Every person has his-her own communication style, a personally unique voice. Some are loud and, by their abrasive voice, dominate the unwilling attention of others. Some are more silent, reserved, and not so quick to offer their voice to others. And there are multitudes of voices between these two extremes.
Our voices are expressed not only by speech but by our emails, body language, and attitudes. In Stephen Covey’s book, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, he states: “There is a deep, innate, almost inexpressible yearning within each one of us to find our voice in life.”
In the workplace, we recognize our leaders and coworkers beyond their spoken words. Their voices reflect a character and a history of interpersonal relations that we judge either favorably or poorly. Our voices can be our most constructive tools or our most destructive weapons.
It’s interesting to note that voices often collide even when we speak the same language. How much more so in a multicultural workplace where English is not the team members’ first language?
Employees with limited English language skills face a particular challenge in the workplace. The inability to assertively communicate issues, concerns, and grievances make them feel isolated and unimportant. English speaking leaders face similar challenges since the lack of a common language leaves them disconnected from understanding the employees’ problems.
So how can leaders learn to create a human connection with employees who have limited English language skills?
In a multicultural workplace, leaders need to be specially equipped with extrasensory perception abilities. They must go beyond the voices and make a genuine effort to connect in ways they may not have tried before.
Two examples come to mind that may help forge stronger human connections in a multicultural workplace.
The first example shows what should not be done.
Earl was the general manager of an organization that employed various culturally diverse production employees. The company did not operate during the last two weeks of December and offered paid leave for the holidays in addition to their vacation time. Once a year, Earl would leave his office, walk into the plant to greet the employees before quitting time. He patted some of them on the back, shook hands, made small talk, and walked back to his office to hibernate for another year.
Did Earl use this opportunity to hear the voices of the plant employees? Did he create a human connection or a robotic exchange of greetings?
If he had been more attentive to his surroundings on his walk back to his office, perhaps he might have heard some disgruntled voices mumbling in the background. It would have been better for him to have stayed in his office cocoon. A drive-by hello and good bye do not create a productive working relationship!
Here’s the second example.
Bill, the production manager of a food manufacturing company, employed many Spanish speaking production employees. He was always looking for ways to connect. This was no easy task considering his minimal Spanish speaking abilities. Despite the challenges, Bill somehow managed to find creative ways to connect with his team members.
Bill held daily production meetings alongside his bilingual supervisor, who helped him with the translations. He wanted to present at least one meeting in Spanish. Rather than giving up on that wish, Bill decided to write a brief script, asked his supervisor to translate it into Spanish, and diligently began to practice until he felt some level of comfort. When his team members stood in front of Bill as he delivered his production goals, speaking Spanish in his southern, American drawl, they were beyond impressed!
That effort showed that their leader had done something extraordinary. They were moved by his willingness to try and communicate with them in their own language. That brief speech was a human connection moment that penetrated the heart and made a powerful impact. Earl had heard their voices, and he let them know that he was listening.
In a multicultural workplace, there will always be language barriers. As leaders, it’s essential to continuously make an effort to break through those barriers and connect with our most valuable resources, our team members.