By Rev. Jean-Ray Knighton Fitt
Culture is rich and beautiful, but it’s also complicated. It’s so much more than how you dress or greet or what you eat. As I mentioned in my first blog about culture, the diverse team I lead at CAST represents eight different cultural groups, and if I include all the other groups we encounter in our ordinary working week, it comes to at least fifteen.
I cannot pretend it’s easy to make sense of all the complicated dynamics this gives rise to but we have learned to anticipate and manage certain perceptions and reactions—I confess at times I get a horrible knot in my stomach before I make certain decisions because I know that some people are going to struggle to understand why, or even find them hurtful. Sometimes I try to talk through cultural dynamics with staff who find themselves reacting negatively to what others have said or done. I honestly do my best to manage such situations, and sometimes I’m better than other times.
I remember during our early years at CAST, in our small and the predominantly “white” female team, how easily perceptions of colleagues were clouded by colour and culture issues. At times the race card was played—something that is thankfully seldom, if ever, played now. Nobody thought they were being racist, but the environment was challenging for an infant organisation trying to establish team dynamics, and organisational identity and culture.
I think it’s important to realise too, though, that “cultural confusion” is not simply limited to language and race groups. One household is not the same as the next, and hundreds of factors influence why we think and respond the way we do, not least of all friendship circles, work environment, schooling and (in our context especially) church/denominational background. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to people, so the disciplines of listening, questioning and seeking to understand will remain the heartbeat of good relationships—among friends or in the office.
When I think about the way culture affects our business, there are three main issues that come to mind: authority, hospitality and time. I was going to write about all three of these in this post, but as I began to write, I realised that I can’t really speak meaningfully to any of these in a mere paragraph or two. So instead I’ll cover these issues one blog at a time. The things I am going to say are generalisations, but for our context I find them helpful in predicting responses and shaping policies and general approach.
So what about different views of authority? Is there a right view and a wrong view? How much does it really impact workplace dynamics, productivity and good leadership? From my perspective it’s been quite a big deal at times causing misunderstanding, hurt, anger and even factions. So often when these issues have arisen in the team, staff have been completely unaware of the cultural influence on perspectives and behaviour. I have become increasingly aware of the dynamics as I’ve noticed how often it’s “all the Indian staff who have a problem with that person” or “all the white staff complaining about that new policy”. As I’ve asked questions and reflected on the answers, patterns have emerged—which are the patterns I am reflecting on in these blogs.
First we need to understand that different cultural groups view authority and the role of leaders differently. Some cultures have a “high” view of authority and others have a “low” view.
For me (as for many “white” people) we naturally have a general distrust of authority. At times we see authority as a “necessary evil” and interact with it based on the maxim “power corrupts”. We are worried that leaders will abuse their power, so we look for leaders who are servants of their people and their office. Many times we will see it as our responsibility to question and even oppose leadership. We have more respect for leaders who exercise leadership quietly and don’t “flaunt” it. And we tend to look down on leaders who make a big deal of being “in charge”—we naturally assume they are in it for themselves, not for their people, and so our distrust of them increases.
This view of authority is relatively good at curbing corruption and ensuring higher accountability among leaders. Handled well, it can sharpen and challenge leaders positively. The problem is that it can easily become disabling for leadership. My senior pastor once said to me that most pastors do not give up and leave the ministry because of one or two big crises, but because of the paper-cuts. In other words, it’s the myriad of criticisms and obstructions that eventually bring the leader to breaking point. And this is very true.
In reality, the mantle of leadership is much heavier than it looks to those who don’t wear it, the decisions leaders make are more complicated, there is more history and risk, more factors to consider than it seems from the outside. And opposition—even at times from people who are inherently loyal, but especially when there is a veneer of loyalty covering an underlying “I can lead better than you” attitude—can eventually bring a leader to their breaking point. When this happens those who have set themselves up as the opposition will take the opportunity to rejoice (privately or publicly) that they had recognised and pointed out the flaws in the now broken leader.
Sadly, I’ve been that kind of follower at times, honestly believing I could do a better job than my boss or my pastor … making a pain of myself by challenging continually. To this day I believe that I’ve always, genuinely had the good of the organisation at heart. In reflection, I still feel my questions and concerns have usually proven to be legitimate, yet I also now realise that the way I have exercised this power of questioning has sometimes been arrogant and has been experienced as disloyalty and distrust by those who led me.
Part of that is the arrogance and naivety of youth, part of it is the influence of my culture. But the longer I have been a leader myself, the more I have realised how damaging that kind of attitude can be to leaders. I have had my fair share of people who have hampered my ability to lead by constant questioning, opposition and distrust—at times driving me almost to the point of burnout. Over the years, opposition to my leadership has been single biggest inhibitor of organisational growth and success at CAST because it has, at times, created doubt and confusion in the minds of staff, factions, wasted time and given rise to many doubts about my own capability.
This is where I have really come to value the high view of authority I find among my “black” and “Indian” staff. For many other cultures, leaders are revered, respected and not questioned. This is because it is seen as good and right to honour leadership. A leader is seen as a “father” or “mother” and it is right to know one’s place in the organisation or family. Objectively this enables good leaders to flourish in a way that constant criticism does not, and it promotes stability and productivity. On the other hand it also opens the doors for corruption and power-mongering that infects leaders everywhere, especially in Africa. And so leaders who should be removed can easily continue to manipulate people for their own egos or personal gain.
