SUMMARY: Indigenous leaders and managers of Indigenous employees provide insights and strategies to better support Indigenous employees. These teachings can be used to encourage employee confidence, engagement and well-being in any workplace.

Establishing trust

The first and most important element in supporting any new employee is building trust. Below are some tips that came from both Indigenous leaders and those who have managed new Indigenous employees successfully.

Fear of success

  • Ask each employee what they see as their future role to understand what might motivate them.
  • Consider their preferred type of recognition. This can include traditional gifts such as sweet grass pins, medicine bags, sage, food or a simple thank you.

Consider different perspectives to demonstrate respect and acceptance. For example, if someone’s auntie passes away, they may not technically be entitled to bereavement leave. But if the auntie was integral to their life, an exception could be made. Be open to listening and understanding.

  • Be patient and friendly. Build trust by taking things slowly, day by day. Start with “Hi” and build to “How are you?” Keep trying and follow through.

    Authentic leadership

  • Consider cultural differences that may be seen as disrespectful, such as prolonged eye contact or raising your voice.

    Be open to differences

  • Identify barriers to learning. Ask the individual how they learn best.
  • Look at accommodations related to trauma and distress. Don’t presume to know what is needed. Ask, where do we go from here?
  • Consider the different cultural approaches to career advancement. Some may not ask for a promotion, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t interested.

Indigenous elders and colleagues shared how the Seven Sacred Teachings and the Medicine Wheel can benefit workplace culture and employees at all levels. Using these approaches can also help build trust and support a psychologically safe workplace.

Seven Sacred Teachings at work

The Seven Sacred Teachings share a message of traditional values, hope and respect for all living things. Also known as the Seven Grandfather Teachings, they are universal to Indigenous people from coast to coast although they may be adapted according to the community’s values.

The following Seven Sacred Teachings at Work and Medicine Wheel at Work have been developed with the guidance of elders Norman and Thelma Mead. Consider discussing with your team how each of these could be translated into relevant workplace behaviours in your work environment:

ZAAGI’IDIWIN (LOVE) • We LOVE and care for each other with kindness and compassion.

e.g. We recognize when someone is having a difficult day and ask how we can support them at work.

MANAAJI’IDIWIN (RESPECT) • We have RESPECT for everyone at all levels, including ourselves.

e.g. We carefully choose the words we use to describe ourselves and those around us.

DEBWEWIN (TRUTH) • We speak only the TRUTHs we know and will be sincere in all that we say and do.

e.g. We admit when we are not sure and seek clarification from others before making assumptions.

NIBWAAKAAWIN (WISDOM) • We value and share our own WISDOM and see and recognize the wisdom of others.

e.g. Our conversations invite participation of all in brainstorming solutions.

DABASENDIZIWIN (HUMILITY) • We show HUMILITY by seeing that we are not better than anyone else and acknowledging the value of everyone’s gifts.

e.g. We leverage and value the perspectives and expertise of all team members.

ZOONGIDE’EWIN (COURAGE) • We embrace change with COURAGE and will take some risks for the collective good.

e.g. We are clear on our shared objectives and our limitations. We support innovation within this framework.

GWAYAKWAADIZIWIN (HONESTY) • We show HONESTY by accepting who we are and when we need help, and by admitting our mistakes and being responsible for our actions.

e.g. We feel safe to share our mistakes and seek input about potential solutions from our team.

Translations taken from Seven Grandfather Teachings.

Medicine Wheel at work

The Medicine Wheel, sometimes known as the Sacred Hoop or Sacred Circle, has been used by generations of Indigenous people for health, healing and teaching. Like the Seven Sacred Teachings there are many different interpretations. Using the wheel can help improve individual employee engagement and well-being.

Body: What do you need to be your best at work? Mind: Are you able to be truthful and honest about how you are doing now? Emotions: Can you be brave about who you are and the gifts you have to share? Spirit: What or who could help you bring a more joyful spirit to work?

While the Medicine Wheel may be interpreted in many different ways, most believe in its alignment with the body, emotions, mind, and spirit at all stages of life through all seasons. The elders shared that by being aware of where we are at on the Medicine Wheel, we embrace the circle of knowledge that helps us have power over our own lives and actions.

For some teams, the Medicine Wheel can also be used through sharing circles where people are safe and encouraged to be honest about how they’re feeling. Smudging at the beginning of group or individual gatherings may be used to symbolize the clearing of negative energy. All of this should be done with celebration and openness to help employees bring a more joyful spirit into the workplace.

If you are looking for additional strategies to support employees who may have unique needs related to race, class, or gender you may also find helpful information in Implicit bias and Supporting newcomers.

We offer Miigwech to the participants of the inaugural roundtable on reconciliation for organizations who gathered in the spirit of Miinosewin (Ojibway for to set it right properly) – the Mike S. Schwartz Indigenous Collaboration.

Andrew Boryskavich
Diane Carriere
Donna Desmarais
E.J. Fontaine
Eva Wilson-Fontaine
Amber Harris
Priscilla Johnstone
Sherman Kong
Larry Lavallee
Norman Meade, Elder
Thelma Meade, Elder
Barb Moran
Tami Omeasoo

Additional Resources

Seven Grandfather Teachings

The Seven Teachings were given to the Anishinaabeg to live in a good way. Information courtesy of Seven Generations Educational Institute.

The Seven Lessons of the Medicine Wheel

Kelly Beaulieu, B.A., BSc Ag, of Sandy Bay First Nation shares the lessons and science of the Medicine Wheel. Courtesy of SAY MAGAZINE.