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If you are uni-lingual and don’t even want to read this post because you’re afraid I am going to talk you into learning a foreign language, please don’t leave! That’s not what I’m talking about.
I left my home country of Iran at age 16 to continue my education in the US. I had a very limited English vocabulary when I arrived in Boston and virtually no conversation skills as whatever English I knew, I had learned through reading and writing, not speaking to native speakers. About six months later, just as I was approaching the point of being able to get by, I moved to a very small town in south Georgia. I was on the Greyhound bus for 33 hours because I didn’t want to deal with the complications of flying to Atlanta and finding my way to Cochran, and I remember getting off the bus thinking it had gone all the way to Mexico while I was asleep because I could no longer understand what people were saying! Anyway, I figured out how to manage after a while. Little did I know that I would find myself in the midst of people whose language and culture I wouldn’t understand a few more times, many years later when my family and I moved to Thailand, and then Germany.
The difference between the experiences I mentioned above was that when I came to the States, it was clear that I had to learn the local language and culture because they weren’t going to learn mine, but in Germany, learning German was definitely optional as many people were fluent in English, and in Thailand my wife and kids did okay without learning the language. I, on the other hand, had to learn enough to communicate with the plant personnel, most of whom didn’t speak English. Many of my expat friends didn’t put any effort into learning Thai as maids, drivers, and management staff that worked for them were readily available interpreters. Let’s face it, many of us English speakers feel entitled that others should learn our language, don’t we?
Leaders face the same choice every day, to either learn the language of the people who count on them for leadership or expect everybody else to learn theirs. I am not necessarily referring to a foreign language here as much as I am the preferred style of communication that works for the other party. We have all had bosses who expected everyone to adapt their communication style to them. Whenever I had that experience, I was clear that I couldn’t be myself and communicate in the way that was most effective for me, but I had to conform to the stringent criteria of what was okay to say and what was not okay. This always hindered my ability to communicate. One of my bosses had a preference for a short response in the form of, “Got it,” after she gave any kind of direction. Any questions or communication other than this short phrase were sure to invite all kinds of pain and suffering on the part of the one who uttered them. On the other hand, the leaders who allowed me to be myself and looked for the spirit of my message rather than criticizing me for not speaking in their language always liberated me to be myself and bring my best to work. I most certainly felt a lot more loyalty to the latter than I did to the former.
I cannot tell you how much the Thais appreciated my attempt at learning the local language and my effort to respect and adapt to the local culture. At the same time there was an unspoken, and sometimes even spoken, disdain for foreign visitors who completely disrespected the local culture. These were people who were oblivious to the basic things that every foreigner can and should learn about the Thai culture, such as not using your feet to hold the door open or to point to something, or not touching an adult’s head, etc.
Leaders who are flexible in their style, and are willing and respectful of their people’s preferences and communication styles earn the loyalty of their people, and liberate them to be themselves. This flexibility also allows the leader to assert himself/herself just right, no more and no less, when a course correction is needed. I remember having two guys, that we will call Ben and Jack, reporting to me several years back. Ben was extremely sensitive and would turn beet red if he ever got any hint that he had somehow disappointed me. Jack, however, was exactly the opposite and no amount of soft and gentle feedback worked for him. Can you imagine me using the exact same style to deliver negative feedback to both of these guys? …Well, I did! That is before I got to know them, and it wasn’t working. Ben was constantly trying to avoid me because he couldn’t bear the thought of looking me in the eye, and Jack had no clue that he had to do anything different. Once I go to know these guys a bit better, I was able to get the results I was looking for out of both of them just by catering the delivery style to each according to what worked for him, specifically.
I have learned that this lesson applies in all aspects of my personal and professional life. Things somehow work out for the best when I treat others as they want to be treated, which is at times different than the way I want to be treated. My marriage is better because of this realization. My relationship with my adult kids is better since I realized that they are two very different people with different styles and preferences. And so are my professional relationships.
If you are in sales you know how important it is to know your customers. If you are in the business of producing and/or marketing something, you know just how critical consumer insight is. Successful sales people and marketers would never ignore this insight and just default to their own style whether it works or not. Unfortunately, as leaders sometimes we forget that it is equally important to take the time to get to know our employees, our peers and our bosses so that we can tailor our communication and effectively speak the language that is right for the person or circumstances.
Aside from the obvious differences like language and regional culture, there are many other ways to explore differences in styles and have that inform your approach. Awareness of Gary Chapman’s Love Languages is sure to put your personal, not just romantic, relationships on steroids. The other tool that I have found to be extremely helpful in professional, and some personal, relationships is the DISC assessment. Whatever tool or approach you use, I’d urge you to get beyond communicating like a TV set, as in the same way no matter who is watching, and take the time to understand those you work, or live, with and tailor your style to match what works for them.
The Bottom Line: Leaders who are willing to adapt their communication style to the specific circumstance and the person they are talking to, rather than expecting everyone to cater to their style, liberate their team members to be themselves and bring their best to the team.
Have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary! As always, I would love to hear about your victories and/or challenges. Please leave your comments below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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