Building Trust: Working with Local Staff

            “I want to help you, but I can’t” was what I was told.  I am not big on being told no, especially by someone I had a working relationship with.  I was the Head of Department, and what I was asking was both reasonable and something that I had asked before.  I was frustrated with this fellow employee.  However, what I learned helped me to understand the importance of learning the culture as we build trust within the school system.

            When I worked in the public-school system in the states, there were clear structures and order to things.  There were ways to get things done that were followed.  However, there were also ways to get things done that had nothing to do with structure and order.  The second version, which usually was faster, was based on who you knew and how you related to them.  If you had met people, and built positive relationships with them, they were more likely to help you out in time of need.  At many times in my career, my relationships with the security team, grounds team, maintenance staff, and others has come in very handy when things have not gone the way they should.

            While working in the states, it is easy to meet people and build rapport.  Everyone, for the most part, speaks English as a first language and communication is easy.  If we want to build trust, we need to start by speaking with people.  Hold a conversation, ask questions, listen to the answers, and try to be supportive as you are able within the context of your job.  Following through with what you say you will do is also critical.  This is highly simplified and very dependent upon your role as a leader.  The greater your leadership role, the more critical discussions, listening, setting standards, and follow through become as a matter of trust.  How about overseas though?

            Some people assume it is much more difficult to build relationships, rapport, and trust with local staff.  It can be.  Language is the number one barrier in most schools. We don’t speak the local language and struggle to connect with the local staff.  However, language is only one barrier.  We can learn the local language, or at least some of it to break down barriers.  But we will likely never be fluent in the local language.  While this will continue to be a barrier, we can work to build rapport and trust by making attempts to use some local language.  This is only one barrier, and in my opinion not as big as we might think.

            Our attitude towards the people we work alongside is far more important than just language.  If we treat the local culture as less than ours, we will never truly build rapport and positive relationships with the people we work with.  I have heard the phrase “ugly American” in many places I have worked and visited.  It is not a positive phrase and rightly given due to the actions of some Americans with a specific attitude living or visiting abroad.  We want to avoid treating others poorly just because we think we do things better in our country.  We are guests in another country and must respect that.  Even though we may not agree with what we observe, we need to work within their system to make changes rather than work within our context.

            Cultural context and expectations become much more important when working with locally hired staff.  If we attempt to do things according to our own cultural context we are likely to run into challenges as we do not do things according to the country we are working.  This can create cultural divisions and increase levels of distrust with the people we work with.  The appearance is that we are imposing our beliefs and values on a system that operates differently.  I have found a willingness to work within the cultural context of the country we reside is valued and increases the level of trust and willingness to work with one as a person. 

            The example I gave at the beginning was an actual example.  The staff member I worked with did want to work with me.  However, I was asking him something that needed to be asked in a different way.  The greatest gift he gave me that day was explaining to me how to ask for assistance for that issue and others in the future.  When I left the school, he shared with me, years later, that he appreciated that I knew how to work with him and his staff as many people did not learn how to do that.

            Building rapport with people you work with and building trust in any context is important and, in many cases, critical.  In my experience, speaking with people, taking time to listen, setting clear expectations and following through are the critical pieces for building trust in any culture.  However, once we leave the comfort of our own culture, we must recognize that there are different rules for how things happen and how these relationships develop.  We must be willing to step outside our own context and acknowledge that things work differently than we might know.  If we wish to build trust, we must be aware of our own lack of knowledge of the culture we work in, accept that we operate differently, then learn how to operate within the context of the country we are working.  Too often, we are quick to notice differences as faults.  In this case, acknowledging that our differences can be strengths if we are willing to be open and learn from those, we work with is the key.

            I hope as you work within your school setting that you build positive, healthy relationships with local staff.  Commit to learning more about them and how the structure of leadership works within their context so that you can be more effective in your leadership.  This will pay dividends in the long run towards building trust.  If you commit to this piece, and work within the leadership structure of the organization, this will increase trust between you and the staff you work with.

            Feel free to contact us if you are interested in our insight on this or any of the topics we write about.

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