Lifting the Language Barrier

“If you differ from me, my brother, far from harming me, you enrich me.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, aviation pioneer, writer and poet, 1900 – 1944

Over more than three decades working internationally as an engineer, project manager, trainer and coach, one of the major things that I have observed is the importance of the language barrier, particularly from a “Discounting level 1 & 2” point of view.

As a reminder, here are the Transactional Analysis Discounting levels again (from the previous blog post):

  1. Not registering that a problem exists
  2. Not registering the significance of that problem
  3. Not registering that there are options for action [to solve the problem]
  4. Not registering that one is personally capable of implementing those actions [to solve the problem]

We also identified three main barriers to effective virtual global teamwork:

  1. Language barrier
  2. Distance / time zone barrier
  3. Human aspect / cultural barrier

Today, we will concentrate on the language barrier. We will run it through Discounting Analysis, moving from problems to solutions. We will also take a step further and leverage advantages to enhance effectiveness.

Our aim is to evaluate our proficiency and that of our counterparts. We can then make any needed improvements to our own techniques and, as Project Managers, help team members and other stakeholders to progress in proficiency.

The Language Barrier

Levels 1 & 2 – Problem and Significance

To work together, we need to communicate, to “speak the same language”. Yet, around seven thousand languages are used around the world today.

Over time, we have found solutions to this problem. The use of a lingua franca is one. In order to understand each other, the contemporary use of English is common in international communication. And that is the trap! Thinking that (a) speaking English solves all problems and (b) those who do speak English truly understand each other!

  1. Only around 20% of the world’s population speak English (as a first or second language). This distances 80% of potential co-workers. The significance of this problem is clear.
  2. A more subtle problem exists: registering issues between users of English. Of the global 20% of English speakers, around one-fifth speak English as their first language. For the other four-fifths, English is a secondary language or is present in their country. For less-proficient practitioners, it is obvious that care must be taken to ensure correct communication when using English internationally. However, amongst fluent practitioners, frequently no such caution is observed. International audio meetings filled with, “full speed ahead”, jargon-rich English spoken with strong accents are common. Less fluent participants try hard to follow, with difficulty. It is often clear that some practitioners have not registered that a problem exists. “This meeting is in English, we are speaking English, so there’s no problem, right?” Unfortunately, very, very wrong!

The cultural/personality iceberg – above and below the waterline

Above the waterline, we see the “what”. Observable issues of international communication are often in plain view: puzzled expressions, mistakes, incomprehension and unexpected/unwanted deliverables, sometimes months later, are common.

Below the waterline lies the “why”. We would all like to communicate using English confidently and with ease. However, if we subjectively judge that our level of English is “inadequate”, we may be tempted to stay silent to hide our self-perceived “incompetence” and “save face”. The importance of “saving face” is particularly important in certain cultures. “Low-face-importance” cultures assume that anyone not understanding will interrupt to clarify. “High-face-importance” cultures assume that it is clear that doing so would induce a loss of face and is therefore not a viable possibility…

Levels 3 & 4 – Options and Actions

When using English to communicate:

  1. We use easy words and short, clear sentences. The simpler, the better
  2. We articulate clearly and take our time to speak. We use full words rather than joining two words together: “I am an engineer” is clearer than “I’m an engineer”
  3. We use Latin root verbs instead of Germanic root verbs: “I will obtain the contract” is clearer than “I’m going to get the contract” for many non-native English speakers
  4. We borrow best practices from international aviation communication:
    – we use the international alphabet (alpha, bravo, charlie, etc.) to spell-out difficult words
    – we use individual digits to clarify numbers: “one-four” is clearer than “fourteen”
    – we confirm key elements by repetition: Person A: “Please supply fourteen (one-four) samples tomorrow.” Person B: “We will supply fourteen (one-four) samples tomorrow.”
  5. We use regular pauses and “sign posting” to allow speaking partners to easily follow the conversation: “I will now talk about X / [I deliver message X] / “I have talked about X and will now talk about Y” / [I deliver message Y]
  6. We prefer nouns to verbs: “Who is your Manager?” is easier to understand than “Who do you work for?”
  7. We avoid phrasal verbs: “call off”, “go back” and “shop around” – completely confusing!
  8. We avoid question-tags: “you do understand, don’t you?” – even more confusing!!
  9. We are careful with humour as cultural norms for humour in business vary widely. A well-intentioned humoristic comment may be misunderstood and cause unwanted confusion. It may also produce a negative effect for cultures for which the norm is to keep humour for outside of office hours…
  10. Most importantly, all nationalities, particularly native English speakers, must make efforts to adapt their speech with the one common goal of facilitating mutual understanding

When some parties have a very basic level of English (or do not speak English at all):

