Below is a “Dear Laurin” submitted by a colleague from one of the organizations I work with. The names have been changed to protect confidentiality, but the situation is real. I work in partnership with other consultants to provide the best combination of experience and skills for my clients. Thanks to Jacqueline Elena Featherston of Featherston & Associates for her partnership on this blog entry. Thanks also to Adele James, Amiko Mayeno and Dawna Vann for their valuable input.
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How do I, as a leader of a non-profit organization and a person of color be an ally to other cultures and remain firm and clear about our organization’s guidelines and expectation of staff performance? In this particular situation, I am an Asian American woman and supervisor. The staff member (we’ll call her Lisa) is an African American woman employee who is often late to work. There is some flexibility in the schedule, where she can set her own schedule and show up for that schedule. However, recently, the schedule keeps changing and she is unable to be present in the organization. This has caused some communication break down and the work ends up falling on me.
Any suggestions on how I can be firm in communicating my concerns and at the same time not make this employee feel isolated?
Thank you for this very intriguing question. Your situation brings out important issues of flexibility, accountability, culture, race, power and communication that are often arise in nonprofits. Non-profit managers often see situations like this as problems to be solved. If we shift our approach, we can find great opportunities to learn, grow and build stronger working relationships. In the spirit of partnership, I have enlisted the support my colleague, Jacqueline Elena Featherston in responding to your question.
First, let’s talk about flexibility and accountability. A nonprofit functions best when everyone is accountable for their part in the important work it is set up to do. Many nonprofits also try to be flexible to accommodate people’s different life circumstances and cultures. Flexibility and accountability are not mutually exclusive.
Clear expectations are needed in order to have accountability. Breakdowns often occur when there is confusion about expectations. The organization may be unclear about its policies or how flexible to be in implementing them. Supervisors may be uncomfortable with their responsibility to set and communicate clear expectations and consequences.
Expectations should be designed to help the organization and team function effectively. If expectations are not clear, you may want to engage in conversation about what norms would best serve BOTH individual and organizational needs. There may be greater staff buy in and mutual accountability if staff members participate in a process of creating shared expectations.
Second, it is important to acknowledge that dynamics of difference related to race, culture, age, class, gender, orientation and other variables are constantly at play in nonprofits. A first step as a cross-cultural ally is self-assessment. The following are some areas of self-reflection that may be useful:
What baggage might you be bringing to the table that gets in the way? Are you uncomfortable with the race dynamic as an Asian American supervising an African American? Are there other dynamics, such as class or age at play? Have you been engaging in “dysfunctional rescuing” or “helping” the staff person in a way that sets her up to fail?* What can you acknowledge and take responsibility for?
Be aware that Lisa and you may see and experience things differently through each of your “cultural lenses”. For example, the relationship you each have to time and timeliness may be different. Flexibility and knowledge about cultural relationship to “clock” time can allow you to frame a conversation that respects difference AND emphasizes your organizational norms and expectations around punctuality.
Third, open and clear communication is absolutely essential. The key to this communication is your commitment or stand. As an ally, the starting place for the communication must be your commitment to the success of the employee AND the organization’s success. It is likely that the employee shares this same commitment. You may need more than one conversation to get things moving forward. Here are four topic areas that may be useful to discuss:
1. Sharing concerns
2. Clarifying needs and expectations
3. Supporting the employee in meeting expectations
4. Clarifying consequences if the expectations are not met
The following communications guidelines may also be useful for your conversation:
1. Listen generously – Focus on what you are both committed to.
Crucial to the success of your conversation is supporting Lisa’s sense of inclusion by asking questions and understanding her experience and perspective. It indicates a humility and willingness to learn that is often appreciated. It creates a place for authenticity and self-disclosure.
2. Check out any assumptions – Ask questions to clarify and assumptions you may have about Lisa’s behavior or intent. You may find that something is occurring that results in the tardiness and absences from the office that needs to be addressed.
3. Model accountability – Be accountable for your role, if any, in the breakdown. Let the employee know what she can expect you to do differently in the future.
4. Be clear about what you see and what you expect and why. Focus on what is workable, without making it a moral issue of right/wrong. The clearer and more specific your observations, the easier it is for the person to understand exactly what it is about her behavior, rather than her personality that concerns you. Make it clear what your expectations are and underscore that you are committed to supporting her success.
In closing, this is an opportunity for you and Lisa to recommit to the organization and working relationship with renewed confidence and clarity. Don’t be surprised if it sometimes feels uncomfortable or gets messy. This is part of the process when trying on new ways of communicating. Thanks for giving us an opportunity to engage with you on this rich and challenging topic!
Laurin and Jacqueline Elena
*Visions, Inc. does some very valuable work on the dynamics of modern oppression and internalized oppression. This article discusses dysfunctional rescuing and other behaviors in greater detail.