Navigating Cultural Complexities in Fragile Environments

The past few weeks I have been designing a workshop targeted for staff who will be working in what are classified to be fragile, conflictual and violent countries. While every cultural workshop I design is unique for each client, how to adequately prepare people for the rigors of working in volatile environments brings intercultural competency to a new level. Beyond the challenges one typically encounters due to differences in values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors, staff working in fragile environments have to deal with heightened stressors due to ethnic groups in conflict, extreme levels of poverty, security issues, threats of violence in daily life, the collapse of political infrastructures, outbreaks of major epidemics, and daily interactions with people who have suffered traumas that most of us would find unimaginable.

Given my lack of personal experience working in this type of climate, I’ve been conducting interviews globally with staff who are currently working in some of these countries. The stories I’ve heard have re-shaped my thinking about cultural competency and how to best train leaders and teams working in global settings. To complement the skills I normally recommend for increased cross-cultural success, I have now added:

  1. Resilience – while working or relocating abroad often requires some grit as you navigate an entirely new way of operating on a daily basis, the stamina required for the increased mental stressors of being in a highly volatile environment go up a notch or two. While the military undoubtedly provides such training prior to combat missions, most professionals working in an office environment are ill-prepared to experience human misery at such a vast level. Mindfulness practices can be extremely helpful in these situations to mitigate anxiety and equip staff with some coping skills to stay grounded.
  2. Humility – one of the recurring comments that I heard from the people I interviewed was the importance of not imposing one’s own cultural rules and ideas of ethical conduct to “fix” whatever problem was present. Recommendations ranged from avoiding complaints about the lack of basic amenities in daily life to being willing to engage with locals to better understand underlying social, historical or political factors that may be shaping why things were done a certain way. When international staff arrive with a take-charge attitude, they can be perceived as arrogant, thereby hindering their ability to build trust. They may also unintentionally undermine the local staff’s sense of empowerment—something that is greatly needed in a fragile environment where people often feel out of control of their lives. Listening to locals can also be critical to survival if one is not used to being in such volatile conditions.
  3. Impartiality – when there is widespread ethnic or political conflict it’s impossible for these tensions to magically dissipate in the office and international staff need to be aware of their cause and effect. Taking sides or showing preferential treatment, even if it is perceived more than practiced, will quickly erode trust and an ability to foster collaboration. Taking a neutral stance and treating everyone equitably may not eradicate existing tensions but will better establish an outsider’s position of being fair. 
  4. Empathy – working in fragile environments exposes international staff to human misery on a much higher scale than they may be used to. While shutting down might seem like the safest bet to protecting oneself, taking the time to understand local colleagues’ life experiences allows for deeper understanding of circumstances they may face at work. One person I interviewed explained that she made a point of visiting the neighborhoods where her staff lived so she would have a better understanding of their daily environment and factors that might prevent them from working—such as lack of regular electricity or roads that were impassable making it difficult for them to get to work on time. Another person spoke about intentionally bringing co-workers from groups in conflict together for meals and creating safe topics for them to discuss so they could find connection around commonalities. 
  5. Tolerance for uncertainty – while this skill is important for any cross-cultural environment, for those working in fragile environments, the toil of daily life presents new challenges. Environmental factors, such as the risk of coup d’états, sudden breakouts of violence, or massive flooding due to poor infrastructure can hinder not only the ability to complete one’s assignment during the overseas posting but also impact one’s personal security. To successfully manage the ambiguity in this type of setting, it’s critical to be creative, resourceful, and extremely agile to quickly shift gears and find solutions to cope with whatever big or small calamity has arisen.

I have been humbled and inspired by the stories I’ve heard and particularly how working in these types of environments creates deeper bonds with co-workers as people are sometimes forced into situations where survival may hinge on trust and the human capacity to give to others. This project has also highlighted even more how essential intercultural training is to address the myriad challenges and needs in today’s complex world. While we interculturalists may not be able to resolve some of the world’s major conflicts or poverty, our work in bringing people together across cultural differences becomes even more relevant in fragile environments.

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Intercultural Alliances, LLC

Intercultural Alliances, LLC

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