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The issue of “safety” keeps coming up in our staff meetings. Our cultural competence committee has tried to engage people in dialogue with mixed results. Some people say they don’t feel safe to talk about issues of culture and difference. There are usually only a few people who speak, and most people sit back in silence. Any ideas for how to address this challenge?
Congratulations to you and your organization for taking steps to engage in open communication! With open communication, everyone in the organization can share ideas and insights to shape the organization, programs and services. There is great benefit in hearing insights into what is working well and what else can be done to maximize effectiveness. People also need to feel that their voices are heard and that they are being treated respectfully and fairly. Open communication also allows people to learn from disagreements and conflicts and develop greater understanding and appreciation of one another. So, why do people feel unsafe? What can we do to make a difference?
It’s important to acknowledge social context. Organizations are in many ways reflections of our larger societal culture, in which communicating about culture and difference is not the norm. Dynamics of culture and difference are at play all the time, but we rarely talk about them. These topics are generally seen as “undiscussable.” Therefore, your organization is working against societal norms, breaking silences and creating new norms.
Our society also operates with a norm of competitive communication. Most of us learn to view disagreements as threats and to see things from an “either/or” “right/wrong” perspective. We are conditioned to deal with differences by avoiding, fighting or giving in. We are also taught not to challenge people in authority. These patterns of responding to difference leave little room to receive the gifts of learning available to us when differences are surfaced.
Another obstacle in the organizations I have worked with is fear of negative consequences. There is often a perception in organizations that people who speak up will face negative repercussions, which may be as extreme as losing their jobs or being passed over for promotion. People may also fear being judged, socially isolated or dismissed. Here are some questions to consider:
How do people in the organization respond to concerns about how the organization addresses culture, race, gender or other differences? Are the concerns taken seriously? Do people in leadership roles listen openly and non-defensively? Is the person labeled as “too sensitive” or “a complainer?” Is there a policy to protect people who raise these issues from negative repercussions?
Is there an atmosphere of judgment where people are judged for being “too politically correct” or “not politically correct enough?” What type of climate do you want to create in the organization so that people will feel free to raise their concerns and contribute their ideas?
Here are a few things that have worked for organizations I work with. Each organization is different, so think about what might work for you:
- Be open and intentional about creating an environment that welcomes different perspectives. Be clear on why you want to have open communication. People will be more likely to open up if they understand the benefits for the communities you serve and the work environment.
- Model open communication at the leadership level. Make it a practice to take space and take time to stop and listen. Listen deeply to what people are saying, without judging. Make sure that they know they are being heard. Acknowledge people for taking risks and bringing up tough issues.
- Adopt and practice communications guidelines to foster open communication. Include a “no repercussions” guideline. Make sure that staff members know where to go if they feel that the guideline is being violated.
- Establish a clear, transparent process for responding to the issues that are raised. Build trust by being open about what you can and can’t do to address the issue. Work together to address issues rather than expecting managers to address all concerns.
It may take time and a concerted effort to “unlearn” old patterns and establish new ones. Don’t forget to acknowledge and celebrate small victories. Your commitment makes a difference!