Good intentions are not enough
Today’s workforce creates new challenges for managers. Imagine a manager who has been with the company since graduation. They hire new employees locally. Expectations on both sides are predictable and reliable. The manager never really noticed they always hired people ‘like us.’ Retention was good. Lately, things are different. Applicants may not be born and raised locally–or even Canada. ‘They’ are different. Misunderstandings seem to be more common. Newcomers don’t seem to ‘fit.’ They are left alone in hopes that things will work out. But department performance is down. Team meetings don’t have the same energy. Newcomers don’t understand the corporate culture and they don’t seem to speak the same ‘language.’ They don’t seem to show initiative. The manager has the best intentions but feels powerless. They may seek cross-cultural training.
This is usually cultural awareness training–a basic understanding of challenges faced by newcomers in Canada, or perhaps it is anti-racism training that teaches what you should not do. This may leave the manager overwhelmed by sympathy, guilt, frustration, and fear of doing the wrong thing, but without solutions. This fear can infect others as rules are laid down about what people cannot do and say. Employees used to trust the manager and the organization, but now feel suspicion, much of which may be directed at the newcomer. This wasn’t the manager’s intent!
To foster mutual trust and performance, be mindful of how perceptions are defined by our culture. Remember the manager’s perception about showing initiative? Here in Canada, there’s an unwritten rule that we speak up with ideas and opinions. It’s the way we do things around here. What if you were from a place where speaking up on your own behalf is considered a career ender? You would sit quietly, speaking when invited–i.e. behaving respectfully. Your co-workers would likely make assumptions about your behaviour, but imagine the assumptions you’d make about theirs! Probably neither of you will be thinking ‘Oh, their way of doing things must be different than where I come from.’
The Canadians in the room know the rule about speaking up. Some do it better than others, but they all know it. The newcomer does not. Instead of treating the newcomer as if they are unable or unwilling to meet expectations, what if the possibility of a different set of expectations were considered? What if the manager realized the need to communicate workplace expectations and they spoke to the employee before meetings and asked them to speak to a particular point when it was raised in the meeting? To work this way requires a wider lens than most of us have when we encounter difference.
The ability to adapt our practices starts by adjusting the lens through which we interpret others’ behaviours and needs. But these are new skills–training, mindful action, and lots of practice are necessary. Look for training that takes this approach, moving beyond awareness and anti-racism training, and helps you develop and practice new skills and behaviours.