There’s strength in diversity. Different perspectives bring new insights, benefits and relationships. They can also bring challenges. A team of translators at King County Elections experienced this, and decided to overcome it, with great success.
“They come from four different countries and each one speaks a different language,” said Elections Supervisor Jacque Larrainzar. “Each of them has a different culture and way of looking at the world.”
The interpreters have backgrounds from Mexico, Korea, Vietnam and China. At a recent staff meeting, these differences became more apparent when Jacque asked her team to define respect. The answers were as varied as the people, and prompted an exciting discussion between several staff.
“As I was watching, I realized they were talking about the same thing, but they had different cultural lenses and that’s why there was a disconnect,” said Jacque.
When a staff member in the group recommended everyone participate in a series of training videos about cultural competence and cultural awareness on the KC eLearning website, Jacque agreed.
“We watched this training together and had a conversation about why conflict happens when you have such a diverse group of people,” she said.
“There’s a quote in the video about how conflict is usually due 99 percent to cultural differences and one percent to the actual disagreement.”
Jacque and her team watched the videos together, and separately, to help communicate about and explore these differences. They completed some of the suggested training exercises and found them useful in helping to work better together.
“We did these exercises about what support would look like for each of us,” said Jacque. “We even created this little sign in our cubicle that says ‘this is how I look when I need support’ or ‘this is how I look when I am not at my best’.”
Through this process the group discovered they all have a passion for tea and enjoy food. They have begun to use this to build relationships and share with one another.
“One of our team members went to her hometown in Vietnam and brought tea from her trip to all of us,” explained Jacque.
These changes have added up to really positive results for the group. As the sole translators for all elections materials, deadlines can be tight, with each team member experiencing a lot of pressure. Through these trainings, the group has been able to reduce stress and friction between coworkers, channeling energy into more positive outcomes. For example, the team recently translated all print materials and the online webpage into Spanish and Korean, in a shorter period of time than expected because of how well they are working together.
Jacque has been with King County since June 2016, and recognizes the impact these cultural trainings have had on her work.
“It’s helpful for me as a supervisor because I can let them know how I am when I’m stressed, and they understand me,” she said. “And also I can do the same. I actually know the signs they are stressed and can offer a cup of tea, a snack, or a walk.”
“I can say it’s ok, go take your break.”
With the changing demographics of King County, it’s important to empower staff to respond in culturally and racially appropriate ways. Jacque and her team are glad King County provides easily accessible trainings and resources to help managers, supervisors and others understand how to better engage with their employees.
“I really am grateful to the County for bringing these tools to us and making them easy to use,” said Jacque. “Even though we all speak the same language – English – and everyone is an expert in their language and community, now they feel comfortable in asking to move a deadline, get support and be flexible.”
The entire team recently celebrated Chinese New Year on January 27 by sharing food, clothing and personal items from each of their cultures with the entire department. Additionally, each team member created a display about the languages served in King County, the history of those communities, the facts on voter turnout and how many elected officials represented those cultures. The informal event was so popular, the team hopes to host it annually. It helped to bring together the group, and introduce them, and their successes, to the department.
“The amazing thing is it also helped my program to host everybody in the department to create some awareness in a really fun way,” said Jacque. “We still have a lot of work to do but my team is amazing.”