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Will English-Only Remote Teams Work Best? Are You Sure?

Team communication across countries and time zones is difficult. Add real language barriers and you have a common--and potentially expensive--problem that's all too common today. Many companies and leaders are insisting on "English Only" work groups. This sounds like a simple solution--but does it work as well as they think?

Michael Schutzler is CEO of Livemocha.com and a highly respected business coach with more than a dozen years experience coaching & mentoring executives, managers, CEOs, and board members. His company was voted one of Time Magazine's 50 Best Websites of 2010. It's the world's largest online language learning community with over 8 million members from 195 countries

I asked him about how managers can work with their teams to overcome some significant challenges caused by different languages in international teams.

What is the impact of "English Only" rules on teams and their leaders?
While it's true that English is a required language for success, that's only half the story. Investing in language and cultural training to properly blend the skills, talent, and insights of a multi-national team is now a necessity--not an option. Those professionals who've mastered English and American culture have a significant competitive advantage over their insular American "English-only" counterparts. Conversely, those Americans who have a solid foundation in the language and culture of their immigrant co-workers and overseas partners are better suited to lead and collaborate in this complex, globally connected world.

Organizations that provide English language and cultural training benefit from incremental improvement in productivity. Companies like Global English, goFluent, and Livemocha offer outstanding online classes, courses, tutoring, and coaching. Thousands of ESL tutors can be found on Google and can be scheduled via Skype for affordable and useful coaching. But English training is no longer sufficient for success. Basic Mandarin and Spanish are quickly becoming an imperative for managers working with overseas teams. Even more importantly, a thorough education in the history and business culture of China, India, Latin America, and Europe are required in order to successful build relationships, negotiate viable partnerships, and compete effectively in those regions.

What are some of the steps managers can take to overcome language barriers?
When an American product manager works with a team of software developers in Shanghai â€" and takes the time needed to learn a little Mandarin and the basic history and cultural norms of her Chinese team, she's able to inspire and motivate her team much more effectively that her counterpart who unilaterally insists that a Shanghai team improve their English conversational skills and study American culture.

Similarly, mangers in technology companies in the US find themselves staffed with a team comprising Chinese, Indian, Latin American and European immigrants. Merely insisting on English and American cultural training is demoralizing and leads to discontent and loss of prime talent. With just a little effort, a good manager will learn the basic greetings and the history of the regions from which his staff originate. Managers can also provide a combination of written and oral feedback to employees, so they can identify the structure and grammar of the English language. This makes it much easier to motivate a multi-national team to polish up their English skills and adapt to American operational norms.

In the end, we leaders need to examine our own fears and sometimes arrogance. asks a provocative question: Will you be an arrogant fool insisting the world adapt to your language and culture or will you meet your co-workers half way, win their hearts and minds, and compete effectively in a globally connected world?

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photo by flickr user lumaxart CC 2.0


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