Knowledge and Confidence: One you can outsource but the other? It’s up to you

Two groups with similar language proficiency enter the same English class. They stick with it for seven years. At the end, both groups should show similar progress, right? Well, not exactly.. A recent Canadian research project showed that Group A, which happened to be all Eastern Europeans, far exceeded Group B, which was all Asians. But why the difference?

During my most recent visit to Asia, a Chinese client who works for a U.S.-based company shared some insight with me that answers the question.
“My colleagues and I have many ideas about how our company can do better in this market,” he explained. “But what if we speak up and they don’t understand us? That is very embarrassing so instead we say nothing.”

What my client was saying and research confirms is that cultural
influence plays a tremendous role in business. In this instance, we learn that certain cultures put huge emphasis on saving face. Misspeaking in a meeting or not being understood by one’s superiors is embarrassing and they therefore don’t speak up. They may have knowledge from English classes, and I’ll bet the Asians in that class score just as well on written exams as their Eastern European classmates, but they lack the confidence to march beyond the classroom doors and actually apply that knowledge in the real world.

Every multinational is fighting to win in Asia and other developing markets. We pour fortunes into these markets recruiting talent and opening new office complexes. We subject ourselves to horrendous travel schedules and time zone discrepancies. We market the heck out of our new presence abroad. But frankly, that’s the easy part :)

The real challenge, the area where our business wins or loses, depends upon our ability to build trust with our teams, firmly grasp the mindset of our customers, and assure that our best ideas are heard. Yes, language training is a good start but language lessons alone aren’t enough. Who from the organization is rewarding people for trying their new skills? What collaboration tools do you have in place for sharing ideas in a less formal way? How are you blending the knowledge your people gained with the skills they demonstrate on the job?

These critical components are overlooked or at best delegated to someone at a lower level who probably doesn’t grasp the big picture.

Stand up, senior execs! Yes, you who just spent 20 hours on the plane, missed your kid’s little league game, and choked down a week’s worth of foreign cuisine.. Time to make global communication a TOP priority, to give our overseas colleagues the reassurance they need that it’s better to speak up and do our best than not speak up at all.

One place to begin and ultimately win this battle: Implement and remain a leading cheerleader for your organization’s language, communication, and collaboration programs. Yes, this takes time and energy but I will argue that if you replaced one international trip each year with focus on these areas, you – and your overseas colleagues brimming with knowledge and desperate for a confidence boost – will come out far ahead.