After a presentation in which I had talked about “accent”, Mark, a member of the audience came up and sought advice. He was a partner in a professional services firm and worried about two of his team members one from China and the other one from Peru. He described them as “very smart and capable, but they speak with strong foreign accents and make some mistakes.” He had concern in his voice, so I asked him why this troubled him. He worried about “executive presence” and the risk of putting them in front of clients. “If the client does not understand them and they make very basic language mistakes, this will not reflect well on our firm, … and, it is not good for their careers either,” Mark said.
The perception of risk that was triggered by “accent” evoked powerful stereotypes and judgments. It paralyzed his decisions about doing the right thing for the client and his team members. In our book, Leading in English, we call this ‘the accent trap’ and Mark was squarely caught in it. “Accent” particularly when paired with small grammatical errors often triggers a sense of risk and lack of qualities that are deemed critical to success.
These qualities are often shrouded in vague and highly subjective, culture-dependent terms – “leadership presence” or “executive presence” being among the most common examples. But, when someone is not perceived to have it, a most unfortunate chain reaction can ensue:
- The individual does not receive specific, thoughtful or actionable feedback - possibly due to the manager’s fear of not offending.
- As a result, the value and strengths of the individual are not be fully utilized, and development may not be available or fully utilized.
- This can contribute to the stagnation of a career and erode confidence as a result.
- Lower levels of confidence, in turn, can show up in lower levels of engagement and performance, ironically reinforcing the perception of risk.
Both international professionals and their managers can get trapped in this vicious cycle; and it has undesirable consequence for individuals, teams, and entire organizations.
So, how can we help Mark and his team members? Understanding this cycle does very little to change it. But, it might help to raise awareness and use critical questions to identify ways to get out of this trap:
- How much is your sense of “risk” truly warranted or is it a projection of your own stereotypes and biases?
- When you “feel” risk around a person, do you check if it is “real”? If so, how can you shape the perceptions of your client and also support him/her in the interactions with the clients?
- Are team members receiving feedback from you that is supportive, useful and actionable? Or, are you providing vague feedback or withholding it all together because you are uncomfortable with giving team members feedback?
- Does your organization offer meaningful and effective development for international professionals? Do you and others know about it? How easy is it to engage them?
- As an international professional, do you feel that your career is stagnant and opportunities are not extended to you? Which conversations do you need to have and with whom to assess where you and how to propel your career?
- If you speak with an accent, do you sometimes lose confidence in your abilities? Who can you talk to about this? Where can you find support?
These are just some of the questions we can ask and encourage. Fortunately, there are also solutions help us respond. To find out more, click here.