As a small, international nonprofit serving an Indigenous population in Guatemala, we believe that our success is directly related to how much we value the people that make up our organization as they create positive outcomes for entire communities.
By Carolyn Daly
Of course there are the obvious ways you can show staff that they're valued: fair pay, generous benefits, praise for a job well done. But these things should be the bare minimum and they aren’t enough. At Mil Milagros, there are 5 specific ways we show employees that we value them as they are and for what they bring to our organization:
1. Remove formal titles
By this, I don’t mean that we don’t have job titles or specific position descriptions. We do. But in Guatemala, as in the United States and elsewhere, there are titles like Mrs. (Doña), Dr. (Doctor/a) and Counselor (Licenciado/a). What we have found in our organization is that these titles come with varying degrees of reverence and expectations from others. So, we’ve created an internal policy that we use a person’s first name when addressing them or speaking about them.
When we first hired former program participants, they would call the rest of the staff Seño (a term for an educator) and the staff would call them Doña (or Mrs.). Although the formality was supposed to be one of respect, we noticed that this brought certain expectations to relationships. The new staff members felt as if they were there to learn and they were wives and mothers first. Instead of being respectful and appropriate, we found it made it difficult for the new employees to see themselves as women who could suggest changes, give constructive feedback, and be teachers for others.
When we created the policy, we did it as an experiment. At first it was difficult to change ways that we addressed people. We made mistakes. We complained. And we got over it.
Within a few weeks, we were all using each other’s first names and no one felt pigeon-holed by a title that society had given them. One staff member said, “I thought it was going to be so hard to change. And disrespectful. But it actually feels more respectful because we are all on the same level and can teach each other and learn from each other.”
2. Eliminate education requirements
Finally, we are beginning to have the conversation in the United States about how education requirements on job descriptions are often discriminatory. In Guatemala, we have found this to apply as well. When a job requires a high school diploma or a generic college degree, what skills are actually being measured by these pieces of paper? And who are you eliminating as a candidate with these requirements? Instead of requiring a certain level of education, what would happen if you required specific skills and qualities and left the education requirement off?
Well, in our case, it opened the door to Indigenous Maya women who not only were part of our constituent base, but had the passion, skills, and knowledge to be successful in their positions. Some have a high school diploma, others have a first grade education. And you know what? Unless they tell me about it, I don’t usually know (or care) how much formal education each employee has. When they are considered for a promotion to a new position, we consider their skills, growth, and passion, not years of schooling or diplomas received.
Are there some positions that require a specific degree? Of course. If a medical organization or hospital is looking for a brain surgeon, she should probably have graduated from medical school. But if you are looking for an educator for a school-based program, I’d argue that our Community Coordinators - few of whom have received degrees as teachers - have the skills, knowledge, and passion required to excel, maybe more than some certified teachers.
3. Encourage decision making at all levels
Many organizations do lip service to this value. There are studies that show that autonomy is correlated with higher job satisfaction. But how many organizations put a process into place to ensure that decision making is rewarded and encouraged? Not many.
When we noticed that employees were scared to make decisions, our leadership consultant suggested implementing a stoplight system and we haven’t looked back. Every quarter, staff members review their stoplight with their supervisors. Decisions that are in the green section are decisions that the staff member feels confident to make on their own. Decisions in the yellow section are decisions that the staff member can bring a proposed solution to their supervisor and share in the decision making. Decisions in the red section are emergency situations that require immediate escalation.
For us, there are two things that make this model successful. The first is that it provides a shared language to talk about decision making. You’ll hear supervisors say, “That’s a green light decision,” which means that the staff person can use their best judgment to make the decision. The second reason this is successful is that every staff person knows that the goal is to have a majority of the decisions in the green section, so we are demonstrating how much we value employees’ experience and judgment in making sound decisions.
4. Be mindful of power dynamics
When I am with our staff in Guatemala, there is an elephant in the room. I am a white cis female and our entire staff in Guatemala is latina with the vast majority of them identifying as Indigenous Maya. In addition, there is a deep-rooted respect for hierarchical structures in Guatemala. So, if I have an opinion and voice it with authority, it’s likely that all heads will nod and no questions will be asked. In order for me to show that I value the life experience, skills, and opinions of our staff, I need to be mindful of these power dynamics and actively work to check my privilege.
Mid-2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines finally became available to the public in Guatemala. Everything in me wanted to scream, “Go get vaccinated! Take time off work! Get your whole family vaccinated!” to each employee. But I knew I needed to slow myself down.
When I spoke with employees, they were uncomfortable with the vaccine, unsure about whether they wanted to be vaccinated, and just plain scared. We had a team meeting and I asked them what some of the fears they or their families had about the vaccine. They shared, “People think the government is trying to sterilize us so the indigenous population will die off.” “Americans have done tests on Guatemalans before and made them sick. How do we know this isn’t happening again?” “The government has switched out actual vaccines for the virus and they are trying to get us sick.”
If you know Guatemala’s history, these fears seem less like conspiracy theories and more like fears rooted in a traumatic history for the Indigenous Maya. Our staff chose to have an information session about the vaccine where they would learn what it was and wasn’t, ask questions, and share concerns. After that session, I made it clear that every staff member could choose whether they were going to be vaccinated - that there might be consequences for their decisions in schools or communities, but not within our organization - and they could choose how they wanted to share the information with the communities where we work.
They chose to share the information they learned with their communities, in K’iche’, their native language, and allow community members to make their own decisions. A month after our educational video and podcast aired, the municipality where our staff lives and works boasted one of the highest vaccination rates in the country.
In this situation, the team’s shared decision aligned with my desire but that doesn’t always happen. In fact, more and more often they are feeling comfortable countering a suggestion that I make with opinions that reflect their experiences and that of their communities. And I couldn’t be happier when that happens.
5. Give them a platform to shine!
If you really value what your employees bring to the organization, give them a platform to demonstrate it! It is important for employees to know the value of their skills and hear from their supervisors the value that they bring to the organization. It is just as important that we provide opportunities for employees to demonstrate that value to others as well.
In the early stages of the pandemic, our team decided to create educational videos to share on the local cable station. We were focusing on how we could continue to educate community members without sacrificing safety, but something incredible happened. Not only were we accomplishing our goals to educate but our staff were being seen on TV by more than 30,000 people. They were getting recognized at the market and seen as leaders in health education.
Recently, I asked staff members to present to our Board of Directors at a meeting. I wanted the board to get to know more staff members and hear directly from them the accomplishments in their programs. Board members were impressed and staff were proud. The opportunity to shine can be an internal one and still be an important way to show staff that you value them.
If you are an organization leader or an aspiring one, I challenge you to implement at least one of these in your organization. I’d be willing to bet that you’ll see the value in it, too!
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“I love seeing the light turn on for the mothers and for them to make changes at home. They start to pay more attention to how they are raising their children or what the hygiene is like in the home.”
“Mil Milagros and Parenting Journey have completely changed our community. We are so grateful that you are here." Mothers in rural Guatemala improve their self-esteem and parenting skills by participating in this life-changing program.
Acompañamiento, solidaridad, confianza, comunicación abierta. These are words the Mil Milagros team uses daily to talk about our work. Because we’re a multilingual organization and our supporter community spans the globe, we’d like to try to bridge the geographical and linguistic gaps and break down what these words mean to our organization, our staff, and our communities in rural Guatemala: