By Tamara Pupic
Language barriers can make it difficult to share your expectations, give feedback, or communicate effectively with your team. Tamara Pupic looks at how to overcome this problem.
Doing business in a region that is home to more than 200 nationalities comes with its own unique challenges.
It’s not unheard of to have people from up to 50 different cultures working on the same floor, and while a diverse workforce can bring a number of advantages, it can also give rise to issues which can affect teamwork and overall business performance.
High on the list is diversity in language – something that can muddy the waters of communication, and prove a stumbling block to effective management.
A recent survey by Peden Consulting, a Doha-based organisation specialising in learning and business development, found that nearly half of Doha-based employees identified at least five native languages spoken in their workplace. A significant 15 percent said that more than 11 were spoken.
A company isn’t only a workplace. It can also be considered a mini society in which employees need to learn how to communicate across different languages and cultures in addition to getting work done.
In such a complex environment, companies have predominantly used three approaches to ensure that both managers and employees are able to understand possible variations in communication:
Lingua franca, or corporate language:
One approach is to determine the dominant language within the organisation and then train the rest of the team to speak that.
Implementing language lessons:
Among other programmes, regular language lessons for employees should be assimilated into a company’s talent development efforts.
Cross cultural leadership skills:
Having a change agent, a manager who is capable of implementing strategies that allow diversity to support innovation and creative problem solving in most cases brings fresh perspective to the workplace.
Without tackling the problem head-on, problems can easily arise, including:
Loss of rhetorical skills:
If symbolism is used rather than rhetoric, it still requires a high level of understanding from each side. Managers can be left out of the conversation – maybe even more so than when attempting to overcome language difficulties – and it has the potential to further confuse the issue.
Loss of face:
Some managers feel the need to maintain a ‘knowing façade’ in order to preserve their authority. However, in reality, he or she has totally lost track of a discussion.
Parallel information networks:
These can develop when communication channels are determined by language capabilities rather than formal positions in the organisation. If communication flow is put into the hands of people with a specific language rather than people with specific knowledge, then you’re heading for trouble.
This is present when second language users revert to talking between themselves in their native language, leaving the other members out from an important meeting or brainstorming session.
A distortion into the power-authority balance can occur when the power in a relationship is exercised by those who are working in a preferred language, and for whom communications fluency becomes a tool of influence.
To prevent the negative consequences of similar situations on business performance, Kate Berardo, founder of Culturosity.com, advises the below listed techniques:
Choose you medium of communication effectively:
You might need to refrain from sending emails to some of your employees since direct communication, in person or via phone, might allow you to assess whether the message is properly understood.
Provide information via multiple channels:
If you have to send an email to your employee, in case of doubt make sure to follow up and check whether the message has been understood properly.
Speak slowly and clearly:
Focus on clearly enunciating and slowing down your speech.
Avoid idioms and be careful of jargon:
As a general rule, if the phrase requires knowledge of other information, recognise that this may make your communication more difficult to be understood.
Ask for clarification:
Politely ask for clarification and avoid any assumptions.
Frequently check for understanding:
Practice reflective listening to check your own understanding and use open-ended questions to check other people’s understanding.
Spell out your expectations and deadlines clearly.
Don’t expect your employees to learn anything after being told only once, especially if they have language barrier.
Overcoming a language barrier takes time. If you stick with it, it might not take too long before your team starts communicating without difficulties.