  1. Support from a professional translator/interpreter is of great value, allowing swifter communications and fewer expensive misunderstandings and mistakes. Language support from multi-lingual colleagues is also useful. When using translation/interpretation software, we are aware of the risk of incorrect translations
  2. A picture is worth a thousand words! Images, drawings and sketches boost mutual understanding
  3. Written communications allow time for translation and understanding. They can, however, lead to “conversations” which take many days and still end in confusion
  4. A way to improve on this is to write and talk at the same time: during an audio meeting, as one is speaking, one writes key words and figures on-screen to provide anchors for understanding
  5. We plan regular follow-up meetings: daily status points to check that progress made is according to understandings. This allows misunderstandings to be identified and corrected early

For all interactions:

  1. We reduce “loss of face” risks by clearly stating our aim of mutual understanding and the use of “less-than-perfect English” as the communication norm
  2. We reinforce openness by allowing time for people to build relationships and confidence
  3. We continuously monitor speaking partners to detect non-verbal signs of confusion or disagreement
  4. We ensure that all people contribute to the conversation by bringing in members with a tendency to stay silent (perhaps due to a difficulty to interrupt to enter the conversation)
  5. For important decisions, a written record of agreements is made during the conversation, in real-time. Participants confirm and approve the record post-meeting.

Building Strong Foundations

Our efforts to address the language barrier will obviously bring immediate benefits in improved understanding between global team members. Also, as a collateral benefit, the care, energy and good will that we transmit through our efforts to understand and be understood will be noticed by our counterparts. This tangible good will builds trust and good working relationships, particularly between cultures and at a distance.

We will build on this strong foundation in the next and final blog focused on the distance barrier and human aspect/cultural barrier.

Until then, take care and don’t hesitate to share your experiences or highlight any questions.

Peter

For further details, see “Foolproof International Communication”, Moberg & Chadwick, Japco Publishing House 2013, ISBN 978-91-637-1116-9, 2013


About the Author 

Peter Chadwick is the Founder of Island Hoppers, and a Trainer and Consultant with IIL. He is qualified as an engineer, project manager, trainer, coach and pilot.

The common threads to Peter’s career are innovation and exploration. From early days dreaming-up designs, through roles leading larger and larger international project teams, up to his current role of trainer and coach, Peter constantly searches for better designs, better ways of working.

Building on his research and in-the-field experience, he has co-authored two books on transcultural cooperation with Pia Moberg and devised the Chadberg Model.

Peter has a long track record of designing and facilitating pragmatic support to individuals, teams and organisations – harnessing the power of international collective intelligence.


Project Managers Need to Focus on the User Experience – Their Own!

By J. LeRoy Ward,  PMP, PgMP, PfMP, CSM, CSPO   |   Executive Vice President – Enterprise Solutions, IIL

Odd title, I know. What does it really mean? Let me phrase it as a question:

What’s it like to work with, or for, you? In other words, what’s the “experience” you provide to “users” when they engage with you?

Today, UX, or user experience, is of paramount concern among product manufacturers and service providers. Take Amazon, for example. As a Prime User, the UX of logging on, ordering, and receiving products within two business days (here in the U.S.) is almost “frictionless” as they like to say. It’s quick, easy, and accurate.

Returns? Not a problem. Tracking an order? Piece of cake. Delivery to my mailbox (or door if the package is too big)? The United States Postal Service has it down pat, and they even deliver on Sundays! That’s the UX that Amazon provides its customers.

But UX is also key in service delivery as well. Checked into a hotel recently, or rented a car, or went to the grocery store, or went to the bank? What was that like? What technologies have these industries instituted that made your experience better, faster, or more convenient? Okay, you get the point. Now, let’s turn to you.

What type of UX do you provide to your client? Is it frictionless?

For example, do you:

Respond quickly to questions or issues?
Always have the latest progress information on hand?
Anticipate their needs and reach out when required?
Share the bad news along with the good so they always know where they stand?
Show up on time, prepared for whatever meeting or event is scheduled?
Have a positive attitude?
Show creativity and flexibility in handling project matters?
Conduct your affairs with a high level of integrity and honor?
Place the client’s needs above yours or your company’s?
Do what you say you’re going to do, and in a timely manner?

On the Net Promoter Score survey, when asked “Would you recommend [your name here] to a family member, friend, or business colleague?” would your client answer “yes”?

If you can answer yes to all the questions above, including the Net Promoter Score, then your personal UX is at a very high level and you’re doing well. If not, you might want to start thinking about another approach.

What about your team? How would they evaluate your UX as it relates to your relationship with them?

In almost every Project Management 101 course and text where we, as project managers, are advised, if not admonished, to negotiate for the best team members we can find in our organizations, it’s as if there are folks out there who would jump at the chance of being on our team. Just like when you were a kid and you were waiting to be selected for the best baseball team in your local sandlot games.

But are your work colleagues really “hoppin’ from one foot to the other” waiting for you to negotiate hard to get them on your team? It depends. It depends on how you treated them the last time they were on your team.

