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The Confidence Gap

David Kertzner
May 8, 2018

 

In U.S.-based organizations with a multicultural workforce, advanced-level, non-native English speakers contribute productively, but often not as productively as they could.  

Many of these valued employees struggle with a lack of confidence because they can’t communicate clearly, precisely and in a timely manner, in English. 

The impact of this lack of confidence can be significant:

  • Frustrated native English-speaking colleagues may ignore, at times, the expertise of non-native speakers, who participate only when called on or scheduled to speak.
  • Non-native English speakers may isolate themselves, avoiding critical communication and missing valuable opportunities to build trust and relationships.
  • Writing – in the form of e-mail, performance reviews, product and process descriptions and technical documents - is late or produced slowly, as non-native English speakers struggle to write. Colleagues lose precious time helping with basic editing or clarifying the intended message.

The primary factors influencing this lack of confidence are:

  • accents that may be difficult for others to understand, and lack of vocabulary.
  • cultural differences regarding norms for interrupting, and lack of familiarity with idiomatic phrases for jumping into conversations, especially fast-moving exchanges among native speakers.
  • lack of meaningful training on use of language for business situations such as team meetings, descriptions of projects and timelines, formulating and responding to questions, presentations of information and reflections of critical thinking – such as opinions or justification of decisions.
  • lack of advanced training with writing in English for business situations.

The frustration non-native speakers experience is often magnified for those with an advanced education, highly technical knowledge and a history of professional and academic success – until they enter the English-speaking work world. 

In response to this situation, many companies are hesitant to provide language and communication training for their workforce because they feel the employees they have hired should not be struggling with language issues if they have gotten to ‘this point’ in their careers, already. The employer correctly notes that the employee has often gone to a good university and performed ‘well enough’ there. 

But succeeding in academic settings is completely different from succeeding in the work world. In academia, content is often presented and regurgitated in text forms and performance standards do not include 360 reviews, in many cases. Most of all, international students are paying customers in a competitive field, which means academic organizations will try to give students as many ways as possible to demonstrate success.

Companies producing products on a timeline to generate revenue and profit do not have that luxury. They see language and communication training as a cost – an annoying and intermittent need – but one they would prefer to not have to deal with.

The trick, for successful companies where I have provided language and communication training, is to view the training not as a function of language, but as a function of productivity – which leads, of course, to competitive advantage, just like improving skills for coding ‘languages’.  Along those lines, many of these same companies are starting to see the need for a corporate language strategy that addresses not only the training needs within the organization (for many languages, not only English), but also establishes norms for meetings, presentations and other communication in English or any language involving representatives of many cultures, including those of native English speakers.

But back to the immediate issue. What we see is that companies that provide qualitative language and communication training for their non-native English speakers benefit in tangible ways:

  • These valued employees contribute closer to their full potential as their confidence increases when using English. They engage sooner and more effectively in meetings or on conference calls – though they still make mistakes. Their speech is more understandable, information is conveyed more succinctly, and presentations follow a more familiar format, sequence and western-style delivery. Productivity increases.
  •  Professional relationships also become more productive as non-native English speakers learn expressions and linguistic strategies to practice culturally appropriate behaviors, including interrupting for clarification, making direct or indirect statements of intention, and making small talk.  
  • Time is saved when non-native English speakers learn to organize their thinking in English for writing documents. They write shorter sentences with fewer grammar errors. In e-mail, writers learn to express concern about a problem without offending the reader.

Good language training programs in corporate settings allow non-native speakers to generate and get feedback on the language that they struggle with every day at work. In the process, these employees start to move past the focus on grammar and the rules of language (though those issues may still be addressed) – and move towards confident, spontaneous expression as they characterize the world around them.

Companies that do not provide training for non-native English speakers can still support their employees for whom English is not a first language. Managers or colleagues can:

  • Ask the non-native English speaker to summarize issues, projects or activities – and provide ‘guidelines’ for how to do so. 'Could you summarize [this issue] and then talk about the solutions you are considering?' 
  • Identify confusing language from spoken or written communication. Don’t paraphrase. Say, 'I think I understood what you were trying to (say/write here), but this sentence was confusing because ...’
  • Give the employee a choice of what you think you heard. ‘Did you say 'shared components' or 'sheer components'?’ Most non-native speakers really appreciate such specific feedback.  
  • Ask the employee to 'rehearse' with you or a colleague remarks that he or she might make at a meeting. 'Dmitri, what are you going to say about the ‘x’ bug at the team meeting today?'  

Employees for whom English is a second or third language should be commended for their willingness to face such a challenge without any expectation other than to do their job well. Companies who want to support their non-native English-speaking employees can help by first acknowledging the challenge and then seeing their response in terms of increasing productivity in their business process. The return on the investment will be worth it.

 

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