October 27, 2019|Bullying, Colonialism, Compliance, Harassment, Human Resources, Indigenous, TRC 92 (ii), Workplace Respect

Company Leaders are Oft’ Dropped into the Ocean Without Compass

Many managers are not fully aware of the root causes of their organization’s decision to create an Indigenous Relations position or portfolio. All they see at first are requirements within a client’s request for a proposal to engage with and hire Indigenous members of a community; key performance indicators weaved into contract administration to report on the numbers of people hired and on the number and value of subcontracts let.

Some may be vaguely aware of the project regulatory requirements from which socioeconomic project conditions may be directly inherited. The terms are usually negotiated by and between the project proponent and those directly affected communities, under varying levels of the federal government or regulatory supervision (or lack thereof). 

If that remains to be the full extent of the managers’ understanding, what ensues is a corporate direction lacking vision, normally resulting in awkward attempts at rudimentary “beads and feathers” exercises to procure a check-the-box understanding of a culture, usually accompanied with underlying resentments towards the perceived-to-be misplaced preferential treatment given to First Nation, Metis, and Inuit communities. 

After a while, the manager notices that fostering and maintaining these relationships takes time and resources and often travels to remote locations. The task is too big for anyone to run from the “corner of their desk.” This is how one feels, whilst there is a lack of understanding of the “why” and a lack of appreciation of the larger picture and importance of the relationship. 

Eventually, that part of the senior leaders’ portfolio becomes an irritant. Sadly, it is often under these circumstances that the process of delegation ensues.

Selection and Placement on the Org Chart

Once an organization decides to recruit an Indigenous Relations resource, the selection criteria are often initially driven based on several potential attributes such as:

  • capacity for relationship building, 
  • reflecting the representation of a particular group or community, and
  •  level of position and compensation level (how much does the organization want to invest in this). 

Often the exercise fails to source someone:

  • a representative of and/or with intimate knowledge of the sources, history and communal experience of colonialism,
  • with an understanding of the ongoing inequity, barriers, intergenerational harm both generally in Canada and with the communities directly involved, together with
  • the skill and experience required to operate and effectively navigate corporate organization structures.

This is a tall order, indeed. It must be noted that often those who have the aforementioned skills have likely overcome tremendous barriers themselves and may have their own trauma stories (we will touch on this again later). 

The good news is that choosing to walk this path will introduce leaders to some of the most amazing, strong people they will ever meet. Once onboarded, Indigenous staff/leaders will need significant direct leadership support and the whole organization’s support. It must be noted that unlike safety, which over years and years has become embedded and ingrained into the fabric of organizational culture, with safety representatives providing primarily educational and technical support; Indigenous relations resources are at first, in a sense, behind enemy lines and face hostility when attempting to introduce the required changes. 

Where an Indigenous resource is installed into an organization as a dedicated but isolated resource, that resource must have a direct or at least a dotted-line reporting relationship to executive leadership levels. They must have open and ongoing access to this support. We can point to examples where Indigenous relations resources have been successful without this direct support. Still, those individuals and circumstances are remarkable – as most will agree, repeatable success cannot bank on the remarkable. Therefore, we recommend installing the executive-level supports upfront. To emphasize this point, the following describes what happens to resources installed absent such supports.

Who in Their Right Mind Would Want Their Organisation to Run Like This?

Because of the unintended consequences and potential further harm caused by getting it wrong, it’s worth investing in understanding where most organizations are and how they start this journey. Certain of the challenges are unavoidable parts of the process,

and certain of the missteps we’ve noticed, have been self-imposed.

Most organizations are not capable of going directly into an embedded/integrated reconciliation result; most organizations are large enough that it is going to take a cultural shift. Similar to how the safety culture eventually became weaved into the fabric of most modern management systems, heavy lifting is required by the subject matter expert(s), Indigenous peoples themselves, with executive support. Before it becomes decentralized, it must start with a dedicated resource, which typically means it is a resource that moves along-side and among departmental areas cross-functionally. 

While this makes the individual nimble, it also can make the Indigenous staff/leader isolated and exposed to organizational friction and interpersonal hostility.  

Literature supports the notion that where individuals have experienced trauma in their life, potential health impacts associated with prolonged interpersonal hostility at work may be exacerbated more so – absent supports. Recall that there is likely a correlation due to existing present-day colonial forces and intergenerational trauma, trauma that many subject matter experts secured as the organization’s Indigenous relations resource has faced and may continue to face. So if the Indigenous relations resource is without supports, while in prolonged hostile and socially isolated environments, that individual’s sympathetic nervous system takes over, creating real psychological and physiological effects that inhibit their digestive system and increases their heart rate, leading to an over-activated nervous system which is associated with:

  1. emotions of fear and rage
  2. enhanced negative psychological bias
  3. increased attention to negative stimuli, and
  4.  perception of ambiguous situations as negative 

Essentially Indigenous peoples may exist in a fight or flight state of being while at work when that workplace is hostile. If much of a person’s time is spent over-activated in this sympathetic state, it taxes the nervous system. Eventually, the person will crash. While in a “crashed” state, emotions of blame and depression may dominate. Without intervention, this leads to health concerns, behaviour concerns and ultimately turnover of its Indigenous relations resource. This all likely leads to a one step forward, two steps back level of progress on developing a supportive reconciliation culture.

What leader in their right mind would intentionally roll-out a plan that would lend itself to this result? In our experience, none. And further, good leaders have a genuine interest in protecting and supporting their people. 

Some Less Than Obvious Supports

Senior leadership can support by shouldering some of the burdens of overcoming change inertia by visibly sponsoring broad-based and meaningful culture awareness training (like the KAIROS blanket exercise) followed by setting the clear tone of where the leadership wants to take the organization while ensuring Indigenous staff/leaders are the resources to help achieve that objective. This will help reduce unnecessary friction at the outset.

Frequent meetings with the Indigenous staff/leader is recommended. Don’t rely solely on the individual initiating meetings with senior leaders. Use the early meetings to establish a supportive rapport before there are major issues.

Make space to attend to holistic needs and encourage the person to book focus/decompression time. The Indigenous staff/leaders’ office and surrounding area (to and from the office) must be a safe place to offer meaningful exchanges with others at work.

Encourage attendance at conferences and workshops. The organization’s Indigenous relations resource may feel isolated and alone. Offering opportunities to attend conferences and workshops will allow for resetting of perspective, refocus and recharge as the person gets to spend time with colleagues who understand precisely what they are going through.