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Keys to Success in Cross-Cultural Work – Understanding Your Role

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Role clarity is important in many aspects of life.  Whether in our vocation, in our community, or in our families, understanding what role we play is critical.  This includes not only what role we want to play, but also what role is expected of us by others.  This is also true when it comes to cross-cultural work.  If we don’t understand the role we are to play, we can easily overstep and cause not only confusion, but also conflict.

Often in cross-cultural situations, clearly defining a role can be challenging.  This could be due to language or cultural differences, or it can be a result of differences in expectations or life experiences.  Doing the work of getting to a clearly-defined understanding of a role will pay dividends in the long run, both in terms of effectiveness and satisfaction with the experience.

There are a lot of different roles we can play with regard to serving in cross-cultural scenarios.  One possible role in which we can serve cross-culturally is “subject matter expert.”  This is typically an area in which we may have extensive experience or education that gives us credibility to speak with authority in a particular area (i.e., construction, teaching, finance management, or information technology).

Other roles may be less related to vocation and more related to willingness to help, such as being an advocate or resource person to others, working with refugees, or serving homeless people.  This kind of role often does not require us to be experts in any one area, but rather to be able to connect those for whom we are advocating to others who may be experts in relevant areas.

While there are many things to consider with regard to roles when working cross-culturally, let’s examine four crucial areas that can help lead us to better relationships and project success.

1) Boundaries and limitations.

One key to success when determining roles while working cross-culturally is to understand the boundaries or limitations of the role we might play.  For example, a subject matter expert may be skilled in a particular area, but that does not mean they are experts at everything.  Nor should they be.  Just because someone is highly successful in one area of their life (i.e., their profession) does not make them experts in all areas of life.  In fact, that is most frequently not the case.  Often, out of a desire to help, they may be tempted or willing to do things that fall outside their expertise.  This can be risky and may even become a source of tension.  The better option is to restrain ourselves to the areas of our true expertise. We should be clear to those with whom we are engaging about the limits we perceive for ourselves, as well as our ability to contribute to the need effectively.

2) Abandon the “fix-it” mentality. Collaborate!

In addition to determining boundaries and limits, we must understand that our cross-cultural role is never to ‘fix’ the person, the culture or perhaps even the situation itself.  Rarely is simply fixing the person or problem the best solution.  Rather, we should be working together with those from other cultures, adding what we know together with what they know to find the best solution.  In other words, we have to be careful not to assume our way is the best way and to simply do it for them, but rather to collaborate.  This can be time consuming and at times frustrating, but in the end it produces a better long-term result.  It also creates a sense of ownership for the others involved.

3) Reproduction mindset.

A third area related to understanding our role is to have a clear end in mind.  What does success look like?  When do we know we are done or have done enough?  How and when do we disengage?  This may require planning to train others within the culture to be able to do what we initially did as a way of working yourself out of a job in that context.  Let’s aim to reproduce our own expertise in ways that are culturally relevant and will expand the work of the Church in a new culture and in a new, effective way.

4) Focus on dignity.

Finally, we must be careful to understand that part of our role in a cross-cultural situation is to restore or retain the dignity of others.  Depending on the situation, it may be easy to perceive those in the host culture as being somehow less than ourselves.  We may inaccurately think that they are in a mess and need our help because we have our lives together.  Nothing could be further from the truth! Condescension crosses language barriers very easily.  Be careful to restore or retain the dignity of the other person or culture with which you are engaging.  All of us, globally, were created by the same God, in His image, and therefore we all deserve to be treated with dignity, love, and compassion.

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