It’s not unusual to hear nonnative speakers revert to their own language at the expense of their English-speaking colleagues, often because it’s faster and easier to conduct meetings in their mother tongue. Employees in Asia might schedule a global meeting that falls during the middle of the night in England, for instance. In doing so, nonnative speakers shift their anxiety and loss of power to native speakers.
Many FrenchCo employees said that when they felt that their relatively poor language skills could become conspicuous and have career-related consequences, they simply stopped contributing to common discourse. “They’re afraid to make mistakes,” an HR manager at the firm explains, “so they will just not speak at all.”
In other cases, documents that are supposed to be composed in English may be written in the mother tongue-as experienced by Hans at GlobalTech-or not written at all. “It’s too hard to write in English, so I don’t do it!” one GlobalTech employee notes. “And then there’s no documentation at all.”
The bottom line takes a hit when employees stop participating in group settings. Once participation ebbs, processes fall apartpanies miss out on new ideas that might have been generated in meetings. People don’t report costly errors or offer observations about mistakes or questionable decisions. One of the engineers at GlobalTech’s Indian office explained that when meetings reverted into German his ability to contribute was cut off. He lost important information-particularly in side exchanges-despite receiving meeting notes afterward. Often those quick asides contained important contextual information, background analyses, or hypotheses about the root cause of a particular problem. He neither participated in the meetings nor learned from the problem-solving discussions.
Converting the primary language of a business is no small task. In my work I’ve developed a framework for assessing readiness and guidelines for adopting the shift. Adoption depends on two key factors: employee buy-in and belief in capacity. Buy-in is the degree to which employees believe that a single language will produce benefits for them or the organization. Belief in their own capacity is the extent to which they are confident that they can gain enough fluency to pass muster.
Even when language mandates are implemented with care and forethought, negative emotional and organizational dynamics can still arise. But their power to derail careers and company work can be significantly mitigated by adequately preparing people and systems for the change. Here are steps that companies can take to manage English-only policies.
Before a company introduces a global English policy, leaders should make a persuasive case for why it matters to employees and the organization. Employees must be assured that they will be supported in building their language skillspanywide cultural-awareness training will help nonnative speakers feel heard and valued. Leaders should rally workers behind using English to accomplish goals, rather than learn it to meet proficiency standards.
Managers must take responsibility for ensuring compliance, and they’ll need training in how to productively address sensitive issues arising from the radical change. Groups should set norms prescribing how members will interact, and managers should monitor behavior accordingly. For instance, managers should correct employees who switch into their mother tongue.
Native speakers can learn to speak more slowly and simplify their vocabularies. They should refrain from dominating conversations and encourage nonnative speakers to contribute. Native speakers may need coaching on how to bring along less proficient colleagues who are working at a disadvantage.