Leading Conversations: 5 Ways to Manage Language Skill Gaps in the Workplace

“What are you going to do to compensate me for 10,000 malfunctioning intercom systems my company bought from you?” I barked at the Spanish business executive seated across the conference table from me. In my role as actor in a training simulation, I had been venting my complaints to him about his lousy products for the past 15 minutes, and I was not planning to leave the meeting empty handed.

He looked down at his notepad sheepishly, sweat forming at his temples, and I could see his mind was racing but he hesitated to speak. Finally after an excruciating silence “We ……um…I not…….we can’t…um….the intercom…..we not taking intercoms….and you get…um.. descuento?”

Leading Conversations: 5 Ways to Manage Language Skill Gaps in the WorkplaceJavier had been tagged as a ‘high potential’ by the multi-national consumer electronics company he worked for. He graduated from one of the top business schools in Spain and had been recruited right away to join the sales team at the company. Well-liked by both colleagues and customers, he had exceeded his sales targets three quarters in a row, and had managed to entice a key account away from the companies’ main competitor.

Yet none of these credentials could redeem Javier when it came to negotiating in English, a language in which he clearly was not comfortable. The poor guy was visibly embarrassed about his performance, and his eyes pleaded with me to put him out of his misery. I tilted my head and gazed at him thoughtfully. “Could you send me a proposal?” I asked softly. Instantly, his distressed expression evaporated, and a warm Latin smile spread across his face, “Yes, yes when you want I send it?”

The assessor looked at his watch and gave me a nod. I popped out of my chair to shake the Spaniard’s hand and congratulate him on hanging in there during a tough conversation. Although I was glad I had been able to end the roleplay on a positive note, I was aware that he had been communicating way below his level of knowledge and expertise. A missed opportunity not only for him, but also for his company.

Lopsided exchanges
When doing business globally, the decision to establish an official company language, such as English, solves some problems, but creates others. If the latter are not proactively addressed by those in leadership roles, crucial perspectives, expertise and information will slip through the cracks, needlessly diminishing the collective power of the organization.

Statistically, there is a direct correlation between mastery of a language and the amount of time one gets to express ideas and opinions in a conversation. The most likely scenario in a meeting where one speaker communicates in their mother tongue and other speaks a foreign language is:
• The native speaker speaks 75% of the time.
• The non-native speaker speaks 25% of the time.
• The 50% of non-native speaker’s time is spent clarifying what native speaker said.¹

This lopsided exchange gives an unfair advantage to the native speaker, based on nothing more than an accident of birth. So the question is, how can we compensate for differences in language proficiency in the workplace, so that every individual is heard, and their talents and skills are optimally channeled to achieve company goals?

Creating a level playing field of communication
There are several approaches to creating a level playing field of communication in organizations, so that exchanges between native and non-native speakers are balanced and inclusive:

1. Offer flexible language training solutions: The most obvious step in improving understanding and expression in a foreign language is devoting time to learning it. However, companies need to be sensitive to the fact that their employees may already feel stretched by their responsibilities, so a one-size-fits-all solution may not be welcomed.
Offering a variety of options such as on-line learning, short intensive courses, or personal individual instruction, will lower the bar to integrating language study into an existing workload.

2. Lead inclusive conversations: The person leading a meeting should practice deliberately inviting each person to speak, so that the conversation does not revert to the default mode of dominant native speakers. Leaders who facilitate inclusive conversations are great role models for others. They demonstrate the value of attentiveness and patience in creating a welcoming atmosphere for non-native speakers to express themselves, ensuring that their contributions are not lost.

3. Invest time off-line: Even when directly asked for their input, some non-native speakers might still hesitate to share their thoughts in a group situation. This could be because they are not yet proficient enough in speaking the language, or they are shy or lack confidence to find the right words. In some cases, just concentrating in order to follow what others are saying takes all of their energy. Cultural backgrounds which value a strong hierarchy and indirect communication may also be influencing reticent participation in meetings. So another option is to speak privately with these individuals before or after the meeting, in a more relaxed situation. In this way you can be assured that their valuable input will be taken into account.

4. Decrease speed, increase eye contact: There are couple of simple practical tips for maximizing understanding when speaking to non-native speakers, especially in a group situation. If you are a person who tends to talk fast, deliberately slow the pace of your speech. Secondly, be aware of spreading your eye contact as you speak, especially to non-native speakers. Looking in the direction of where you want your message to “land’’ increases its impact. Also, noticing facial expressions can help you to gauge to what extent a non-native speaker is following your story, providing valuable clues about the need to slow down and repeat some information, or a heads up that all is crystal clear and you can move on to the next topic.

5. Reward expression, ignore mistakes: When interacting with non-native speakers it’s important to focus on what really matters – their knowledge, expertise and humanity – not the flawless mastery of a foreign language. If we can think in terms of not “speaking’’ a foreign language but “managing’’ in a foreign language, space is created for infinite variables of competency, accent, style and culture when it comes to getting a message across. When the pressure is off to speak a second language perfectly, individuals can focus on the content of what they want to say and be more authentically themselves. It also becomes easier for non-native speakers to accept friendly feedback about pronunciation, vocabulary, etc. when appropriate. A rousing “Well done!” to a non-native speaker after a presentation can do wonders for building confidence and motivation to keep developing their foreign language skills.

¹ Source: Communicating Internationally in English, Bob Dignan, York Associates

Lisa Ross-Marcus

Lisa RossLisa is an executive coach and cross-cultural consultant. She delivers trainings at Akteos on Virtual Communication and Global Teams and American Business Culture.

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