Project Management Institute

Team-building and English as a second language

by William Dodson

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AMERICA'S CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS are mirrored in the composition of our project teams. More companies are hiring and integrating into American business foreign nationals and individuals who speak English as a Second Language (ESL). For a growing number of people employed in the American workforce, the first language is Spanish, one of the Chinese languages, Russian, French or Hindustani. American project managers and team leaders need to be conscious of the challenges to the success of projects in which team members have a mix of first languages. Some of these challenges include explicit misunderstandings between team members, unconscious actions perceived as personal insults, inadvertent cultural insensitivity, and the mitigation of frustration with the lack of English-language fluency.

The global village is getting crowded; it's time for American project managers to abandon old language-based prejudices.

The “Ugly” Team Leader

Thanks—or no thanks—to our geographic isolation from other cultural groups, the American project manager may have years of experience under his or her belt without having had much exposure to individuals whose first language is other than English. Like other Americans, if a project manager has traveled abroad, he or she has relied on the English language as the communications vehicle. People from countries outside the United States are amazed and bemused by the fact that the vast majority of Americans speak only one language—the British call it “American”— and seem not at all interested in learning other languages. From this point of view, America's past economic success has hurt us: “The Economic Engine of the World” perceived no need on an institutional level to require its citizens to learn any language other than English.

The American experience abroad, then, is one of “English Spoken Here,” whether it really is or not, and of expecting other countries and their citizens to follow the American way. And, apart from some pockets (such as Miami) with a high density of Spanish-speakers, most Americans expect that everyone within the borders of the United States will speak flawless English.

Today's reality, of course, is quite different. America now abounds with foreign tourists, students, and employed immigrants, speaking many varieties of English, from the lightly accented to the difficult-to-understand. Our near-sighted view of the language issue has meant that, regardless of however many languages a foreign national speaks, he or she gains few admirers in this country for multilingual abilities.

William Dodson works on cross-cultural business communications issues. His last article for PM Network was “Virtually International: Managing Globalized Project Teams” [April 1998].

In the past, alternate languages and different approaches to dealing with the world have met with little welcome in the American way of doing business. Americans—including American project managers—tend to expect individuals to speak English clearly, and they become impatient with anyone whom they cannot understand the first time around. This impatience, of course, creates an additional barrier to understanding between the two parties, since the ESL-speaker may become more insecure about his or her accent or lack of fluency, or may become angry with the listener's impatience.

Why should today's project manager be concerned about these issues? Because moving beyond the bounds of America-first thinking facilitates communications among team members—and communication is a key success factor in projects.

Optimal Team Leader Characteristics

Patience, persistence and an open attitude to the way others communicate and relate with the world are key characteristics of an effective project manager who has on his or her team ESL-speakers. Foreign nationals know when a manager has little interest in learning about their culture or language; such arrogance is not usually rewarded with top performance from one's team members.

Patience. Patience is a difficult quality to cultivate in any context; however, it is especially difficult in the American workplace. The pace of work has picked up considerably since the mid-eighties, and shows no signs of decelerating. Demands are greater, with fewer middle managers—especially project managers—around to share the work. Expectations on delivery dates have increased because of the impact of technology. Turnaround rates on deliverables are faster, the thirst for more information on project intricacies greater, the demands on individual team members more substantial than in the past.

And yet, if a project manager has on his or her team an ESL-speaker, the project manager must take the time to ensure that roles and responsibilities throughout the project are clearly articulated, and that the ESL-speaker understands his or her tasks and deliverables. The project manager must accept the tenet, “If you don't have time to do it right the first time, where are you going to find the time later to do it right?” The project manager must do all he or she can to reduce the amount of time the team spends in reworking project efforts. Understanding the reality of language barriers and negotiating those barriers from the outset will go a long way toward ensuring the effectiveness of ESL staff—and improved clarity of communication may be a boon to the rest of the team, as well.

Listening. The most important tool the project leader must have in his or her relationship kit is reflective listening. Reflective listening is the simple act of echoing what a speaker has said. This confirms to the speaker that the listener actually heard what was said and assures the listener he or she heard correctly.

Reflective listening is especially important in cross-cultural settings since it is very easy for ESL-speakers to say something that sounds like something else to American ears. For instance, native Cantonese speakers—predominantly from Hong Kong—who learn ESL naturally drop the last consonant of the words they speak. So, most words in the plural form inadvertently become singular: stamps become stamp and plans become plan. As well, some words can simply sound the same to ESL-speakers: correct, connect and collect can sound the same to native Chinese speakers; ship and shape can sound the same to native Russian speakers. And then there is the pronunciation of the “th” sound, which causes many ESL-speakers no end of trouble.

Enunciation/Articulation. On the other side of the coin, the project manager must remember to pronounce his or her words clearly and precisely. The project manager cannot be sloppy in communicating ideas, meanings or intentions.

Americans are especially susceptible to taking the English language for granted, since we have so little contact with other cultures and languages. Americans assume so much when we speak with other Americans that we very easily forget that colloquialisms, trends in language and even tech-speak can create opaque and impenetrable barriers to understanding for others.

Project managers must then be more conscious than usual of the way they use the English language, and of the way they express themselves. It is very easy for words to be misconstrued or meanings misunderstood if the project manager does not take the time to say what he or she means, and to mean what he or she says.

