x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Being multilingual in one language

A workforce able to communicate in a single language is of course a good thing – but there are subtle nuances in meaning depending on where each individual learnt this language.

Don’t be fooled by an impressive vocabulary.

Let me explain what I mean by this. Knowing the terms of the business and how to use them are two fundamentally different perspectives.

I was listening to a group of leaders talk, well actually complain, that when they sit in meetings the language used is very impressive, but it does not translate into evidence on the job. I jumped in the conversation and said: “It sounds like they know the words in the dictionary but don’t know how to use them.”

This catchline caught their attention and they went on to discuss their dictionary-rich workforce and what they should do.

In the GCC, most people speak English in the work environment, but not everyone’s English has the same or common meaning. For most it is a second or even third language. The meaning that is attached to words varies greatly.

Assuming common understanding because we are speaking common words can, and often does, result in real confusion.

Can you imagine the depth of confusion that transpires on the job when communicating to a workforce coming from a multitude of countries? Have you ever given a project to an employee only to have him or her come up with something that is entirely different from your expected results, even after in the set-up meeting everyone nodded in agreement? It comes down to understanding.

It is easy to be tricked by the fact that everyone is speaking the same language, using the same words, and to equate this with common understanding. Just because everyone is speaking the same language, leaders should not assume that the common language means common understanding; leaders need to become “multilingual in one language”.

To master this — meaning when speaking a common language ensure common understanding from the listeners’ background — leaders need to shift their attention from what is being said to what is understood. Great leaders understand the need to communicate clearly, especially with the diverse and multidimensional workforce in the GCC.

When it comes to workplace communication, leaders often use terse, straight-to-the-point language; the connectivity of meaning is stripped out, especially when it comes to the performance language of KPIs (key performance indicators) and Smart (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) goals.

Most front-line employees (individual contributors) in the GCC come from the emerging markets (and make up the majority of the workforce). They are from oral cultures, and are accustomed to finding direction and meaning through the stories that are told. Asian emerging market employees (people from the Middle East, GCC, Central Asia, the subcontinent and farther east) rely on how verbs are used and how objects relate to one another to communicate and understand meaning. This is juxtaposed with westerners, who categorise objects and rely on nouns as the basis of language.

Communication in the region is often informal and full of stories. Given that we are in an oral culture, a simple piece of advice is to become really good at telling a story. The value of being multilingual in one language is recognising the difference between communicating in an oral versus a literary tradition.

The core of communication is making sure that the audience receives the intended message. This is what being multilingual in one language is all about: realising that your audience could have 10 to 15 native languages, all communicating in a second tongue. Therefore, you need to be doubly sure that you are communicating clearly.

Tommy Weir is a leadership adviser, author of 10 Tips for Leading in the Middle East and other leadership writings and the founder of the Emerging Markets Leadership Center