B. Cultural sensitivity and diversity
The environment of a crisis management mission brings together people from various professional fields who may not be used to working together, such as military officers and enlisted personnel from different services, NGOs of varying scope and size, international civil servants and diplomats, all of whom have different national, institutional and personal backgrounds.
In any encounter that includes such diversity, tensions and conflicts can be expected to arise and a clash of cultures is often inevitable.
In a mission, the situation is often complicated by the intersection of diverse organisational and national cultures. Missions bring heterogeneous personnel into contact with local people who often draw upon cultural backgrounds different from those of the operation and its staff. The potential for culturally based misunderstandings and conflicts is thereby increased.
For example, you might find yourself having to deal with people and cultures whose basic speech patterns greatly differ from your own. In non-Western cultures, for instance, the use of indirect speech patterns when communicating with colleagues is prevalent. Some cultures are used to adopting very collectivist approaches (as opposed to the individualist ones you might be accustomed to) when it comes to work ethics and decision-making processes. In addition, while you might be used to static and strict work rules, you will discover that some cultures embrace change and fluctuation as part of their everyday work and life.
In spite of all the frustrations that might result from dealing with foreign cultures, remember that crisis management missions are aimed at empowering people and should always draw on local capacity and culture instead of imposing foreign techniques and customs in peacebuilding and reform.
Unfortunately, missions often end up catering to the interests of the organisation and the operational culture of the crisis managers. This can significantly undermine the legitimacy of the deployed professionals and contribute to an image of them as ‘occupiers’ or ‘colonialists’.
To avoid such insensitivities, you should try to build bridges of trust between yourself and your organisation on the one hand and the host community on the other. Reading anthropological and cultural guides about the different peoples you will be interacting with beforehand can help avoid misunderstandings and embarrassment. Equally, you must be aware of your own cultural background and its historical context. This is crucial because your nationality and country of origin may have a historical footprint of colonialism and occupation.
Cultural sensitivity is not only about learning another culture’s customs and history, it is also about learning and acquiring a deeper understanding of your own.
As outlined by Stephen Covey in The Speed of Trust, the following actions can be useful for creating a trusting atmosphere:
- Tell the truth. Be honest. Exercise integrity. Let people know where you stand. Use simple language. Don’t manipulate or spin the truth. Don’t leave false impressions.
- Demonstrate respect. Note the importance of the little things. Genuinely care. Treat people with dignity. Take time. Listen.
- Create transparency.
- Right wrongs. Correct mistakes. Apologize quickly. Demonstrate humility.
- Deliver results. Establish a track record of getting the right things done. Make things happen. Don’t over-promise and under-deliver. Don’t make excuses for not delivering.
- Constantly improve. Be a learner. Develop feedback mechanisms. Act on feedback and appreciate it.
- Clarify expectations. Disclose expectations. Discuss them and validate them. Be realistic. Don’t create expectations that you will not be able to meet. Don’t assume that expectations are shared or clear.
- Listen before you speak. Understand. Listen with your ears, eyes and heart. Do not presume that you have all the answers or that you know what is best for others. Ask them. Demonstrate understanding and compassion.