Re-imagining the workplace: On a lighter note; Of nicknames and renaming in the workplace and other places

It’s December and when we get here most people give a sigh of relief, look back and feel grateful to have been intact for the whole year and to have managed to keep a job.

The circumstances in Zimbabwe are not easy and many are without jobs and so have to hustle to make ends meet.

Those with jobs sometimes go for months without salaries, with companies struggling to balance their priorities, buy materials, do business and pay employees on time.

Under normal circumstances, this would be read as unfair labour practice, but the circumstances in Zimbabwe have made both the employer and the employee have that understanding of saying we are in this together and so let’s push through together and get to the other side of the river.

Problems can indeed lead to a connection that cannot be found under normal circumstances.

And under these difficult and sometimes tragic circumstances, workplaces do things that make them feel better.

These may be conscious activities like Christmas or closing parties as the year ends or unconscious acts of consoling the personal and collective heart of the employee. A lot then gets done and said on a daily basis by employees to derive solace from their difficult circumstances.

One is the issue of nicknames that leaders are given without them knowing. This name will come to be known by everyone in the community except the owner of the name.

Communities just have a way of renaming things and so you find young people refusing to use ordinary language and preferring to rename quite a lot of things using slang.

I had a young brother called Morgan, (may his soul rest in peace), who could communicate with you in the presence of the elderly without them getting any idea what he was saying, literally replacing every word with his own words that made sense only to the young.

This penchant to rename and enjoy some privacy and a sense of identity is a pattern one sees in communities around the world and that includes the workplace communities.

Nicknames are one interesting phenomenon that even kids pick at tender ages and begin to throw at each other with reckless abandon. Some of these hurt the young soul because most of the time they touch on one’s appearance and tend to be the negative side of their appearance. Growing up, for instance, I had to live with the understanding that my head was not small because every corner I turned other kids would label me kanda khulu, meaning big head.

I would be forced to go to the mirror to verify and would check from different angles and think no, man these guys are lying,’ but only go out to play and get further confirmation. It was only later when I grew older that I realised that they were indeed lying because my head was not big. It was my body that was small and so made my small head look big. Phew! I was relieved.

At schools as workplaces, we also renamed our teachers based either on some words they were attached to, their appearance or the way they behaved. At Cyrene High School, the senior Agriculture teacher Mr. J.J Ncube was called Mahaqaza because of the cutting claps he gave. I am not sure if he ever got to know his nickname.

The principal, the late, Fr Neil David Pierce was called Isilwane, the lion, because of his spats of anger and shouting. He would lose his temper even at assembly and shout at the whole school and we would all freeze as if we had been struck by lightning. I have no doubt he never got to know this, but what a great man and leader.

Then there was our Maths teacher, the late Bhekulwazi Ncube who seemed to love literature more than his subject. Bhekulwazi would talk to us about characters found in our literature set books and display deep knowledge about them. He particularly loved William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and would joke about how everyone older wished that the beast would prefer the littluns. You will need to have read the book to get this. He fell in love with Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and in particular, Ikemefuna, to the extent that he officially became Ikemefuna at school amongst the boys. May his soul rest in peace.

In the workplace, we have workers accepting situations and the behaviour of their leaders and making their acceptance official by labelling their behaviour or just using their appearance to rename them and most of the time so that they may exclude them from their day-to-day talk. This way, they are able to talk about them, sometimes in their presence, without them knowing that they are the subject in discussion.

I guess there is a sense of power that the worker derives from that sense.

I know of a team of road work labourers who had a short and harsh foreman they nicknamed Ngangedolo (the size of a knee).

Now Ngangedolo never got to know that and so continued using actual power on the workers while they enjoyed this secret power to rename him and talk about him in his presence. This is another type of power in the workplace and beyond.

You also get such interesting names such as Danger, for harsh and dangerous managers and directors. This manager, who might never come to know this, lives and practices his dangerous acts freely and workers feel they have a hold on him that way, that they can rename him and enjoy making him a character in their drama of nicknaming without him being able to know because if he got to know, he would become dangerous in that space.

Danger’s office is called Charge Office. Now this takes it to another level. It means that when an employee is invited to Danger’s office, it’s as good as he is under arrest because of the treatment he will get from the leader. These are the trials and tribulations of the workplace.

Then you will also get names that are not really malicious, also given to leaders who behave in a certain way or attached to something everyone can see on a daily basis. There are coffee lovers in the workplace, those who cannot do without a cup of coffee here and there. I know of a manager who got renamed and nicknamed Kofi Olomide because of their love for the irresistible liquid for many.

Some even stretch it to sign language and employees would touch their head when a manager with a big head appears or is being spoken about and everyone who is part of the knowing circle would know who was the subject of the matter. This is the story of nicknames and the secret power of renaming that employees enjoy over their leaders. It’s December, and so we thought we could start the festive month on the lighter note. Let me be the first to wish you a happy festive season.

Bhekilizwe Bernard Ndlovu’s training is in human resources training, development and transformation, behavioural change, applied drama, personal mastery and mental fitness. He works for a Zimbabwean company as head of human capital, while also doing a PhD with Wits University where he looks at violent strikes in the South African workplace as a researcher. Ndlovu worked as a human resources manager for several blue-chip companies in Zimbabwe and still takes keen interest in the affairs of people and performance management. He can be contacted on [email protected]

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