It was an incredible moment. She had traveled thousands of miles, spent hundreds of hours, and suffered the pain of learning a new language for just this moment. There I was in the middle of facilitating a company's annual planning session when I asked the question, “does anyone speak English as a second language?” Eva (I’ve changed the name to protect the innocent) raised her hand and said, “Yes, Vietnamese is my native tongue.” I followed with this: "IF I had information to share with Eva, and I spoke to her in Vietnamese (which is not my native tongue), was I changing 1) myself, 2) the message, or 3) the way I delivered the message?” Eva determined that I was changing the way I delivered the message.
I was led to the follow up question, "Why would I do this?" Participants determined several reasons, including the following: to make sure that she understood what I was saying, to ensure better communication, to minimize misunderstanding, to facilitate the speed of communication, to reduce stress and effort during the transfer of information, etc.
My next move was to cue up the video clip I had ready on my computer. Then, it hit me. Eva had given me insights into a multifaceted challenge – how to best communicate in the constantly evolving dynamics of leading a business. I came to what I believe is a new term, situationally multilingual.
Here are some Merriam-Webster definitions:
- Multilingual: able to speak and understand several languages
- Situationally: (adverb) of, relating to, or appropriate to a situation
This helped me with my definition of situationally multilingual: exercising the ability to speak (and understand) several business (or department) languages to maximize understanding and clarity. Simply put, this is when you, as leader, speak a language that will be best understood, rather than the language most comfortable to you.
A few examples may help you understand. Any technology leader will tell you that they often have to “dumb down” their information to help non-geeks understand, a legal expert may need to refrain from using complex jargon to help others follow along, an engineer may need to share general overview information rather than details and tolerance, and on and on. Some people on your team may prefer the facts straight up while others like you to ease into the conversation. Knowing the differences in how to interface with others can make you situationally multilingual.
Becoming situationally multilingual will take years of practice and will never be perfected since our world, technology, opportunity and ideas are constantly evolving. And of course, there are always people involved. What you can do is take the following three steps to immediately get better.
3 Steps to Become More Situationally Multilingual
1. Take an Assessment. Self-awareness for leaders can be improved through assessment using well-respected marketplace tools. It’s hard, perhaps impossible, to change natural tendencies. Yet, if you never look in the mirror of feedback and assessment, you’ll never know the reflection of what others see. I prefer a combination of tools, not just one, to get more of a 3-D picture. Here’s a partial list of personality assessment tools that I find helpful:
- MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Inventory)
- Workplace Big Five Profile
- INSIGHT Inventory
2. Develop Situational Awareness. We’ve all done it. Said the wrong thing, acted in a way we didn’t intend, even had a negative impact when our intent was positive. The growth comes from recognizing the trigger point, the moment that you were off track, so it can be identified in the future allowing you a different choice.
I celebrated Thanksgiving last year at about 7200 feet elevation in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. I had arranged a trip into the hills by pickup truck on Friday morning. As we sat down for breakfast, my wife suggested that we would need to separate a mother and her 13-year-old daughter. I looked at the Mom and she nodded in agreement (or so I thought). Standing at the back of the two trucks, I asked the mother which one she wanted to ride in and immediately assigned the daughter to the other truck. The daughter’s reaction was resistance, which I interpreted as teenager disappointment (or hormones). But then the mother joined in.
Wow, the situation had changed fast. After much embarrassment on my part, it became clear that my wife was kidding about separating the two, and that the mother was not nodding in agreement at breakfast. In fact, she was not aware of what my wife said as she sat down, or that she was nodding her head at me. Yeah, being situationally multilingual would have helped.
3. Apply Situational Leadership. There are several good books on this topic including The Situational Leader, Leadership and the One Minute Manager, Grasp the Situation, and The Leader's Code. Check them and consider getting a copy. Pull out your favorite annually and brush up on your skills.
One of our Rhythm Systems teams recently offered an internal education session and was asking for feedback. As soon as I was done offering my ideas (directly), there was silence. I had offered the right information in the wrong language. It was on my mind all day and later, in a call with my mentor who was in the same session, she mentioned it. The only way to make it right was to apologize. I did, and scars can heal, but it’s better to avoid the cut all together.
Sure, I blew it. You will, too. The point is to be constantly improving. By following the above three steps, you’ll become more situationally multilingual. Now, either schedule an assessment or pull out your past results. Reconsider your tendencies. Think about how you can have more situational awareness and consider strategies to counter your tendencies. Finally, go apply your strategies and become stronger as a leader.
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