Leadership and Language

Training programs that address the unintended loss of quality leadership in multinational companies due to language differences and perceptions can help create more successful globally inclusive organizations.

To what degree are leaders selected, rejected, dismissed, or subjected to unconscious bias due to their linguistic skills? How much global talent is lost to multinational corporations? How can training and development contribute to enhancing the opportunities for leaders who use English as a second or third language?

In 30-plus years of global leadership development, we have seen hundreds of cases where the perception of leadership potential was diminished by linguistic differences. Of course, in emergency situations, apps such as Google Translate (https:// translate.google.com/) can be used to clarify misunderstandings, but there often are missing contextual factors that could significantly alter the meaning of any message.

Here are some factors that must be taken into consideration and some potential training solutions:

Multiple Meanings: We look to our potential leaders for inspiration and guidance. However, when leaders have learned English in another country, they may have learned the meaning of a word that is different from the common U.S. usage or context.

For example, when a French pharmaceutical acquired an American pharmaceutical, the new French president of the U.S. company held a Town Hall meeting for all U.S. employees where he told the audience that the No. 1 core value of the French organization was “audacity.” The Americans were not pleased. The French meaning of the word was courageous or bold, but the Americans thought he was being obnoxious.

In another example, the new Korean president of a U.S. affiliate asked the American VP of HR for suggestions on how to improve the organization, to which the American said that the company should be made leaner. The Korean then told the American to “get out of my office.” The Korean had learned that the meaning of “lean” was associated with being made sickly.

The British leader of a U.S./British executive team had proposed tabling the recommendation of the U.S. leadership. The Americans on the team said they were very upset as they had worked for several months on the proposal. They further stated that if the British leader wanted to table their proposal, they were going back to the U.S., and then they started to leave their seats. The British leader said he did not understand their reaction since he proposed to discuss their proposal immediately. The Americans and the British then had a discussion of the interpretation of the meaning of the verb, “table,” which in Britain means to put “on” the table and to Americans means to “take off” the table.

Accents, Perceptions, and Trust: When leaders have heavy accents, the perceptions of their competencies and level of trust can be reduced significantly. Scientists have found that our brains process foreign accents differently than those of native speakers. “We are less likely to believe something if it’s said with a foreign accent,” according to psycholinguist Shiri Lev-Ari. Her research also demonstrates that native speakers remember less accurately what non-native speakers say (http://psychology.uchicago.edu/people/faculty/LevAriKeysar.pdf).

The research documents that unconscious bias against accents occurs even when those listening are made aware of their propensity to discriminate against accents. While the “problem” resides in the brains of the listeners, the training solutions listed below try to work on this issue from both the speaker and listener’s sides.


1. An effective cross-cultural communications course with simulated exercises that allow native speakers to experience the difficulties and stress associated with speaking a foreign language. Such activities result in the native speakers reporting they felt “stupid, self-conscious, inhibited, foolish, embarrassed, and frustrated” when having to speak in a simulated language. The native English speakers then analyze how language ability, pausing, accents, mispronunciation, and other linguistic agility factors affect their impressions and interactions with others. This results in specific recommendations such as providing more breaks in meetings, giving people a chance to talk in their native language during breaks, learning how to offer help without embarrassing the speaker, etc.

An addendum to this training activity is to have nonnative English speakers observe the English speakers struggling with their new language. The non-native speakers then become engaged in discussing how they feel their leadership potential is being hampered by their concerns about speaking in another language.

A good cross-cultural communication program also should focus on styles of communication such as direct vs. indirect communication, interruptions vs. silence, inductive vs. deductive reasoning patterns, the impact of hierarchy on communication, and styles of giving feedback.

2. Provide accent reduction training to those with heavy accents. Such programs provide articulation techniques needed for the sounds in English that do not occur in other languages. These are not English as a Second Language (ESL) programs; rather, they are for fluent non-native English speakers who wish to take their pronunciation to the next level.

3. Offer an inclusive listening course for native English speakers to overcome unintended miscommunication. Leaders of multinational organizations recognize that communication is a two-way street. It takes both a speaker and a listener to bridge communication gaps that occur in a multicultural workforce.

An inclusive listening course focuses on the listening side of communication. It “tunes the ear” to unfamiliar accents. Such training—which is used in many organizations, from the military to the corporate boardroom to the emergency room—minimizes the need to ask non-native English speakers to repeat themselves and mitigates the risk of misunderstanding important information. Communication in a multinational environment becomes more collaborative and stress-free.

The world is getting smaller, and while electronic translation is improving, it will never eliminate the unintended loss of quality leadership in multinational organizations due to language differences and perceptions. Training programs that address these issues will go a long way to creating more successful globally inclusive organizations.

If you have any best practices for delivering language/ communication training across cultures, questions, or case studies to share, send them to ngoodman@global-dynamics. com for inclusion in future articles that address this topic.

Neal Goodman, Ph.D., is president of Global Dynamics, Inc., a training and development firm specializing in globalization, cultural intelligence, effective virtual workplaces, and diversity and inclusion. He can be reached at 305.682.7883 and at ngoodman@globaldynamics.com. For more information, visit http://www.global-dynamics.com.

Neal Goodman, Ph.D.
Dr. Neal Goodman is an internationally recognized speaker, trainer, and coach on DE&I (diversity, equity, and inclusion), global leadership, global mindset, and cultural intelligence. Organizations based on four continents seek his guidance to build and sustain their global and multicultural success. He is CEO of the Neal Goodman Group and can be reached at: Neal@NealGoodmanGroup.com. Dr. Goodman is the founder and former CEO of Global Dynamics Inc.