and proceeded through the red light as if it didn’t even exist. One of the passengers in my vehicle asked me if stopping at a red traffic light in South Africa was only a suggestion. My answer was: “Sadly, it surely does look so.”

Cultural issues

I found myself in a pickle when being questioned by my passengers about the total disregard for the traffic rules. After being so proud during all those game drives where rules were followed – where people took care of themselves as well as others – I found myself being embarrassed at the total disregard for “the rule of law” on the roads. It was a total contradiction to what we had experienced in the bush (the rangers driving us in the bush adhered more closely to the rules, even though they were driving on private roads).

While I could list numerous other non-conformances experienced in literally three hours of being on the road, I think I have made my point. Sadly though, the more drivers who display a total disregard for the rules, the more who join this negative in-group. Non-adherence becomes acceptable to those breaking the rules, frustrating those who follow them. The breakdown and failure of the basic principle of the “rule of law” becomes a norm – and it is like water slowly wearing down a stone. This is what happens with groupthink: things will just get worse, with more and more drivers joining the negative in-group. No wonder South Africa experiences such high numbers of road-related deaths per year.

I recently read an article stating that many of the deaths on South African roads are a result of poor road conditions. I agree that conditions contribute to vehicle accidents. However, when seeing the behaviour of drivers on the road – the aggressive nature and disregard for any rules – I am sure a major contributing factor is the mindset of the drivers, both conscious and subconscious, as well as the collective subconscious.

The disregard of drivers for the safety of their passengers, other road users, and people working on the roads is becoming a wicked problem (a problem with many interdependent factors making it seem impossible to solve). The longer this problem is ignored, the more difficult it will be to return to the culture where the in-group becomes the majority – where drivers care for other road users and bring the subconscious to the conscious by thinking about what they are doing.

The longer the wicked problem persists, the more drivers will take risks and the more deaths we will experience on South Africa’s roads.


Living in Austria, where the majority of drivers adhere to the road rules, makes me realise the huge gap between the culture of the two countries when it comes to adherence and caring for others on the road.

I must admit, I became rather nervous while driving in South Africa, and was relieved to hand the car back at King Shaka International Airport’s rental drop-off zone, before flying home to Vienna. What I observed during our drive was similar to what happens in industry. Most humans want to belong to the in-group; it is the role of leaders to develop an in-group that is positive – an in-group that contributes to the desired culture of an organisation. If the majority of employees follow the rules and look after their own safety, as well as that of others, they develop a positive in-group of which others would like to be a part and find their sense of belonging. If the majority of the informal leaders develop a negative in-group, so too others will follow.

What I observed and experienced driving in South Africa highlights the fact that merely having rules and controls in place in industry does not develop any culture on its own. It is important for companies to find the balance between workplace controls and psychological and cultural aspects. Engaging with employees and contractors is key in understanding that what we do as leaders affects the mindset of others, as well as how they react and behave. On the other hand, being aware of the dynamics of the various groups is fundamental when developing the desired culture.

When finding this balance between controls and the psychological and cultural aspects, companies shift their focus from objects to people and, in so doing, continue working towards the desired culture. Although the conditions I observed on the roads already represent a wicked problem that will be difficult to change, this is not the case in industry. We as leaders can make a difference by placing people at the centre of what we do.

Published by

Brian Darlington

Brian Darlington is the group head of safety and health for the Mondi Group, based in Vienna, Austria. He has filled the role since 2012 and is responsible for safety and health in more than 30 countries. Darlington started working at Iscor before joining Mondi in 1987, working in Gauteng. In 2000 he transferred to the Kraft Division in Richards Bay. During 2005, he transferred to Europe, taking up the position of business unit SHE manager, responsible for SHE in paper mills in Austria, Hungary, Israel, Slovakia, Poland, South Africa and Russia, as well as forests operations in South Africa and Russia.
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