The Best Leaders are Bilingual: Connecting a Global Workforce

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The ability to communicate effectively across borders and cultures has become increasingly important. As organizations expand their operations globally, leaders with bilingual (or even multilingual) skills have a distinct advantage. Being bilingual enhances communication and fosters understanding, empathy, and collaboration. If you only speak English, how can you expect to communicate effectively with colleagues in Japan? 

One of the advantages of managing a globally distributed team is the diversity of perspectives that your team brings to the table. Some people communicate differently. As a leader, bridging the language skills gap across cultures is essential. 

Communication Styles

There are different communication norms in every culture. German culture, for instance, has a direct communication style. Giving a direct answer like “no” is respectful since it is not misleading. Problems are felt to be solved more rapidly if frank discussion is encouraged. 

On the other hand, Chinese culture has an indirect communication style, so giving a direct answer like “no” is seen as impolite and crude, even in a business setting. Instead, polite excuses or evasions are provided, which both parties usually recognize as such. Problems are felt to be solved more productively if they are handled with tact and discretion. 

Tailoring your responses based on cultural communication style is vital as a leader. Cultural awareness and intelligence are skills you will develop through learning a language, which will allow you to adapt to the communication styles of your workforce. 

Cultural Intelligence

Language and culture are deeply intertwined. Bilingual leaders gain a deeper understanding of different cultures and the nuances that shape them. This cultural awareness enables them to adapt their leadership style to resonate with individuals from various backgrounds, promoting inclusivity and avoiding misunderstandings. Bilingual leaders are better equipped to navigate cultural differences, anticipate challenges, and leverage opportunities that arise in multicultural environments. 

In a recent survey from the Economist Intelligence Unit, 90 percent of executives from 68 countries cite ‘cross-cultural management’ as their top challenge in working across borders. Today, as business becomes increasingly global, even managers in domestic organizations will likely work with employees from various cultural backgrounds. To do this effectively, they need to develop cultural intelligence. 

The same study found that 70% of international ventures fail because of cultural differences. So how can leaders develop cultural intelligence? 

  1. Learn a language. Take language classes to learn about different customs, traditions, and beliefs. Allow yourself to develop a deeper understanding of cultural nuances. 
  2. Develop intercultural communication skills. Effective communication is at the core of cultural intelligence. Learn to adapt your communication style to suit different cultural contexts, and be aware of non-verbal cues, such as body language and gestures, to avoid misunderstandings. 
  3. Foster cultural sensitivity. Encourage your team to share their cultural backgrounds and experiences, creating a safe space for dialogue and learning. 
  4. Build global networks. Cultivate relationships with people from diverse backgrounds, both in and outside your organization. Participate in professional networks, industry conferences, and international forums to gain exposure. You can also engage in collaborative projects to foster intercultural teamwork. 
  5. Adapt leadership styles. Leadership styles vary across cultures. Be flexible and adaptive in your leadership approach, considering cultural expectations and preferences. Be open to learning from different leadership practices and incorporate them into your own. 

Being an effective leader is crucial to bottom-line business success in today's global workforce. Your job as a leader isn’t to standardize communication across your team but to understand your team members' cultural norms and preferences. 

Bilingual leaders possess a distinct advantage in an increasingly globalized and diverse world. Their ability to communicate effectively, understand different cultures, and embrace a global perspective allows them to navigate complex challenges and seize opportunities that arise in multicultural environments. Bilingualism fosters empathy, enhances problem-solving skills, and promotes innovation. By embracing and cultivating bilingualism, individuals can unlock their full leadership potential and make a meaningful impact in today's interconnected world. 

If your organization is ready to nurture its leaders through language, Global LT can help. Our language lessons can be customized to your business’s needs and goals. Just let us know. 

This blog post was written by Megan Tully, Marketing Manager.

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