Realising you are the problem

Realising you are the problem:
A necessary, rewarding (somewhat embarrassing) process.

I work for a local Christian NGO that provides ongoing extended-family and foster care for Cambodian kids. One of our most helpful tools is the case management and record-keeping software package we’ve developed and nicknamed OSCaR. The initial concept for OSCaR was simple but ambitious: create a system that would facilitate strong case management and case-noting, reinforce those processes for our staff, and store client information naturally in an easy-to-use database for program revision and reporting. All this was to be done in English and Khmer.

Having worked on the original design of OSCaR, I had grown increasingly protective of it—not out of some misplaced sense of ego (at least, not entirely!), but out of a desire to make it as successful as possible. I wasn’t really aware, though, that I was holding too tightly onto the project and preventing others from contributing as much as they could. This was especially a problem for the newest member of our team.

Sokly came on board the OSCaR team at Children in Families (CIF) about a year ago as our Technical Liaison, that is, the person who was to help with our communications with our software development company.

Like all new employees, it took Sokly a little while to figure out her place with CIF—where she could fit, how she could contribute to the team. Once she did, however, she began making suggestions and recommendations. Like many people in Cambodia, though, she was held back by something that she had very little control over: the influential foreigner she had to share office space with. Yes, that would be me. She hadn’t really had a chance to prove herself, but with me hanging on to things so tightly, how could she?

Just recently, Sokly asked me directly to help her integrate more with our development team by advocating for her to spend more time with the developer. Culturally, as a woman speaking to a man, as a Khmer person speaking to a foreigner, as an employee speaking to a supervisor, that was incredibly challenging for her. Fortunately, I did what she asked, and she has started communicating with the software developers directly every week. She coordinates our team to work out our priorities for development, then gives that information to the developers.

That took a job away from me, which was a blessing since I was feeling pretty over-stretched with everything on my plate. I didn’t anticipate, however, how much our work process would improve as well. Our developer is now more efficient and new features are being completed more quickly and accurately. Even our software project manager is much clearer about their work priorities now that they have such a definite model to follow.

Everyone has been really nice about it, of course; no-one has said, “Wow Chris, things are going much better now that you’re not constantly managing every little element of this project”. My team are gracious people, not just competent ones!

Still, it was initially painful to realise that many of my stresses over the past six months were due not just to being busy but also to my unwillingness to trust people, and my insistence on doing tasks that I’m just not that good at. But I’m glad to now be working with someone who stepped outside her cultural norms to push me to do what needed to be done. Our team is stronger as a result. Our project is going stronger as a result. And I’m a whole lot less stressed!

It’s been a privilege to contribute here, but even better to see Sokly step up and make her own important contribution.

Chris and Stacie, long-term Interserve workers, advocate for family-based care for children. Their family lives in Cambodia.