Processing Complex Concepts. Language mirrors and influences the way we perceive and process information. Thus American project managers need to be conscious of the varying ways in which ESL-speakers may filter and process information to make sense of the world around them and to communicate and act effectively. American managers generally like to “get directly to the point” when they deal with other Americans. They can to do this because much of their staff is acculturated in the same ways—they share common vocabularies, school systems, assumptions about the work environment, and direct approaches to solving problems.

However, for individuals from many other cultures, trust in the one with whom one is working or doing business is paramount. This approach could involve the ESL-speaker asking a lot of questions that may seem irrelevant, or that may make it appear to the American manager that he or she is somehow incompetent. What is really happening is a process of information-gathering that gives the questioner a sense of the scope of the issue at hand, and helps the questioner prioritize needs and at the same time build a bridge of relationship and trust between the questioner and the manager.

Integrity. Trust in a working relationship is of primary importance to many people not raised in this country. Trust is not easily developed for such individuals, yet is very easily broken should a colleague or project manager pursue project objectives that overrun matters of civility and respect. The most important thing the project manager can do then is to be true to his or her word—to act in a consistent manner and to show respect.

An ESL-speaker can be demoralized and his or her performance suffer when he or she perceives mixed messages, either between the corporate environment and the company's expectations of the employee or between the project manager's own behavior and the manager's expectations of the team member. The American project manager must be conscious of the assumptions of the project environment. He or she must prepare the ESL-speaker for the inevitable conflicts of interest that will arise when the ESL-speaker's own expectations are not in accord with project demands.

Strategies for Improving Team Communication

Clearly Defining Roles and Responsibilities. The project manager must ensure that everyone fully understands what's required on the project team. The project manager may also want to go one step further and communicate issue resolution processes and procedures. If the project manager assumes an ESL-speaker understands intuitively the way to resolve problems, concerns or conflicts, the project manager may be in for a surprise. Cultural conditioning contrary to the way Americans resolve issues may fill the void if clear guidelines are missing.

American managers in general like to see themselves as promoting an open-door policy. If a team member has a problem, then the project manager expects the team member to already know about the opendoor policy and to take advantage of it. However, in many cultures, employees would never consider “dropping by” the boss's office for a friendly chat. In many Asian and Latin American cultures it is considered more appropriate to remain silent if the employee has a problem or conflict in the office. Stress and conflict actually increase on a project team if a project manager does not understand and accept this perception.

Encouraging Input. Some of the frustrations ESL-speakers have in working on American teams revolve around the prejudices others have of the ESL-speaker. One such prejudice is that because the ESL-speaker has an accent, he or she is not as smart as the rest of the team. This prejudice can be compounded by the different approach some ESL-speakers take toward problem solving or expressing themselves. As a result, many ESL-speakers simply remain silent during meetings. This approach, however, only succeeds in advancing the team's perception that the ESL-speaker has nothing substantive to offer the team.

It's important, then, that American project managers encourage ESL-speakers to speak up, to make contributions based on the ESL-speaker's unique background. This sort of effort really must happen at the outset of a project, since it takes time and reinforcement to build within the ESL-speaker the habit of coming forward with his or her comment or concern.

Preempting Burn-out. Many ESL-speakers will put in extra hours on a project to make up for their lack of confidence in expressing themselves in English. They hope that their contribution to the project will be seen as valuable through the quality and quantity of work they produce. The project manager needs to realize that this “head-down” approach to project participation is only half the solution to ensuring open communications on teams.

Promoting ESL Classes. The project manager can improve the quality of communication between the ESL-speaker and the rest of the team by sending the ESL-speaker to English enunciation and pronunciation class. This effort also demonstrates to the ESL-speaker that the project manager genuinely has a firm grasp of the challenges presented to the ESL-speaker. English enunciation and pronunciation classes offer the ESL-speaker the opportunity to refine communication skills, increase confidence in expressing his or herself, and help the project team in general better understand what the ESL-speaker is trying to express.

The project manager, however, must be sensitive in suggesting such a class. The ESL-speaker can misconstrue the suggestion as a slur against his or her effort to speak English. However, if presented as an opportunity to contribute even more greatly to a project, the ESL-speaker will likely embrace the offer with enthusiasm. This is actually a typical reaction for ESL-speakers, since they know that, for the long term, becoming a proficient English speaker is the key to greater opportunity, advancement and mobility.

ESL schools often offer business communications classes. Americans are for the most part unaware of the underlying assumptions that form the basis of communication in a business setting. Terms, buzzwords and even casual behavior in the corridor can all be quite foreign to the ESL-speaker. Standards for writing memos, proposals and especially for giving presentations are something that even the most savvy ESL-speaker cannot pick up in English class. These are specific skills that take practice and a supportive environment to inculcate the sense of ease and relaxation any professional requires on the job. In the least, the project manager can have some objective measure of the extent to which an ESL-speaker is comfortably relating in a predominantly American project setting.

Put On Those Moccasins and Walk a Mile. If the project manager or team members are frequently called on to work with ESL-speakers from a particular language group, they may benefit from learning the ESL-speakers’ first language. Even if they are not able to master it, the attempt to communicate in a language not one's own is a powerful consciousness-raiser and can help put to rest some of the prejudices and assumptions that create barriers.

ULTIMATELY, THE DEGREE to which the ESL-speaker is able to relate to his or her American project team determines the extent to which he or she contributes to the project effort—and this reflects directly on the level of maturity of the 21st-century American project manager's people skills. images

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

August 1999 PM Network

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