She’ll be right, mate: Leadership in the ‘Aussie’ workplace

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Terms such as ‘mate’ and ‘she’ll be right’ remain in use, indelibly associated with our national character.

Once upon a time, ‘mate’ was code for a person you could rely on, who didn’t ‘dob’ others in, a benchmark for worthy behaviour. ‘Mate’ has egalitarian origins (click here for a detailed discussion on its etymology). 

The term acquired more unsavoury connotations during the 1980s, when former attorney general Lionel Murphy was accused of seeking favours from a stipendiary magistrate for his ‘little (solicitor) mate’. The more modern usage ‘mate’s rates’ isn’t a whole lot better, as while technically this signifies a discount, it’s also suggestive of an improper process.

Is it time these and other Aussie expressions, and linked behaviours, were overhauled in the interests of improving workplace leadership and practice? 

How to turn vague into specific without alienating

She’ll be right’ means it’ll work out (somehow). Something will only be right when the design thinking and component parts are verified and validated, and correctly assembled. Just ask any state transport body — hoping for the best is not going to cut it with angry commuters.

Far better to consciously evolve from ‘no worries’, ‘she’ll be right’ and ‘down the track’ to agreed standards, timelines, quality and accountability.

Build a professional feedback culture that everyone agrees to

With royal commissions and similar exposés lifting the lid on unethical work practices, ‘mate’ is increasingly a four-letter word in the business lexicon. Plain speaking, provided that it’s respectful, constructive and considered, is probably the biggest example all Australians can set.

It’s great to have mates at work, to have bosses who are mates, staff who are mates, but we must also be able to give feedback when there are performance issues and not let the ‘mate-ship’ get in the way of professionalism. Develop skills for giving and receiving feedback, so blaming, defensiveness and concerns about ‘dobbing’ are no longer issues.  

Ensure integrity and transparency 100% of the time

‘Fair dinkum’ usually means the genuine article, a byword for honesty. For those who thought ‘fair dinkum’ had gone the way of Barry McKenzie, our current Prime Minister has kindly revived it. However, maintaining you’re ‘fair dinkum’ about what you do reeks of weasel-speak. Just ask Atlassian’s Mike Cannon-Brookes, who offered to clear up the PM’s misconceptions of renewable power. 

We need to counter any laidback approaches to integrity, such as accepting someone’s word for it. Overcome any temptation to ‘bend rules’ or ‘cut corners’, as this only comes back to bite (like the proverbial redback on the toilet seat).

Draw a line of acceptability for language, jokes and swearing

People need to guard against over-familiarity in the workplace. With a bigger mix of ethnicities and identities, off-colour or semi-racist/sexist/ageing humour can cause offence. Work with the informality we’re known for, and don’t wipe out the Aussie blunt humour and self-deprecating style. Seek commonalities instead. Or as Michelle Obama says, aim high instead of going low.

Build teams that communicate respectfully

If we look at our usage of ‘mate’ in light of breaking down redundant class, race and gender distinctions, that’s worthwhile, too — almost a flat management approach. Similarly, the concept of a ‘fair go’ is good, provided people’s unconscious biases receive some active pruning (otherwise it’s more rhetoric than reality). Enhance the mateship that began on the goldfields, appreciate diversity and jointly seek to overcome conflicts. 

Strive for work-life balance

This isn’t unique to Australia, but while unionists and employers squabbled for centuries over the improved apportioning of wages and working hours, Melbourne stonemasons in 1856 were the first to successfully campaign for 888 (the world’s first eight-hour working day). It was a huge achievement during the oppressive work conditions of the 19th century, and led to other countries following suit.

In the modern era, while productivity shouldn’t necessarily be defined in terms of hours spent at work, value-added is the differential. Anyone who contributes value should be valued. The way we measure value needs continual refinement as jobs, products and services and technologies evolve.

We don’t need to be ‘flat-out like a lizard drinking’.  We can aim for relaxed and comfortable (to quote former PM John Howard) in much the way kangaroos know when to rest in the shade and efficiently draw on scarce resources for survival, but also to progress in great bounds.

Nationalities’ idioms can be alienating at first encounter, but they tell a story of how cultures evolve. We need a new ‘Aussie Day’, with opportunities to make Australia’s collective narrative earthy, inclusive and sensible. In fact, let’s aim for ‘consummate’ (demonstration of great skill as well as forging relationships). 

Advance Australia Flair!

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2 years ago

The use of “….these and other Aussie expressions, and linked behaviours….” have never been evident among individuals expecting to be taken seriously, any more than has the vernacular of any other country.