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administrators and teams

Working with a multicultural staff

Gary Weaver speaking at a child and youth care conference in South Africa in the 1990s

Staff is where we begin with child care work. If we can't work together in a multicultural staff, then how can we possibly expect children to work together? If we don't work out our anxieties regarding differences, then how can we expect the children to work out their anxieties regarding differences? And if we are unclear as to what our identity is, how can we help our children with their identity difficulties?

So many of the things we have being saying over the last two days about children apply equally to staff. When staff who are culturally different come into an organisation, they go through the same difficulties that children do, coming into the institution. They experience the difficulties of adjustment that we call culture shock, and the breakdown of communication. And of course they bring with them different values and different assumptions as well, assumptions as to how you pick a leader, when do you get down to business, assumptions about 'proper therapy and goals.

An example
An issue that has come up often during my journey through South Africa, has been that of discipline. I've heard not only from Black South Africans but also from Afrikaners how important it is to "beat the children" occasionally. Well, there are some of us who feel strongly that that's totally inappropriate for child care, but assume that you have a staff member who firmly believes in physical punishment. Would it be appropriate just to say "We do not allow this practice here"? It may be that at that point the staff member who does believe in corporal punishment will dismiss everything else that is said.

So where is the compromise? Where can these differences be articulated and worked through? Barrie Lodge was the person who told me of one institution where they have worked out compromises. The staff walk around with symbolic "pencils" instead of sticks. I was at an institution in Cape Town where there was a young African boy who suffered from bed-wetting. He was absolutely convinced that the reason he wet the bed was because a goat was not killed at the proper time. Now some of us would call that superstition, but in fact someone did kill a goat according to the required custom and the bed-wetting stopped. If it works, fine. I feel sorry for the goat, but nevertheless I think we have to explore these alternative ways of looking at people's reality.

Cultural empathy
I think it is important to be open to alternative ways of dealing with children and their ways of looking at the world, and one of the messages I have been pushing is this message of cultural empathy: try to put yourselves in the shoes of someone who is culturally different, whether it's a staff member or a child, to find out how they look at the world. That doesn't mean you have to agree with the way they look at the world, and it doesn't even mean having sympathy. You may not believe that killing a goat has anything to do with bed-wetting, but the child does. Your goal is not to indoctrinate the child to think like a Westerner; your goal is simply to be therapeutically helpful to that child.

I have noticed among the Black South African communities the incredibly important role given to older people, particularly the mother figure. Perhaps in terms of staff recruitment you could be taking this into account. Maybe that older individual has a very important role in the institution and for the children that person is important. So, again, let's be aware of some of the assumptions and values that we hold.

As we talk about integrating staff and having a culturally diverse staff, there are many basic issues that arise. One of the first is recruitment. How do you recruit staff who are culturally different? Another issue that I have heard raised at this conference is concern about "lowering standards". In many cases, at least in the United States, this is a totally phony issue. The standards that we have today for entering child care, for entering the police force, for entering the fire department, are very much higher than they were ten or fifteen years ago. Please don't make the mistakes that we've made in recruitment, where we've tried to recruit Hispanics or blacks who act like white middle-class people. That is not being culturally diverse. Of course you are going to have to adapt in-service training as diversity increases.

Another issue is staff retention. How do you keep a child care worker? We find in the United States that the retention periods of people of colour are much shorter. People will come onto the staff with different expectations of what it's like to work in the institution. Retention, I think, also relates to anxiety: staff members who are culturally different experience the anxiety of culture shock and alienation. If that staff member is not able to feel safe about saying "I'm frustrated, I'm angry" without having it interpreted as "I'm overwhelmed" or "I'm burning out" or "I'm incompetent", that person can cope with the anxiety and get through the period of adjustment that most people go through in a new cultural environment.

But we all have to be sensitive to this, taking care that we don't react to the child care workers' reactions. In the U.S. we often failed to prepare staff for the stress of coming into the new organisation, for the stress of working within a new culture. And not only did we have trouble retaining some of the staff in institutions, but we also had difficulties at universities.

You have to 'transition' people into a different cultural environment. Again, in your training and in your recruitment, you have to consider these difficulties of adjustment.

