Features: December 9th, 2005

Communicate – Don’t Alienate

By Sonya Welch-Moring.

This article explores why some employers find it difficult to manage black and ethnic minority staff and questions whether the problem actually stems from not wanting to appear racist!

All managers can be hesitant about giving negative feedback to staff, but this seems to be especially difficult if staff and managers are from different ethnic or cultural backgrounds to themselves. The downside of failing to call staff to account is work deteriorating to crisis point and the staff member possibly underperforming to the extent that disciplinary action is the natural next step. Often the organisation does not want this, preferring to support the staff member to improve or recognize that they have been ‘allowed’ to under perform, maybe because of long term restructuring or a large turnover of managers who have not challenged their work. Is this a question of discrimination, lack of support or are there other reasons?

Beneath the surface of poor performance and conflict in working relationships is often mis-communication that arises from unexpressed or ill-defined verbal and non-verbal messages. Managers often do not say what they really want to say, because of concerns that it will cause offence. Many managers are worried about appearing racist, discriminatory or feel uncomfortable about giving direct feedback, concerned that they may be being overly critical.

What is said is often less important than how it is received and if the receiver is left to make sense of the message, the communication has failed. We know that non-verbal communication is more powerful and makes more impact than verbal communication. Meharab’s famous study suggest that in general conversation non-verbal signals represent over 50% of communication and the words of the message a mere 8%. In times of conflict or emotion, when there is an emotional element involved in the communication, the non-verbal is higher and the verbal even less.

An example of the power of mixed messages was evident in a recent encounter that I witnessed. An organisation instituted a new dress code some time ago and a member of staff appeared to be flouting this by wearing clothing which was at the boundary of acceptability. A white manager in giving feedback to the black employee said, ‘you’re looking very ethnic today Sharmel’. In transactional analysis terms this would be called an ‘ulterior’, where there are two messages being transmitted. On the surface the manager is giving what sounds like a compliment on their dress, but the ulterior message is really, ‘why are you turning up for work dressed like that as it’s not appropriate for an office environment?’

The worker may receive the original message in a number of ways from wondering why it sounds like a compliment, but feels like a criticism to whether this person is being racist when this is really the latest fashion statement? Over time and with repeated mixed messages confusion deepens, anger can mount and conflict erupts. Of course from the manager’s perspective they may think they have told their member of staff where they have to improve but they don’t seem to be doing it; instead they appear to be getting angry, defensive and their work may suffer. This would be very obvious except it’s a recurring problem for both managers and staff working in culturally diverse organisations.

The other consideration is that the employee may be aware of what’s happening, know that the manager is afraid to challenge them so decide to play on this by ignoring what is said or worse still, respond to the unspoken fear and challenge them on discriminatory behaviour.

So how can managers improve communication in order to avoid conflict and motivate and manage high performance? It is imperative that managers recognise and respond to cultural differences in open and transparent ways. To do this managers have to develop the skills of ‘authentic communication’. When people communicate authentically they say what they mean, knowing the purpose of their message and are prepared to respond and challenge defensive or inappropriate behaviour. Likewise if the message is clear, it becomes harder for the receiver to misunderstand it and they are less likely to circumvent or disown it.

‘Hard Truth’ Communication

Managers often freeze when they have to give difficult feedback to people who are culturally and racially different from them, or where there may be a perceived language barrier. They can start to ask themselves whether it is okay to question someone on their dress if they are from a different culture or to challenge bad time keeping as it is not a cultural issue. If staff are sitting and talking in their own language in front of service users, can something be said?

Managers need to give themselves self-permission to act and communicate authentically, knowing why they are doing what they do and becoming very centered internally so that they are not knocked off balance by the response. When this happens the communication is more likely to be complimentary, when both parties understand the message and respond in kind.

In order to develop the skills of ‘Hard truth’ communication it’s important to go through a number of steps to communicate authentically and openly:

1. Take a position of impartiality

2. Ownership of your view of the world

3. Self permission to take action

4. Willingness to confront.

Impartiality – It is sometimes difficult to change roles; when people are given difficult feedback it often comes from the ‘supervisor’ position within the manager. Impartiality resides in the ‘coach or mentor’ position.

Ownership of your view of the world – Here you are curious about why the person is behaving in a particular manner, you know and own your map of the world, you don’t have to know the other, you seek to find out and understand so that you know how to continue.

Self permission to take action – If we are not to limit ourselves, we need to give ourselves permission to take the authority to act. Often in communicating across difference managers ‘freeze’, they don’t know how to go on, but in reality they do know but are afraid of the consequences of articulating the impact of the behaviour.

Willingness to confront – Confronting is not conflict; reframed it is a request for someone to look into a mirror in order to have reflected back what they are saying or doing. The art is to do this in a way in which the behaviour is realigned with the organisational not personal value system so that the perception of personal criticism is diminished.

Sonya Welch-Moring, MCIPD BSc, MSc, Master NLP, is a professional development coach. She runs her own independent coaching and training company, Peopletalk Services Ltd. 0207 078 6350/1 or e-mail Sonya@peopletalkservices.com. http//www.peopletalkservices.com