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How do you manage language gaps in GVTs?

SPLIT: Language and Identity

We’ve discussed language gaps and cultural differences in culturally diverse teams, but how do we manage these in Global Virtual Teams?

The next elements of Neeley’s SPLIT framework are language and identity.

Language gaps and fluency

Language gaps can be particularly wide in GVTs.

The SPLIT framework recommends that leaders of GVTs set three communication rules to counter language and fluency gaps.

1. Dial down dominance

Team members who tend to dominate conversations should be encouraged to pull back a bit. If you are in this category, limit the number of comments you make within a set timeframe.

Help other team members by being conscious of speaking slower, using shorter sentences, and avoiding slang expressions and idioms (eg “over the moon”). Explain any specific cultural references (eg to politics or TV shows) so that team members don’t feel confused or left out.

Be aware that colleagues will not necessarily say they don’t understand something, so double-check. For example you could ask ‘do you understand what I’m saying?’ or paraphrase others’ statements to ensure their meaning has been understood.

2. Dial up engagement

Less fluent team members, who tend to withdraw from conversations, should be encouraged to speak up. If you are in this category, you can set goals for yourself to make a certain number of comments within a meeting.

Colleagues may find it difficult to pick up everything you are saying due to language issues or accent, so routinely ask ‘Do you understand what I am saying?’

And don’t be afraid to say if you don’t understand something. Be aware that reverting to your native language in team meetings can alienate your teammates.

3. Balance participation to ensure inclusion

Team leaders should monitor and actively manage participation in GVTs. Who is and isn’t contributing? Do you need to get more fluent team members to dial down? Do you need to solicit participation from the less fluent team members? The leader should also be prepared to define and interpret content so that everyone understands.

Identity and the mismatch of perceptions

By now, you will realise that a person’s cultural identity can influence their perceptions, which can in turn cause misunderstandings.

To avoid this, the leader needs to watch, listen, and learn how culturally different team members make different interpretations of the same behaviour or situation.

For example…

Imagine a team leader assigns a task to a team member, who responds, ‘Yes, I can do this’. Can the leader expect that the task will be successfully completed?

For some cultures, it’s reasonable for the leader to assume the task will be done. However as Neeley indicates in her research, for some cultures, ‘Yes, I can do this’ may simply indicate a willingness to try.

Leaders should avoid making assumptions, so that they can ensure their team members are confident in their work, while also making sure the job gets done.

In this example, the leader could dig deeper and ask the team member whether they foresee any issues that may prevent them from completing the task, or whether they need more resources.

Your task

Imagine you are the leader who has asked a team member if they can complete a task, to which they responded ‘Yes, I can do this’.

How else could you respond to this team member?

Share and explain your ideas in the comments.

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This article is from the free online course:

Harnessing Cultural Diversity: Effective Team Leadership in the Workplace

Deakin University

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