Working together
Another issue that comes up for the staff is "How do we work together?" As the staff team becomes more diverse, the differences don't become less important. I want to stress that, because people in the United States have this naive assumption that all of this is common sense. "You just get people to work together, mix together, they start communicating, you apply basic management techniques and everything will work out we don't need all this talk about differences and culture and communication." I'm saying that if you honestly believe that, then you're going to be very surprised because the differences will probably become more important.

It's not just a matter of communication and bringing people together. How you bring people together is more important. Some may think we just need a lot of in-service training time together. That may be useful, but what goes on outside of training, in the day-to-day working situation, may be more important. Attitude change often occurs in the informal situations. If you're constructing a training programme, as you begin to diversify your staff, do take this into account. You have to provide consciously for the informal interaction.

We know, for example, that if we divide people according to their differences and set up situations where they necessarily compete, it increases the hostility. On the other hand, when we create a super-ordinate goal a goal that can only be reached by people working together the attitudes change.

We have to be very careful not to have culturally different groups competing against each other.

An answer for child care in South Africa, particularly in institutions where a hierarchical structure exists, may be to establish small teams which are culturally diverse. They work together in small teams toward a super-ordinate goal, for example, what is going to help a particular child. You cannot be therapeutically helpful to a child if only one person relates to that child, so all share the super-ordinate goal.

Values and traits
I have said that it is not only a matter of communication and bringing people together: I think that values, what's inside the other person's head, are important because values impact everything you do as a child care worker or as a social worker.

For example again, how you pick a leader, how you know who the leader is? For many mainstream Americans the leader is somebody who can get the job done. But for minority cultures, such characteristics as age, role in the community, and sex are all of importance and have to be taken into account.

What are leadership qualities? Again, it depends upon your culture. When do you get down to business at a staff meeting? Once more, that depends to some extent on your culture. If you come from what I call a "to be" culture, a non-western culture in the USA, generally relationships are very important, who you are; you want to build rapport before you get down to business. But for a western person, a "to do" person, what is important is getting the job done. This difference impacts on the way we run our organisation.

In staff training we naturally emphasise skills but just as important in the multicultural context are personality traits. I believe that people with clusters of certain personality traits would have great difficulty working in a culturally diverse environment. We do know in America that a typical westerner may have certain personality traits which correlate highly with failure in a non-western culture. One of these is intolerance toward ambiguity: the kind of person who likes everything very organised, meetings always start on time, people to give very clear 'yes or no' answers, their desk is always neat and organised ... In many of the "to be" cultures, this kind of person would be perceived almost as abrasive and rude in that he lets time dictate everything. In his meeting, time controls everything, time controls people, whereas others feel that people should control time.

If you combine this trail, intolerance to ambiguity, with being overly task-orientated, then we have another problem. By overly task-orientated, I mean someone whose self-esteem rests to a large extent on being successful on the job. In most "to be" cultures this kind of person would be perceived as self-centred. Being self-centred sometimes is a compliment for westerners. It means that you are single-minded. Non-western people would wonder "When are you going to violate our friendship, our trust, just to get ahead?" It would be very difficult to build a trusting relationship.

If you were to combine these two traits with being overly closed-minded, then I think we have great difficulties. Short of a personality transplant, such a person is probably not going to be trainable to work in a culturally diverse environment.

Cultural and real differences
I said that values are important. I also want to make the point that people actually think differently. They don't just have different values. They have different ways of thinking and solving problems, and of course one way is no better or worse than the other. Different ways of thinking are brought into our staff meetings, into our relationships.

Lastly, it must also be said that everything isn't culture. Sometimes there are real conflicts, real disagreements, and you shouldn't look at everything as cultural. An obnoxious staff member could just be an obnoxious staff member it may have nothing to do with culture. And sometimes there's genuine conflict. But the question we all have to ask in our staff meetings in particular are "How do you know when it's a conflict, or could it be a genuine lively discussion? How do you know whether it's escalating or de-escalating? How do you resolve those conflicts?

I think that the answers to all these questions we learn just by growing up in a particular culture. We learn it by being in groups as children, watching adults. And again, we carry these assumptions into our staff meetings, into our workplace.

This feature: Weaver, G. (1991) Working With A Multicultural Staff. In Gannon, B. (ed.) Old Limitations, New Challenges: Towards unifying values and practice in child and youth care programmes. Cape Town: National Association of Child Care Workers, 86-90