While working in China for the past four years as a native English speaker I’ve endured an endless uphill battle in communicating with a predominantly Chinese speaking workforce. I’ve often asked myself questions such as: How can I give clear direction to my team when most of them don’t speak English? How will I understand their problems, needs, background, strengths, weaknesses and favourite food without making basic conversation? After taking on my latest role as a Project Manager in Mainland China these questions and thoughts continued. However, I reached a turning point and managed to learn some valuable lessons, which I intend to employ on my future assignments. These lessons were born from an obvious communication barrier which forced me to take things back to basics and think about how best to get my messages across.

The Value of Chit Chat

One of the biggest hurdles of not being able to speak the same language is the inability to engage in any meaningful chit chat. Upon reflecting on my past English speaking projects I realised there is real value in this form of casual banter that I wasn’t always fully aware of. Whether you know it or not, this is where you get to know your team members more intimately and get a better understand their background. Just think about it, how many times have you been able to get an understanding of someone’s depth of knowledge and experience just from a small one to one conversation? Based on the language they use, and other small cues you can almost subconsciously understand if they are the real deal or not. Knowing the capabilities of your team is vital in your ability to lead and I’ve had to use other less effective means to gain this insight.

Not being able to shoot the breeze at the office water cooler with your team also has its drawbacks in being able to establish mutual trust and respect. Non work related chat on sports, politics, etc. helps to build common ground. With a large communication chasm in the way, I resorted to other less effective means, such as a common taste for the local Baijiu (Chinese white wine) or Peking Duck. The Chinese really appreciate a strong drinker and a good feed.

In order to build a high performing team you need to put a lot of effort into building strong relationships with your team. One of the obvious ways to do this and build rapport is to learn the local language and culture. This is a slow, time consuming process but is extremely rewarding when and well worth the effort. In some parts of China it is uncommon to ever see a Westerner, so for a local person to hear a Westerner speaking their local tongue is extremely exciting and a sure way to gain respect.

Build the Right Team

I have found that to be successful in this environment I needed key people in my team I could rely on. For me the right mix was two key bilingual employees reporting to me who I could work with closely. If they were the right people and I could gain their trust, they could use their influence, experience and social standing to influence others in the team. These champions helped me deliver my vision for the project to the entire team and importantly, get everyone’s buy in.

As a leader an important skill is being able to ask the right questions to ensure you get quality and timely information to make the right decision. If the person translating for you doesn’t fully understand the question (and the intent of the question) you are asking, then the real message will be lost in translation (or a series of awkward Chinese Whispers).

The relationship and mutual understanding between you and those translating and further communicating your message for you is critical to success. While this seems obvious when talking about translating between languages, this applies to people speaking a common language. In a typical workplace, people come from all kinds of backgrounds and different upbringings. This gives them a different lens on life. To communicate effectively with people from different backgrounds and generations, you need to effectively speak their language, in a way that they will understand your message as you intend. This may involve finding those champion employees who can help you engage with your entire team.

Use Tech to your Advantage

Translation apps have come a long way and can be very convenient for navigating your way around daily life when living in a foreign country. The good ones make use of your phone’s camera and microphone to recognise foreign text and voices which it can directly translate. This is extremely handy at the local supermarket or restaurant and can at times provide some entertainment, as Chinese does not usually translate perfectly to English.

When dealing with complex issues, direct translations are often cryptic and the true meaning is lost. For important matters it’s best to follow up with a colleague to get a full understanding of the issue. I’m sure translation technology will improve with the aid of artificial intelligence, but it’s important to understand the limitations of the tools you’re using. Based on this experience, this “getting up out of your seat to check with your colleague” attitude is highly valuable and a healthy communication habit to have. I am sure you can all think of a time when you misunderstood the message or the content of an email. Sometimes it’s wise to go and discuss the subject before jumping to conclusions, you may also learn something new from your conversation.

Being in China I have made use of the widely popular social media app “WeChat” to communicate with my non-English speaking team members. This is convenient as it can quickly translate each instant message, so for simple conversations this has helped to narrow the language barrier. This has also been the best method to conduct the one on one conversations that were otherwise impossible.

Scott's Team

This opportunity has taught me a lot about communication. The value of one on one conversations and small talk in building common ground, rapport and trust. The need to build a team of the right mix of people who can communicate on the same level to ensure a common goal and vision is maintained. Technology has certainly helped to close the gap but it does not take away the importance of these basic principles.