When out of balance and in distress, weird things may happen. Particularly, when working in unfamiliar circumstances, e.g. in a different cultural environment.
Lucy, a German development worker, worked in Africa in an NGO. She had taken up the idea to introduce a planning schedule to plan the various activities and shifts of colleagues. This schedule would give an overall insight in who was doing what, where and when. Lucy had done her best explaining the ideas behind this concept and gone to great lengths clarifying benefits and possibilities. Yet, in the weeks after its introduction, the local staff did not seem to come to grips with Lucy’s schedule. It wasn’t filled in the way Lucy had intended. Lucy was frantic about the lack of results so far. She blamed the local staff for lack of capacities and unwillingness.
Obsessed with the idea and in an ultimate attempt to introduce the planning schedule, she called for a meeting. Again, she explained the concept and she said to her African colleagues: ‘Well okay, I presume the concept is clear by now. I am now going to leave the room and leave you to work with the schedule and fill in next week’s activities. I am going to lock the door and when I come back I expect this to be ready.’
She left and indeed locked the door, leaving the local staff flabbergasted and in shock. It turned out, they were locked in for almost two hours.
Needless to say, the relationship between Lucy and the local staff was seriously hampered by this incident. And Lucy? She was angry, desperate and still putting the blame on her African colleagues.
It was only when she had distanced herself from the situation that she dared to look at her own share. Finally, she was able to reflect on the situation. She admitted: ‘I was stressed, completely out of balance, preoccupied with my own ideas, perceptions and goals. I was no longer able to respectfully deal with other people’s background, needs and perceptions.’
The incident proved a valuable lesson to Lucy. By talking about it with a professional, she learned a lot about herself and about the way she reacts in stressful situations. She also learned a lot about working in another cultural setting. And it helped her to become aware of the signals that indicate she’s losing balance.