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Words can be powerful. Nowhere is this more apparent to me than in Belgium, where I’m on the hunt for a new assignment. It’s proving challenging, but not because I lack the expert skills and experience of a transformation professional. Pas du tout!
In this tiny country, being trilingual is the norm. There are even secondary school education programmes where scientific subjects are taught in English, history in French and Maths in Dutch. Geweldig! I’ll wager good money that the average Belgian teenager speaks English and Dutch better than their UK counterparts.
It may sound like a cliche but Britons are the worst at learning other languages. In a recent survey by ESOL, 62% of people in the UK speak only English, and only 38% can make themselves understood in another tongue. Compare this to the 56% of Europeans who speak one other language, and the 28% who speak two! Half of EU citizens can hold a conversation in English.
At my level of seniority English is usually the business language of choice. Still, I feel at a disadvantage if I cannot express myself in fluent Dutch or French. I spent 6 months learning Dutch and practicing it as often as I can. It’s not perfect, but after 2 years I can describe what I do and how I do it and I’ve got to the point where Flemish Belgians do not switch automatically to English when they hear me speak, though they do make fun of my accent. I’m following an evening class in photography and make presentations in Dutch, so ‘ik spreek nederlands’. French is another story.
All of this has got me thinking about how important language is. Of course it’s possible to create cross-cultural rapport without the benefit of bilingualism, but somehow putting yourself in someone else’s shoes by being able to communicate in more than one language goes a long way – both personally and professionally. Shared vocabulary makes for greater connection, which is much needed in the digital echo-chamber we call work.
Anyone remember ‘Magic Eye’ pictures… or more precisely, autostereograms? You know, those two dimensional patterns that allow some people to see the hidden 3-D images contained inside the picture. The trick is to shift your gaze. I often think it must have been really difficult to sell the concept – especially if your prospective client was someone who just didn’t get it… ‘Really, that is a penguin juggling a white rabbit!’
And like the picture of the conjuring penguin, engaging people during times of organisational transition can be just as much of a hard-sell. Change can be uncomfortable for most folks, especially if it’s imposed and not chosen. Merger. New CEO. Restructure. He-l-lo Dotty… suddenly you and the dog aren’t in Kansas, any more! It’s clear that change remains a feature of the corporate landscape as economic, technological and demographic shifts continue to affect the way we work and interact with one another. Still, it can be pretty difficult to rally the troops when said troops are – for dear life – hanging on to the rug management have just pulled out from under their feet.
We’ve all heard the phrase ‘stakeholder engagement’, but in badly-led organisations that boils down to a few road shows and a set of PowerPoint slides for managers who are so busy, they think ‘reply all’ equals ‘reaching hearts and minds’. And if you think I am making this up, then just consider the example of The Accident Group (TAG) who, in 2003, fired 2,400 people by text message when the company went bust here in the UK. Change is as much about communicating the art of the possible, as it is about making people do or believe something different.
So, how can you get the best out of people affected by change? The trick is to shift your gaze. This is what separates good change agents from the masters. Good change agents know they need to communicate clearly, and so they ask questions, identify the issues, and then tailor their words to the audience in question. Masterful change managers go one step further…they try to understand the other person’s perspective before they communicate. Perspective is a gift – it can show you new ways of looking at old problems, and it can help you to see where your employees are coming from when the CEO launches the latest change initiative. This doesn’t mean that you will see eye-to-eye with everyone who is part of the change process – this is the real world, not Oz – but making an authentic effort to stand in someone else’s shoes for a while, may mean they walk with you.
This blog should probably be called ‘Why engagement matters?’ And I don’t mean that in the biblical sense… Actually, it has been prompted by a union of sorts. Have you noticed how rapidly the marriage of Liberal Democrat and Conservative has shifted from ‘hung parliament’ to ‘coalition’? And this isn’t casual wordplay on the part of the sultans of spin – ‘coalition’ bears positive resonances of collaboration and collegiate enterprise…’hung’ has an altogether different timbre. The language has been chosen and reinforced quite deliberately. What I find interesting is that we have a coalition goverment that actually seems to be committed to working together. Of course, intent is not the same as action, and only time will reveal whether this was an arranged marriage made in heaven or a shotgun ceremony that will ultimately end in a political decree nisi.
Nonetheless, serious and careful work has been done behind the scenes to engage a group of stakeholders with almost diametrically opposing agendas. In politics, so in business. M&A mavens will be watching the impending deal between Deutsche Bahn and Arriva with interest. Worth Euro 2.8bn, the deal is largely being funded by cash reserves from the German suitor. Deutsche Bahn already operates the Chiltern rail franchise in the UK and owns freight train group EWS. A deal would add Arriva’s Wales and CrossCountry rail franchises, plus a clutch of bus services. However, Arriva’s chief attraction is its mainland European businesses spread over a dozen countries – providing footholds in Europe’s liberalising transport market.
This makes for a complex cross cultural mesh of stakeholders – all of whom may need careful handling if the value of the deal is to be realised across the network and ultimately operationalised. Language will matter, as will culture. But so will engagement – by which I mean actually getting a culturally diverse workforce mobilised to partner effectively with one another.
In recent years, social scientists have started an ongoing debate about the influence of culture on peoples behaviour. For instance, if people in different countries follow different norms and therefore display different value orientations, would this lead to different economic outcomes, even if the pecuniary incentive was the same? Funnily enough, they found that under normal market conditions, culture does not significantly alter the outcome – however, in environments where competitive forces are removed, cultural differences become more pronounced. Thus, while the deal between Arriva and Deutsche Bahn is happening, I’d guarantee scant attention will be given to the way in which the two parties differ. Like a man who marries well, deal brokers and shareholders are only really interested in the aquisition of corporate dowry…perhaps they should spend more time getting to know their intended, before they discover that the beauty spots are actually warts, and that the in-laws are hostile.