White Feeling Excluded!
I have been working in a non-profit agency with a pre-dominantly African-American staff. I myself have lived and worked for many years overseas in a variety of countries and cultures, but am at a loss to know how best to build effective communication and rapport with my colleagues.
There is a distance and at times, resentment towards me and other white staff. This seems to be an unwillingness to be friendly and communicate or ask for assistance. Only when forced with no other options is there any sense of being part of the same team.
It is a mystery to me to know how to build effective communication and at least friendly relationships. Even when we are all together, they will make their own little group and leave other white staff and me out of the loop. We do not share the same jobs or positions but need to work more effectively as a team. What can I do to make a difference?
White and Shut Out By Blacks
Dear White and Shut Out By Blacks:
You pinpoint a very challenging situation: Team effectiveness requires effective communications, but differences between genders, ethnicities, age, tenure and personalities can make that very difficult to achieve. Let's focus on what it would take to have effective communications in any setting.
1. Your organizational role will make a difference in this case. If you are a supervisor or manager, there are actions that can be taken to make team effectiveness more likely. If you are a co-worker without authority for change, you will likely find it helpful to share your concerns with a supervisor who can help you do some problem solving. Or, it may be that a supervisor would say that things are fine the way they are and you should accept that people will cluster according to interests, job areas, ages--and sometimes ethnic backgrounds.
And, that may be correct. If work is going well and the lack of closeness has never resulted in work problems, then perhaps it will simply be part of your work place that people are not close. Not ideal, but not excessively problematic either.
However, I'm hoping that a supervisor will realize that no group at work should feel left out--and all groups and individuals should realize their team responsibility. Further, all employees should display courtesy, civility and enough friendly demeanor that others don't hesitate to approach them. That's the reason communication is so important: If you feel that someone doesn't want to talk to you in a casual way, you may not feel comfortable communicating with them about important issues. THAT is a problem!
2. Consider the gap you are seeing and have a clear picture of the nature of that gap. Write it down if it would help. Keep your focus on work effectiveness. If you are feeling resented or excluded that DOES have an effect on work effectiveness and should be dealt with. Here's one way to look at the gap:
What are you noticing that bothers you, specifically? Describe in detail the conversation, looks on faces, refusal to help you or lack of participation in important tasks. Or, it may be that people cluster and talk, but when you join them they break up and walk away to keep from including you in the conversation, they have inside jokes or say or do overt things that make you feel left out. For each situation that bothers you, write down the negative affect of the situation. How does it make you feel? What impact has it had on work? What have others said? Why should it change? It may be that some of the behavior is focused on you specifically or on others--in this case all or most of the white employees. But, if it was any other type of grouping the situation would be the same--so we could consider age, seniority or gender as well as the ethnic or racial situation.
It will really be beneficial if you can cite specific work situations that were impacted--or times that your supervisor can relate to when there was less than effective team effort because of the communications climate. Do clients and customers every suffer because of it?
Next to, or after, each area of concern, describe what you would like instead. Be realistic about your expectations. People can't be required to become personal friends or to engage in small talk or banter. But, they can be expected to respond in a friendly way when you talk to them. They can't be required to have lunch or take breaks with everyone equally, but they do need to share information and volunteer to help others equally. Write down, for each area that bothers you, what you feel would be the appropriate and team-effective alternative.
That will be a difficult list to develop! I know that because I've tried in some settings! It sounds so picky to say, "I want them to talk more to me." But you can say, "They laugh and smile with each other, but when I talk to them they have either no facial expression or they answer only briefly and without friendliness. I want them to respond to me with the same degree of friendliness I use to them." See? Not easy to articulate, is it? But it is important to be able to do so. Otherwise you will sound just naggy!
You need to be able to show (1) what is happening (2) the negative affect this has (3) what you'd like to see instead.
3. Take the list to a supervisor and share it with that person. Say that you would like to see more open communications and that you are willing to help make that happen. Perhaps the supervisor has noticed it--maybe not. Are there employees in the other group who seem more likely to work with you on this? Because now, you're at the really tough part--how to close the gap between what is and what you'd prefer for team effectiveness.
4. Again, think of this as a communication gap between any kinds of groups, as you develop ideas. You likely will find it more effective to simply mention names and not identify the group as non-white or any other similar description. You do not want to seem to be biased or trying to create conflict.
· Work to develop more effective communications one person at a time. Specifically pick one person who you would like to feel more comfortable with and purposely communicate. Offer assistance, discuss a favorite movie, ask about interests or hobbies, and learn about his or her family. To have a friend, be a friend. To have a co-worker who is an open and active communicator, be one yourself. Easier said than done, I know--but worth the effort.
· Try to find projects or issues about which all of you can be interested--or about which at least you all can have a responsibility. Make team effectiveness a good experience through thank you notes, notes to the boss commending co-workers, or simply dropping by the desk to briefly re-hash what happened.
· Purposely combine people from different groups on projects. Two people are responsible for inventorying form; two are responsible for developing a specific program, etc.
· Develop all-group activities and make assignments. I tend to only like to have employees putting energy into something with a nexus to work. Social functions and so forth are fine in their place--but people can't be required to participate, and often a few do all the work! If some work related project is going to be done--like rearranging workspace, doing some problem solving about a work issue or some such thing, the employees should do the work--not a supervisor. That's one of the problems with "developed projects": Supervisors see them as creating work for THEM!
· Ensure that there are no issues that are creating chasms between the groups. Are there staff meetings--and if there are, do these encourage open discussion? Do you sense conflict or contention in them? Have things happened that have been perceived as unfair? I don't recommend a confrontation at one of these meetings--where you would say that communications are a problem. That would likely only make everyone defensive and would solve nothing. But, perhaps you can use the meetings as a time to acknowledge the good work of others, ask for advice, give input, and other communications that foster positive relationships.
· Go to the desks of those in other groups to talk to them. Ask them to see you at your desk. Talk to them in the break room, parking lot and other places. One of the things you've likely noticed is that friends talk every place, while non-friends talk in limited places. Find reasons to chat--preferably about work, but also about other appropriate topics.
· The final suggestion is a key one: Focus on producing the best work possible, using the best team members for each task. When the focus is on work, people tend to forget cliques and gravitate toward those who can help. You can do that on your own, no matter what everyone else does. Then, reach out regularly to those who can provide insight or be a resource.
5. I mentioned this at the beginning, but will reiterate it: Work relationships, like personal relationships develop for a variety of reasons--and are not easily changed. If you can achieve effectiveness about job related tasks, you may be doing the best you can do. It may never be a warm and all-inclusive environment. But you CAN ensure, through your own actions, and with the help of a supervisor or manager, that nothing overt is standing in the way of a cooperative team effort.
Best wishes as you consider your work and the people in it and decide what changes, if any, need to be made.
Giving and getting respect is the currency of WEGO.
Tina Lewis Rowe