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The Elephant in the room is speaking English with an accent!

diversity english language mcin Feb 14, 2023

The elephant in the room

Everyone sees it—but no one discusses it: the proverbial elephant in the boardrooms, meeting rooms and virtual spaces of globally operating businesses is the issues of English with an accent. What I mean is that the international language of business is a frequently underestimated and unaddressed dimension of Diversity in the international workplace. With many organizations focused on bias-proofing their talent systems and practices in the pursuit of social equity, it is high time to explore and develop inclusiveness standards for the diversities of English accents.

Diversities of English accents? 

This idea is both literal and figurative. Let's first look at it literally: Everyone who speaks English speaks it with an accent. A "neutral accent" - at least not objectively - does not exist. Accents (in any language) carry a lot of information related to geographic origin, socio-economic status and education levels. In other words, small sound patterns in our speech carry significant personal background information and trigger assumptions and biases related to intelligence, competence, and capabilities, as well as social and/or cultural distance or proximity (similarity). The first diversity is of course that of native speakers, i.e., those who have learned and used English from early childhood. The diversity of native English speaker accents is indeed formidable. Think for a moment of the distinctive speech patterns associated with speakers from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the Southern United States, Boston, New York City, or the Midwest of the United States, Canada, Jamaica, Australia, Nigeria, New Zealand, India, South Africa or Singapore—not to mention the regional or class-based differences in each.

One of the secret pleasures of non-native English speakers is to watch native speakers strain to understand and communicate across the significant spectrum of native English accents. But this pleasure is short-lived because non-native speakers are often only too aware that their accent contains risks to their career advancement in professional settings that are dominated, structured and fitted to native speakers.

For many this risk is similar to the “accentism” [prejudice based on accent] experienced by those who speak highly stigmatized English vernaculars, such as Black English vernaculars in the Americas or Cockney in the U.K. for example. These speakers know they are up against significant stereotypes and unfair judgments solely based on how they speak. Many learn to code-switch as a mitigation strategy at the high cost of suppressing important aspects of their identity. [Note: Code-switching means adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression to minimize the risk of being stereotyped, disliked, unfairly judged. For more on this, you may also find this HBR article and Wales online findings interesting.]

For many non-native speakers of English code-switching is not an available option to ward off unfair judgment. Only the ambiguity of staying silent can provide some shelter at times. In a business environment, where clear, "correct", and seemingly confident communication is associated with competence, many non-native speakers fear being disadvantaged and limited in their opportunities to advance. This is frequently also true for those whose English skills are, by most standards, quite good, but who increasingly struggle with intractable difficulties to communicate in native-speaking leadership contexts and “codes.”

More than a language: cultural codes

This is where the literal becomes figurative. When international organizations, particularly those headquartered in the "Anglosphere" (i.e., the core cluster of countries in which the English language and cultural values predominate - U.K., Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand) declare English to be their global standard, they are also implying that the cultural standards that define the Anglosphere operate as an invisible influence about who succeeds and who does not.

Hence "English" is much more than language. It includes a specific "cultural code" that operates implicitly in the business system, processes, and practices. Like most of culture, it operates predominately outside of conscious awareness. Particularly, its successful members, according to this very culture code, are more likely to ascribe their success to their individual skill and merit rather than the absence of biases, including those linked to their accent. This creates the dilemma that simply asking a successful member of an organization about the "culture code" will not yield useful information. 

Few native speakers, for example, are aware of:

  • The intricate rules of "small talk" that make social relationships seemingly flow with a miraculous ease, 
  • The peculiar forms of indirectness and self-deprecation that permeate many interactions, 
  • The rules of humor and competitive bantering that negotiate and reinforce hierarchy in meetings,
  • The relaxed, free-flowing communication style that makes presentations feel more like entertainment,
  • The uneasiness with silences and "dead space" and the compulsion to "fill the air," 
  • The ease with "guessing in public" (better known as "brainstorming"), or
  • The not-so-subtle art of self-promotion.

And there are more.

These are examples of the specific "culture code" that cause many non-native speakers considerable consternation. I remember one Chinese leader with a very good command of English who confided in me how meetings with his native English-speaking leaders exhausted him. Even after over a decade working for Western multinationals, he found it "difficult to read what is actually going on behind peoples’ foreheads." In other words, communicating and connecting was very hard work. And it wasn't even clear to him whether his hard work paid off. 

The cost of language bias

Given that the success of managers and leaders is tied to the work of communicating and connecting, the risk and cost of these insecurities are bound to be significant (even if hard to measure and quantify). In fact, if we applied the principles of Quality that operates in most assembly plants, we would equip every participant in a meeting with the power to stop a meeting when communication is unclear, ambiguous, or social connection is disturbed. Unfortunately, we don’t.

Only too often do non-native speakers end up in company sponsored advanced English lessons or even "accent reduction" programs when the main issue is neither English nor accent (in the literal sense). These programs, in turn, do not help the already pervasive insecurity and vulnerability. As one non-native leader put it to me recently “it is like having an invisible disability.”

The knee-jerk reaction - to assume that a lack of English skills needs to be remedied - is as understandable as it is damaging and counterproductive. And it exists on all sides - the native speakers, non-native speakers, and the organization they work for. In that sense, all become complicit in maintaining the status quo. What is less clearly understood is that after a certain level of English skill is attained, it is the culture code and implicit assumptions about leadership that present significant barriers to success. The real challenge is navigating and mastering the intersection of English, culture, and leadership.  

Bridging linguistic differences

A key responsibility exists on the side of native speaking managers and leaders to recognize that declaring that the company's international language is English does not endorse their version of the native language or their native use of it. Quite the opposite. Just like non-native speakers are keenly aware of the difficulties of expressing, communicating, and connecting across the nebulous terrain of English, culture and leadership, native speakers are called upon to make changes. They need to become adept at modulating the way they speak and communicate, understand the difficulties of non-native speakers, act as cultural mentors, and work at identifying and neutralizing the implicit assumptions (biases) that are embedded in the systems, processes, and practices. They need to build bridges.

These bridges are made of 3 components:

  1. The skill to shift their communication styles to a more accessible global use of English.
  2. The skill to identify where and when aspects of the culture code present barriers and coach non-native speakers on specific communication techniques.
  3. The skill to effectively challenge assumptions and intervene when norms and engrained patterns at the intersection of English, culture and leadership create disadvantages for native and non-native speakers alike.

Organizations that are committed to advancing equity and inclusiveness are well advised not to leave this issue up to chance or to the astuteness of their individual managers or leaders. Building these bridges has to become expected, reinforced and rewarded as an integral part of good leadership; i.e., inclusive leadership. The organization needs to support both native and non-native speakers with skills development that focuses on the nuanced and complex interactive space at the intersection of English, culture, and leadership.

For companies that bemoan their leaky leadership pipelines, focusing on this intersection will help uncover hidden sources of needed talent. English accents - literally and figuratively - are like other dimensions of diversity. They hold value for all when inclusive leaders build cultural environments that are truly inclusive and equitable. 

Leading in English has been our initial attempt at framing out the key issues. With Mastering Clarity, Impact, and Narrative (MCIN) we have launched a transformative 6-week learning solutions for non-native speakers and native speakers alike. If you or someone you know struggles at the intersection of English, culture and leadership, MCIN will get you unstuck! Learn more here!