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Marketplace insights

Who's tending the fire?

Valuing the role of all workers in Native organizations

Who's performing the menial tasks in your business or organization? Well, this is a trick question because there is no such thing as a menial task in a productive organization. Every task, every job and every responsibility has purpose and should be considered important to an organization's existence. In an effective organization, operations are highly dependent on one another. Every person is valued for their contributing role. This is especially true for most Native communities and organizations as a result of their cultural dynamics.

In general, American Indian culture will promote collectiveness or communal interests over individual interests. If we did not function as a group or a collective unit, we would not have had the strength to survive the challenges or threats to our existence over time. These concepts are promoted in our culture, in our lives and in our lessons. Our Native organizations should be no different; we are made up of our beliefs and values. In most cases, they do not change based on our job titles or our role. The idea of respecting and valuing one another is an important part of our heritage.

Historically, American business culture did not always promote the idea of valuing every employee in an organization. Even as late as the 1970s, in some industries, American workers were treated little better than slaves. Today, American business has undergone some transformations - thanks in part to U.S. labor laws - but this may be a result based on more economic motives. Since we have evolved into a ''global'' society, American business and industry must act in the most efficient and competitive manner possible. In most cases, it is more cost-effective to maintain a happy, motivated work force than to deal with employee conflict and high turnover. Successful American businesses understand this.

Let's consider the distribution of power and leadership in our Native organizations. People often make the mistake of placing the greatest value on the highest-paid position in an organization: the CEO, the director or the manager. However, these individuals would not have value without their staff. They serve the interest of the organization, as does everyone else. They are as dependent on their staffs as they are depended on for guidance and direction. The best leaders and the most effective managers will recognize this. Respect and equality is something we all seek.

In understanding how and why we should maintain culturally supportive organizational structures, we must remember that many of our Native cultures believe that all things are interrelated in circular patterns: life, ceremony, time. All things are connected and dependent on one another. Our societal belief is that everyone should contribute equally to an effort in order for us to be successful, and that everyone has value. In Native organizations, we sometimes attempt to model ourselves after what we believe is a more ''appropriate'' business structure. This involves following a typical business organizational chart with many levels (or what is sometimes referred to as a ''power pyramid''); however, these structures are not conducive to most Native values and beliefs. They place the power at the top and do not share a sense of equality among workers. Even modern management theorists believe this is ineffective in the development and progression of a successful organization.

There are many benefits to developing and promoting a balanced organization. It is important to make all employees feel equally valued and respected. Seeking a fair balance among all members can be both challenging and rewarding for most businesses and organizations. We should learn to identify organizational dynamics that are compatible with our cultural principles and good business practices as well. Appreciating and recognizing all members of our organization is important.

Peace and harmony among workers can go a long way in the quality or outcome of our product or service. For business, it can be measured in the bottom line. But for nonprofits or government organizations, the benefits may be a little more abstract. Either way, balanced organizations are important for successful business and tribal development.

Lucinda Hughes-Juan has many years of teaching and training in the fields of business and management, with a focus on the cultural dynamics in Native businesses and organizations. She is an enrolled member of the Tohono O'odham Nation. She holds an MBA in global management, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in business and organizational management. E-mail her at MLS8090@aol.com.