By Lorelei Carobolante, President G2nd Systems
HR West 2016 Speaker
What happens when leaders of global organizations don’t pay enough attention to language and workplace communication skills when hiring, training, assessing, promoting and relocating employees? As organizations are discovering, having English proficiency requirements are important but aren’t enough. To develop both native and nonnative English speakers, language and intercultural effectiveness cannot be underestimated or left to chance.
As organizations increasingly develop internationally, every organization must be able to leverage talent, expertise, creativity, and relationships from multiple geographical areas, cultures, and languages.
Ignoring the influence of English and cultural differences leads to miscommunication, lost sales, missed goals, conflict, friction, and loss of team collaboration across country borders and cultures. Organizational competitiveness and employee engagement can suffer as a result.
Leaders often aren’t aware of their vulnerability because language proficiency, perceptions of accents and cultural challenges often go unrecognized. In fact, many leaders and teams have language and cultural blind areas. Some fail to recognize the subtle yet crucial differences between native and nonnative English speakers, especially when everyone seems to speak a proficient level of the same language, for example, English.
A 2013 study by the British Council estimated that nonnative English speakers outnumber native speakers by a ratio of 4:1 worldwide, projecting it to continue growing. Yet, native and nonnative English speakers from different countries and cultures use English differently, often without realizing it. Native English speakers intuitively integrate their culture into the language (through idioms, local expressions and cultural presumptions) while nonnative English speakers use English as a culturally-neutral communication tool.
When I first read George Bernard Shaw's statement, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place," I thought of how different versions of English are used in workplace contexts. Imagine a meeting with native English speakers from the UK and US, and four nonnative speakers from primarily nonnative English speaking countries/cultures. All meeting participants have advanced levels of English proficiency. After initial discussion, the native US English speaker asks the native UK English speaker, "Should we table this phase of the project?" The two colleagues do not recognize that the same idiomatic expression has the opposite meaning in the US and UK (e.g., US English version: postpone indefinitely; UK English version: prioritize the phase). And, since furniture [table] isn't part of the discussion, the nonnative English speakers may be confused or ignore the question if the native speakers don't clarify it. In this simple example, could the meeting end with an illusion that the communication has taken place?
Today's workplaces are often linguistically and culturally diverse. In spite of the reality of global connectivity, few organizations have an explicit language strategy that is designed for measuring and improving communication for nonnative and native English speakers, developing talent, and fostering both local and international employee engagement.
With attention to a language and cultural strategy, leaders in any organization can acquire and grow the talent needed to compete both globally and locally. Smart leaders align their strategy with their overarching priorities. They recognize that nonnative and native English speakers use English differently, and turn language vulnerability into competitive workplace communication strengths.
What’s in a Language Strategy?
In a September 2014 Harvard Business Review article, authors Tsedal Neeley and Robert S. Kaplan urge leaders to implement an effective language strategy (https://hbr.org/2014/09/whats-your-language-strategy).
Language is a vital link in any global talent management strategy. Even if the company doesn’t adopt a common language (a lingua franca) such as English, you need to be able to evaluate language proficiency and workplace communication effectiveness if you want to grow and develop the best people, ameliorate the gaps between native and nonnative language speakers, and strengthen performance.
There are four areas suggested by the authors as significant for both HR and senior managers, which seem to be relevant for years to come:
1. Hiring and Training
Be aware of language blind areas. A high degree of fluency – either in a common global language, such as English, or the local one – can influence assessment of a candidate’s skills, growth potential, knowledge of markets, employee engagement and team performance. Don’t be fooled.
To be sure you are hiring the best people – and not just the more fluent ones – be prepared to accept some language limitations, use fair and valid assessments, and provide training. If proficiency and speech clarity is fairly and reliably measured, you can always improve language communication skills through professional development courses and coaching, either individually, in groups, and online.
2. Assessing Talent Accurately
Language agility does not necessarily equal high performance. Use of 360 degree feedback methods will reveal a lot about workplace performance. Otherwise, it’s too easy to confuse fluency in English (or another language) with what appears to be high level management and client or customer relations skills.
Without an effective, inclusive language strategy in place, managers tend to perceive performance issues as deficits rather than simple lack of language proficiency, speech clarity and associated skills. They can inadvertently undermine an individual’s and team's performance. Language issues can cause talented and engaged professionals to underperform and even withdraw.
Nonnative English speakers, when overlooked by native speakers, experience a substantial loss of power, confidence, credibility and status. This can be avoided by a language strategy that includes addressing levels of language proficiency, accent clarity and intercultural communication across nonnative and native speakers.
3. Intercultural Training
Language training is important, but language proficiency does not equal intercultural communication effectiveness. Many problems are caused by lack of cultural understanding or perceptions of accents. Most organizations are globally diverse, with a mix of cultures and divergent norms, expectations, and practices.
Intercultural communication training should be embedded inside of language development courses as well as throughout the entire organization. Senior leaders and other professionals need to model expectations of intercultural fluency, and not just HR staff. Managers need to adapt management styles to effectively and inclusively communicate across multiple cultures simultaneously.
4. Managing Intercultural Communication
A language strategy must also include developing and implementing standards for communication across the entire organization. A lot of time is wasted when individuals aren’t conscious of potential misunderstanding when they speak in meetings, write emails, participate in calls, and apply directives.
Managers can improve meetings by acting as facilitators and clarifying multicultural language issues, such as avoiding or facilitating idiomatic or local expressions to foster understanding for all participants. They can encourage nonnative and native English speakers to participate more collaboratively, ensuring a diversity of ideas and strengthening engagement.
In today’s global organizations, no matter the industry, the size, or country of origin, no one is immune to language and cultural challenges. With a language strategy in place, you and your organization will be prepared to avoid the vulnerabilities and strengthen your competitiveness and sustainability.
Your organization may already provide language testing, assessments, training and cultural diversity programs, but do they align with a comprehensive global language strategy that leverages the benefits of diversity and inclusion to develop language as a source of competitiveness?
About the Author
Lorelei Carobolante, GPHR, SHRM-SCP, President & CEO, G2nd Systems
Presenting at HR West - March 7, 2016 1:50-3:05pm Session Block
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