At CAST I have found my naturally “humble, down to earth” approach to leadership to be both very attractive to staff from “non-white” backgrounds, but at the same time a cause for concern. While many staff will express appreciation about the way I consistently listen to them, care for them and take them seriously, making myself and my feelings vulnerable with them—and not seeing any job as beneath me but rather being willing to “get my hands dirty” with them … they also typically feel I need to take more authority and less nonsense from other staff. They will often emphasise my right to make more unilateral decisions without consultation with staff, and they are regularly concerned that some staff would “walk all over” me.
I would love to say that they are wrong about this and that my approach to leadership is watertight, but in reality their concerns are absolutely legitimate. I have experienced firsthand the dangers of the extremes in both perspectives—both dictatorial leadership and the freedom of staff to question leadership decisions. Instead of saying to one or another group, “Your understanding of authority is wrong” I have found value in listening to the varying understandings my staff have and trying to build an organisational culture of authority that draws from the best of both perspectives—or at least takes cognisance of the understandings of both—creating stability and productivity, but encouraging respectful interaction, maintaining the checks and balances.
Several incidents quickly come to mind, and most involve the way staff interact in meetings. Often my “black” staff have been slow to speak or express opinions—especially where they have concerns, and instead the “white” staff have dominated the conversations and opinions. This does not foster unity and mutual understanding in the team and needs to be managed. Several times in the last few years I have had staff “of colour” express shock or distress at how other staff have addressed or questioned me in meetings. Most times I can hardly remember the incidents they are referring to because the interactions seemed completely normal to me from the perspective of a culture that values questioning of leadership.
However, this only works smoothly in an organisation when everyone is more or less from the same cultural group. It becomes an even bigger deal when subordinates who find it normal to question and even oppose leadership at times do so with leaders who come from cultures where this is unacceptable, or where there are different norms for when and where it is acceptable to question. If not managed well it may be experienced as insubordination (even though it may not technically be insubordination) and lead to breakdown of relationships—often to the surprise of the subordinates who feel they were acting responsibly and with adequate levels of respect.
In our context, differing views of authority also affect the decisions that team members feel they have the right to make or to act on. For one person doing something without instruction is seen as initiative (typically those with a high view of their own autonomy), for someone else it is seen as insubordination (acting without the sanction of the leader). So what one staff member does naturally, causes confusion with others, or is seen as disrespectful.
What makes this a more serious issue than just the psyche of the leader is the effect it has on other staff. Those who operate with a “high view of authority” will watch what appears to be disrespect towards the leader from some staff, note that the leader does not discipline these staff and conclude that the leader is weak or soft. This can erode their own respect towards the leader, or it can rally them to become angry and defensive towards other staff. Either of these can add to organisational instability. It can also make people feel empowered or disempowered, which is a major driver of productivity and what empowers one group can disempower another group as leadership is a scale that needs to be weighed from all groups.
It’s not only the act of questioning though, or the decisions people make, it’s also the manner, place and time in which people communicate.
The formality or casualness of dress or language can be a big deal here. With the culture of “white Westville” exhibiting the extremes of casualness, I have watched in horror as good-natured, well-meaning young people from my church have stood up in the pulpits of Zulu churches dressed in shorts, slops and a T-shirt (a place I would not venture without at very least a jacket and tie), and referred to the pastor or other senior members of the community on a first name basis—blissfully unaware of traditional protocols. While for “white” people this may express warmth, trust, acceptance and normality, in this context it is typically experienced as disrespect for the church, the office of the pulpit and the leadership.
The use (or non-use) of titles is another thing that expresses differing views of authority. Recently this issue came up with one of my pastor friends. He was incredulous, and visibly shocked, that in our church we call our senior pastor “John” rather than “Pastor Benn” or at least “Pastor John”. His response “How can people be so disrespectful to the man of God?” betrays the very deep impact our different cultures have on the way we view authority.
“White” people will often go along with respectful terminology, language or dress when in a more traditional setting, but they may subtly express a slightly patronising attitude—as if people need to be liberated from that kind of bondage to tradition and authority. In doing this they might unintentionally give the message that “I know better than you” to those they interact with.
Rather, as people of varying cultures, let us suspend our judgement and learn to find what is good and valuable in each other’s approach to authority. There are strengths and dangers in each. We see this not only in the workplace, but also in the community and family dynamics … the role of husbands and wives in the home, the respect of children towards their parents, loyalty or disloyalty towards friends, business relationships, staff dynamics, success or failure in our interactions with government. So let us be the kind of people who reflect on the question, how does my low or high view of authority positively or negatively affect the world I live and work in?
In conclusion, I’d like to make some remarks about building organisational culture. I believe the secret of stability in a multi-cultural setting is to build a strong organisational culture—one which takes into account the various cultures of team members, but which supersedes these individual cultures by creating a new culture which team members learn to operate in, in the context of the work space.
We often think of organisational culture as pertaining to things like excellence, hard work, customer relations etc. And all these things are important, but it is also critical that we think through things like how we address each other and the manner in which we communicate internally and externally; how we encourage or manage initiative; how we dress and what that expresses; how we consult with staff and stakeholders; and how we encourage or silence the various voices around the “organisational table”.
At the end of the day, any business, church or charity has certain goals it is striving to achieve—achieving these goals are paramount to the ultimate success of the venture. Our responsibility as leaders is to build an organisational culture that moves the team members towards the goals. And our success or failure in these areas is going to depend both on how we listen to the staff, clients and other stakeholders who are on this journey with us—and especially seek to understand the value in their cultural perspectives—and on our ability to build an organisational culture that supersedes the individual cultures of the team and effectively unifies them into one group.