I have always counseled project managers to ask themselves one key question regarding team members. “Why would anyone want to be on your team?” One thing I always did on projects was to meet with each team member individually and ask them what they wanted to get out of working on this project. If I could help them meet their goals I did; if not, I’d let them know.

At least they knew I was making an attempt to help them grow professionally. But that’s not all of course. Treating people with respect is just table stakes in this era. People want to have fun, be creative, and come to work excited about making a difference. If you can provide that type of environment, your UX will be off the charts.

How do you know what your UX is? Start by asking your sponsor and manager. Then have some “crucial conversations,” as some pundit once wrote, with those closest to you whom you know will be honest. If you don’t like what you hear, you can start working on those soft skills that really make a difference.

Hitting project “home runs” is not just about meeting deadlines and budgets; it even goes beyond bringing benefits to fruition. It’s making people feel great about their experience working with, or for, you. 

In the end, as another maxim puts it, “people may never remember what you did, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”

That’s your personal UX. Make it the best it can be.

Ready to improve your personal UX? IIL can help. Take a look at our Business Skills courses, or request a free consultation.


J. LeRoy Ward is a highly respected consultant and adviser to Global Fortune 500 Corporations and government agencies in the areas of project, program, and portfolio management. With more than 38 years of government and private sector experience, LeRoy specializes in working with senior executives to understand their role in project and program sponsorship, governance, portfolio management and the strategic execution of projects and programs.


How to Get Your Project Team to Speak Up in Meetings

By J. LeRoy Ward, PMP, PgMP, PfMP, CSM, GWCPM, SCPM
Executive Vice President – Enterprise Solutions, IIL

I’ve never been a “big meeting” kind of guy. While many people find it hard to believe, I’m an introvert (INTJ on the Myers Briggs scale) and I tend to sit there and let the extroverts “think out loud” and the self-promoters hog the conversation. I was once pulled aside by my boss who rightly chastised me for not participating enough.

He told me he not only wanted to hear my opinions, he needed to hear them given my substantial expertise and background in the issues at hand. He was right. After that I tried hard to participate more, but to be honest, it wasn’t easy. Over time and with a lot of practice, I’ve gotten more comfortable in big meetings, but I’d still rather avoid them if I could!

You see, I’m at my best (or at least most comfortable) one-on-one or in very small group meetings. And, I’m not alone.

There are thousands of people just like me, and chances are you have a few on your project team. But like my old boss, you not only want to hear their thoughts and opinions, you need to hear them. That introvert sitting at the end of the conference table, off to the left (which is the best place to “hide” in a meeting) could probably save you from an embarrassing situation with a key stakeholder, or might have the best idea to solve a thorny problem.

So, how do you get that person to speak up?

Writing for Harvard Business Review, Bob Frisch and Cary Greene offer the following suggestions for ferreting out that important information from your team.

Take anonymous polls.

Ask people to write down questions or concerns on index cards, put them into a bowl and read them aloud without using names. Better yet, use a polling app or device to query meeting participants and see their answers in real time.

Heat map the topic.

Put poster-size charts of the components of an idea or plan on the wall.  Ask participants to place yellow dots on the charts where they have a question, and red dots where they have a significant concern. Use the dots to guide the conversation.

Break up a big group.

People are more likely to participate in small group discussions. So divide people into teams with specific instructions to discuss any challenges to the proposal at hand. Appoint a representative from each group to summarize their and their colleagues’ thoughts.

Ask them to empathize.

People are often more willing to speak on others’ behalf than their own. So when you solicit opinions with a question like “What objections or concerns might your direct reports have?” it can open the floodgates of reaction. That’s because it allows those in the room to externalize criticism.  It’s not what they don’t like. It’s what they think their people won’t like.

I’d like to suggest two more ideas:

Meet with your team members individually.

Sure, it takes more time but you’ll avoid all those weird meeting dynamics inherent in large gatherings.

Use the old school technique of calling on the person who’s not speaking.

While you don’t want to embarrass someone into participating in the discussion, projects are important and soliciting your team members’ thoughtful advice trumps worrying about whether they feel as if they’re being picked on.

And one last piece of advice: the next time someone doesn’t speak up but approaches you later with concerns about what was said or decided in the meeting, remind them that it’s important for them to participate in the group setting.  It shifts the burden of action from them to you, and we both know you have better things to do.

[trx_infobox style=”regular” closeable=”no” icon=”icon-desktop”]Learn more about IIL’s Leadership training at www.iil.com. [/trx_infobox]

LeRoy WardJ. LeRoy Ward is a highly respected consultant and advisor to Global Fortune 500 Corporations and government agencies in the areas of project, program and portfolio management. With more than 38 years of government and private sector experience, LeRoy specializes in working with senior executives to understand their role in project and program sponsorship, governance, portfolio management and the strategic execution of projects and programs.