This is an admittedly difficult subject to write about, especially in a public arena. My hope is to communicate a sensitive subject that could be misconstrued by readers from different cultures, whether they are Western or Ethiopian. So I pray for grace and humility. Ultimately, my reason for writing this is to request for prayer that God would grant me His love, grace and wisdom to faithfully carry out what He wants me to do.

Since taking over leadership positions with the surgical residency and as the medical director, I now find myself dealing with lots of conflict resolution. Sometimes it is conflict between people and systems and sometimes it is between people and people. Sometimes there are problems between people of equal status or positions and sometimes the people are of higher or lower status or positions. In all cases, though, the resolution is rarely easy.

The greatest challenge comes from cultural ignorance. The whole process seems kind of crazy and doomed to failure when everyone seems to understand the unwritten rules except the arbitrator. It’s kind of like two soccer players getting into an argument about the game and calling on a baseball referee to make the call. The referee may understand some basic principles that are essentially universal across sports but he is forced to look at soccer through baseball lenses and the outcome would probably not be ideal.

So issues of conflict arise from all possible combinations of parties and I basically don’t understand the rules of what is right and what is wrong. When I apply the rules I understand from my own cultural background, the results are often ugly. I find myself very reliant on wisdom from other Ethiopians but they themselves still want me to make the call. There have been many instances where an Ethiopian presents a problem to me and seems fairly disappointed when my first response is, “What do you think we should do?” Of course, the disappointment grows even further when I’m finally pushed to give my opinion.

The whole process is made further onerous when emotions are thrown in. From what I’ve learned so far, it seems that Ethiopians don’t engage in direct one-on-one conflict very often, whether it be of a personal nature or professional. The route for such engagement seems to flow through positions of authority. You don’t talk with the person; you take it to the boss. Now, coming from the American setting, I am familiar with such a view point when the conflict is professional. I’m used to it and I expect it. However, this is quite foreign to me from a personal level. What really makes the situation volatile, though, is the American viewpoint of how personal issues ought to be dealt with, namely mano-a-mano (man-to-man, for those unfamiliar with the phrase). This is true across the board but even more so with literal males. There is a sense of weakness when people can’t handle their personal issues and have to take it to a third party. And it’s even more pronounced when males are involved.

Now, there may be some element of this in many cultures, but I suspect there is a distribution regarding how much; sort of a bell curve. I would suspect that Americans are near the upper end of that bell curve of all cultures. As if it were needed, however, my situation is even further complicated in that, among the distribution of this effect even within the American setting, which is on the high end of all cultures, I personally am near the high end of even the American bell curve. When one man comes to me to complain about how another man is mean to him or doesn’t respect him, my first instinct isn’t to say, “Hmm, that’s tragic! Let’s talk about it.” My first instinct is to slap him and to tell him act like a man and deal with it.

Let me be quick to say that this is not a good or admirable instinct, nor even Christian. But unfortunately it does describe the bend in my fallen heart. On the other hand, I’m not saying that the Ethiopian understanding of conflict resolution is ideal either. The real challenge is discerning the ways that honor God and submit to His authority as defined by scripture.

But it also unfortunately describes a bit of my day-to-day difficulties as a leader in a hospital and a surgical residency. (As an aside, the American surgical residency is one of the more entrenched environments of the ‘suck it up and be a man’ mentality.) So, whether I’m hearing complaints about how the hospital is treating employees or employees are treating employees or the residency is treating residents or residents are treating residents or general practitioners are treating residents or residents are treating general practitioners or any iteration thereof, I’m struggling constantly with my instincts to do the right thing.

There are other difficulties as well. Westerners are used to receiving policies and decisions from positions of leadership with fairly little fuss. If a manager comes up with a policy, a memo is sent out and that’s usually the end of it. Not so in this country. While this does seem to be generally accepted from federal decisions, local leaders simply cannot pull this off. Even for issues that seem trivial to me, it is expected that there should be plenty of time to allow for discussion, for each person to make their voice heard and, in general, for a consensus to be reached. It’s very difficult for me to get used to this and know how to function properly in it.

Additionally, Westerners are used to having a fairly crisp division between professional and personal issues. We can disagree on professional issues, and sometimes harshly, but still have no personal rift. This doesn’t seem to be the case here. It makes the waters much more treacherous for a direct, American style of leadership.

There are others but I’ll stop at that. So… please pray that I’ll be a good leader here. And what I mean by that is that I’ll honor God and bring glory to Him in my actions, words and attitudes.

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