Understanding the Cultures of Your Employees
I recall an incident where national staff in a West African country complained to me that their boss was really lazy. This was shocking to me because I viewed her as being quite productive and a very hard worker. When I inquired why they thought she was lazy, they reported that she was always trying to get them to do her work. She wanted them to make decisions about what they should be doing. In fact, they said she was always asking them what they thought they should be doing about the problems and challenges they were facing. Now I understood. The Director was introducing participatory management where she was trying to empower her staff to make decisions affecting their work and the delivery of their services. The whole “empowering” concept was lost to them. Since she was the boss, they saw it as her job to make these decisions, not theirs. In another incident, national staff expressed concern that their supervisor (an American) was upset with them. They said he never greeted everyone when he came to the office. Rather he would go straight to his office and start working. (To the American workers reading this: When was the last time you greeted everyone (and I mean everyone) when you came to work?) Their supervisor wasn’t upset with them. He was just being very American. I have this American tendency too. I generally rush to my office to get down to work as soon as I arrive. I try to greet everyone I pass on the way to my office. Sometimes they respond to my greeting, sometimes they don’t because they are caught up in their own thoughts. This behavior would be seriously misunderstood in many cultures!
International staff who are deployed to work in humanitarian settings are generally well versed in the culture they will be entering. Prior to departure, they learn about the “dos” and “don’ts” of the culture where they will be working. Most international expatriates would tell you they are completely integrated into the foreign cultures where they are living. The fact is, you can never completely shake off your culture no matter how hard you try!
This is why it is so important to also educate national staff on the cultural contexts of the new expatriate international staff who will be joining their working environments. This is rarely, if ever, done. Understanding the cultures of everyone in the working environment is essential to understanding and harmony. It’s also really nice to know that your boss isn’t really lazy or mad at you.
Have national staff in your country programs been briefed on the cultures of your international staff?