The benefit of multilingual teams

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Recently I was in Düsseldorf at WHU Otto Beisheim University delivering a guest lecture to the executive MBA program on Organisational Change and Creativity. The members of the class were incredibly impressive: intelligent, engaged and thoughtful, a real pleasure to work with. As you’d expect from a great MBA course like this one, the class is really multinational with only eight of the 40 students coming from Germany. The course is delivered in English, which means that the vast majority are working, thinking, debating and probably even dreaming in their second (or third) language.

The environment brought to mind conversations at the THNK School of Creative Leadership in Amsterdam, where my class is equally diverse with most working outside their mother tongue. My fellow students have told me how hard it is to process the material at the same time as translating it, how exhausting this can be, and sometimes how arrogant the native English speakers appear when, paradoxically, those people probably don’t speak any other languages that well.

At WHU I was introducing the class to Karim Benamar’s brilliant Reframing technique (you can learn about it here: http://reframe.thnk.org/) Reframing is an approach that enables people to innovate, to approach the world from a fresh perspective and to overcome engrained patterns. I was using it in the context of solving organisational challenges: investigating alternative viewpoints and unlocking organisational change.

The class split into teams to practice using the tool, free to choose any core belief to reframe. A few of the teams chose challenges related to living and studying in a foreign tongue. When they fed back their thoughts and their reframed core beliefs, I was reminded of how powerful this simple tool is, and then genuinely surprised by the positive and creative ideas the teams had come up with. The one that really struck me was, “when most of a team is working in a second tongue with many different native languages, the result is enforced clarity and an imperative to use the simplest possible language to communicate a point well.”

Humankind’s many languages are beautiful and complex — but it’s good to remember that can get in the way of clear meaningful connections between people and ideas.

If you’re working in a multi-lingual team, I’d love to hear about what you’ve agreed (or not) on how you communicate. If you’re setting one up I’d suggest having that discussion early-on; consider what phrases are common but nonsensical if considered for the words in isolation (“drains up”, “soup-to-nuts”, “touching base” etc) and think about using diagrams and images as much as possible; visual communication is generally much more effective than verbal. And consider an occasional gentle reminder to the native English speakers to consider clarity!