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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

Supervision and Cultural Differences

cultural difference (animals)Performance management conversations are inherently difficult. It is just hard to talk with another about failed expectations. When the supervisor and employee don’t share similar cultural backgrounds, these conversations can be treacherous.

Race is not easy to talk about. Neither are differences in expectations that arise from gender, age or ethnicity. Cultural differences may include disparate expectations about the use of power and authority, approaches to communication and decision making, the nature of time, the use of personal space, the expression of work ethic, and more.

Supervision should promote the inherent capacities of all employees, not just those with whom we share a worldview. At the same time, supervision should promote a culture of accountability for all employees. How can we negotiate supervision across tricky cultural divides?

A Failure to Lead

Increasingly, I encounter supervisors who are afraid to set expectations and offer feedback, particularly where differences in race, ethnicity, age or gender are involved.

Supervisors aren’t certain that they have the “right” to establish performance expectations- even when the organization has given them clear authority to do so. Supervisors aren’t comfortable demanding accountability against performance standards they fear may be too mainstream, patriarchal or white. Supervisors don’t want to be culturally insensitive and are afraid of the backlash that a charge of racism, sexism or ageism might produce.

Here’s the problem: failure to supervise exacerbates the cultural divide. If we establish performance expectations and create accountability for every member of our staff team except the person who is “other,” then we are being racist (or sexist or ageist.) We are embodying the very thing we are most fearful of becoming. We must get over our fear and learn how to have better conversations with one another about performance expectations and accountability.

When we fail to supervise, we deny the employee an opportunity to prove their worth in the role. When we don’t share our unspoken expectations and disappointments, we deny the employee the opportunity to satisfy our expectations. We undermine the employee’s potential to succeed and be of value to the organization.

More Frequent Crucial Conversations

Culturally sensitive supervision requires frequent and ongoing communication. Conversation is the foundation of accountability. Through conversation, we manage mutual disappointments, failed promises, and unmet expectations. The conversation may begin with, “I expected this, but you did that? Why didn’t you do what I expected you to do?” But an effective supervisor goes on to explore the limitations and biases of unstated assumptions: “Why did I assume that you should act in that way?”

An employee doesn’t have a right to an equal voice in the setting of expectations. The supervisor speaks and acts on behalf of the organization and its mission. To honor the employment relationship, the employee must ultimately satisfy the employer’s expectations as articulated by the supervisor, whether they agree or not. If an employee fails to satisfy those expectations, the supervisory relationship has failed as well.

However, the supervisor doesn’t have a right to expect unquestioning submission or agreement from an employee. Crucial conversations require both parties to explore their differing cultural assumptions and correct any misunderstandings these create in supervisory communication.

Separate Expectation Setting from Feedback

We sometimes get into trouble as supervisors when we try to combine expectation-setting and feedback into the same conversation. “You didn’t do a good job of communicating with the volunteers in your program area this year.” If you haven’t already established what effective communication and good volunteer management look like, then such feedback can lead to a contentious conversation: “Why aren’t you giving me credit for all the wonderful things I did do?”

Before we offer feedback about joys or disappointments, we need to gain clarity on three basic sets of expectations for every employee:

  • What are the duties and tasks that satisfy the basic expectations of this role? Every role on your staff team should be described in eight to ten broad outcome statements that describe the essential functions of the role.
  • What are the behavioral traits, characteristics and attributes the employee must demonstrate as they engage the essential functions? These are called the core competencies of the role. Perhaps the employee is expected to demonstrate personal resilience, effective time management, a collaborative spirit, and a team orientation. The supervisor must define each of these competencies using clear and concrete language that helps the employee understand how they are going to be evaluated.
  • Where should the employee focus their energies? Where should they be investing available time and resources? This question can be addressed by setting individual performance goals that align the energy of the staff member with the strategic goals of the congregation.

These conversations, in which we clarify expectations, allow us to explore potential biases. For example, a supervisor who wants an employee to demonstrate “team orientation” might offer the following definition:

Team orientation: demonstrates interest, skill and success in team environments; places group goals ahead of personal agendas; steps up to offer self as a resource to other members of the team; understands and supports the importance of teamwork; shares credit for success with others.

The clarity of this definition allows the employee to see that offering herself as a resource to others is valued in this context. The supervisor and employee may discuss how counter this expectation is to the employee’s natural orientation to sit back and wait to be asked to contribute. Together, they can evaluate whether this definition needs to be altered because it is culturally biased, stacked against the cultural background of the employee.

Focus on Outcomes Not Methods

Supervisors sometimes exacerbate problems related to cultural difference by confusing outcomes with methodology. An outcome is the specific changed condition or level of functioning that the employee is expected to produce in the organization. The methodology is how the employee approaches producing the outcome.

A supervisor should be primarily invested in clarifying outcomes, leaving methods to the discretion of the employee, provided that the approach chosen by the employee honors the team’s core values and demonstrates the core competencies of the role. A supervisor should only focus on methodology when a chosen method detracts from achieving the outcomes.

For example, David’s behavior around work hours and time management are very different from the rest of the staff team. David is often late for staff meetings and it is sometimes difficult to find him during the work day. David works hard but isn’t particularly invested in looking busy or honoring arbitrary start and stop times in his work day. David’s supervisor finds this trait annoying and interprets his behavior as a sign of disrespect for the time of other staff members. David intends no disrespect, but he operates with a different orientation towards time.

If David’s approach to time management has no discernable impact on his or the team’s effectiveness, then the supervisor should ignore the behavioral difference. If the behavior negatively affects expected outcomes, the conversation should happen but needs to be focused primarily on those outcomes.

The supervisor might say, “David, last week you missed the first thirty minutes of staff meeting, when we discussed the planned usage of rooms during Vacation Bible School. Then you mistakenly took the youth group into one of the rooms we had reserved. This action on your part caused confusion among parents, teachers and youth. It also created embarrassment for the staff team because it appeared that we were poorly prepared and disorganized. In the future, I expect you to be present for the full staff meeting so that you don’t miss the important exchange of information that happens in our meetings.”

Cultural differences are rife with opportunity for building self-awareness and enhancing team strength. We need not shy away from the difficult conversations that help to shape expectations and invite accountability. We do need greater intentionality and a few clear guidelines to pilot us on our way.


Susan Beaumont specializes in the unique leadership needs of large churches and synagogues. Her areas of expertise include staff team health, strategic planning, size transitions, pastoral transitions and adaptive leadership. She is the author of the Alban book Inside the Large Congregation.[/box]

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