Bridging the Perceptual Gap between “Us and Them”

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This spring, I conducted a cultural assessment of a rural health organization as part of a course assignment on organizational culture and cross-cultural management. Through this project, I was able to see just how a leader’s presence and absence affects employee perception of group perception, teamwork, and organizational culture.

The health organization I studied serves two communities with a combined population of 1,800 people in a radius of 52 miles. Its new health service administrator—the fourth in less than five years—was looking to create a more inclusive, collaborative, and learning culture. The new administrator and her staff wanted to begin cultivating a workplace that is a community of possibility, generosity, and gifts, and break with past management styles. Consequently, my questions focused on relationships in order to determine how they can support the administrator as she works to create a new sense of community.

A handful of themes emerged from my discussion with the administrator and her staffers, which helped me understand the cultural forces within the organization that are impeding the shift the administrator would like to see.

One theme was the “us versus them” issue. The staffers expressed that this sentiment presently exists within the organization’s culture. The sentiment is best described by what organizational theorists Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede and Michael Minkov called a collectivist work culture marked by exclusionist behavior. A shared value system exists among staffers, who have devoted several years to the organization and consider themselves change-averse. Because the organization has had four different administrators with different perspectives serve as management in the course of five years, staffers expressed that it was hard for them to see the administrator as part of their group or team. Additionally, because of their past experiences with how the change process was introduced by other administrators, the staffers expressed concern with the way things are “forced” upon them that do not fit with the way things are done in their community or within the organizational culture.

To address this “us versus them” sentiment, I recommended to the new administrator that she articulate her long-term commitment to the area within the local organization and communities and that she allow for a reasonable passage of time, say six months, for observation and reflection of her environment and staff before undertaking any new, major initiative. I also suggested that the administrator allow others to get to know her better by being accessible and empathizing with staff concerning their uncertainty and fear of yet another change in management. This should offer staffers a sense of stability and trust-building, and ward off any potential adverse impact that staff speculation may have on the culture change initiative she is undertaking.

Another theme I noted involved uncertainty avoidance, or, what Hofstede, Hofstede and Minkov defined as, “the extent to which members of a group feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations,” which presently affects the way staffers deal with change. Staff members said they think more information needs to be shared rather than simply being told what the change would be; that people needed time to adapt to think about the proposed change instead of having it dictated to them to them or being told to change. The lack of leadership left them feeling like they were “flying blind” and “winging it,” so the staff had no sense of commitment to, or accountability for, the success of the changes sought. It would appear staff processes that worked in the past to enable them to survive poor or inadequate leadership may now be shared parts of their culture, which now taken for granted, become hard to change.

To support the staff tolerance with ambiguity, the administrator will need to demonstrate a firm hand while also allowing for understanding and flexibility in dealing with the staff. She should focus on being clear and unequivocal about the behaviors that are acceptable and what she wants to see in the workplace and what behaviors will be not tolerated. She will also have to be clear about how she wants staff to participate in the decision-making processes; recognizing and fanning the adaptive ability and compassion staff have demonstrated; continuing with flexibility of the fewer rules that allowed staff to function with latitude in the past; and be prepared to trust her managers make smart decisions when things are uncertain.

In the case of this organization, the new administrator as a new leader needs to fully understand the magnitude of the undertaking, acknowledging the adaptive change involved as opposed to technical change work. As a new overall culture begins to be shaped and emerge, there is a need to acknowledge that a different, older culture still exists, and will likely continue to exist, both within departments and between the two communities until more trust-building occurs. Through the building of trust, the organization may be able to begin its shift away from perceptions of polarization and avoidance to a culture that encourages the diversity of perspectives and experiences. This, in turn, will slowly lead to the creation of the inclusive, collaborative learning environment the new administrator would like to co-create with her staff.

Read other posts by Khwezi Mbolekwa

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