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Managing Foreign Language Teams


As the planet shrinks and the world’s economies become more interconnected, it is becoming more common to have teams whose members speak different languages and may even be citizens of different countries.

Managing such a group takes a little more skill than staying within your own language, but it is not too hard if you remember a couple of key principles.

To successfully manage a foreign language team remember different is not wrong, respect is essential, you must open up to new ideas, focus on the goal, and work harder at communicating at all levels.

Different Is Not Wrong

Too many times our first reaction to something different is that it must be wrong. This is a childlike response to the first time we saw someone do something differently than our mother did it. Since our entire frame of reference was the way Mom did it, anything different was wrong, and that could be scary.

As we got older, met more people, eventually went off to school, etc. we were exposed to many different ways of doing things. We learned it was okay to cut a sandwich across the middle, not just corner to corner. We discovered that some of our schoolmates brought tamales instead of sandwiches for lunch. We saw that some people had different color eyes, hair or skin. The sooner we were exposed to these differences the less likely we were to see them as scary.

When you went to work for your first employer, they had a certain way of doing things. You didn’t know any differently so you accepted that as the correct way. If you stayed with that company for 20 years, their methods would have gotten pretty ingrained. It would have been very difficult for you to accept a different company’s way of doing something as correct. It would have been hard to admit that the new way might be better.

If, however, you moved from branch to branch within the company, or went to work for another company several times in your career, you learned that there are very few things that everyone does exactly the same. So you quickly adopted the habit of picking the best way, regardless of where it came from.

It is critical to remember this when managing people from a different country, culture, or language. Different is not wrong; different is just different. There is nothing to fear from different, per se.

Respect Is Essential

Fear is a common reaction to encountering something different. Unfortunately, so is disrespect. “My way is better”, you say to yourself, “why should I listen to him?” That leads to thinking that since his way is not as good as yours, he must not be as good as you. That breeds disrespect.

When managing foreign language teams, it is imperative that you treat each member of the team with respect. It not only shows them that you understand differences and do not fear them, but it also shows them you are someone they can respect in return.

It is very easy to pick up on when someone is disrespecting you, even if you can’t speak their language. A key danger here is that the disrespect may be attributed to something different and it may produce undesirable results.

Open Up To New Ideas

Since you are smart enough to not fear differences, you are halfway there. It is not enough to simply not run away from differences; you must seek them out if you are to grow. You recognized early in you career that every person on your team had different skills they could contribute to the team’s success. You took advantage of that in the tasks you assigned them. Then you started asking the team for suggestions because you knew that their different backgrounds and skills gave them different perspectives. From those different perspectives came ideas you might not have thought of. This is just as true when you are managing foreign language teams.

Not only do these people have different backgrounds, they often have completely different cultures. Their value systems may be different. They may be of a different religion. They probably have worked for companies that you have not. They may even have experience in industries other than yours. All these things give them a different perspective and can produce innovative ideas if you are open to them.

Yes, you can ask the team for input, but be open to other facets of their differences too. Try their native foods, watch their movies (with sub-titles if necessary), find out what their national holidays are and why they are important to them. The more you open up and internalize differences, the broader a base you have from which to produce ideas and solutions.

Focus On The Goal

As you embrace these differences and you reach out to the members of your foreign language team, don’t lose sight of the fact that you have a job to get done. Whether you are building an international product, selecting an offshore vendor, or opening a market in a new country there is always a goal. You need to know what that goal is and to stay focused on getting there.

When you were managing a single language team, you would not have let a single individual’s lack of results stop the team from getting to its goal. The same is still true when managing foreign language teams. Be respectful, be open, embrace difference, but get the job done.

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