Converting the primary language of a business is no small task. In Tsedal Neeley's work, she's developed a framework for assessing readiness and guidelines for adopting the shift. Adoption depends on two key factors:
Buy-in is the degree to which employees believe that a single language will produce benefits for them or the organisation. Belief in their own capacity is the extent to which they are confident that they can gain enough fluency to pass muster.
The two dimensions combine to produce four categories of response to the change, as shown in the matrix “Four Types of Employee Response.” Ideally, employees would fall in what Tsedal Neeley calls the “inspired” category—those who are excited about the move and confident that they can make the shift. They’re optimistic and likely to embrace the challenge. But undoubtedly, some employees will feel “oppressed.” Those people don’t think the change is a good idea, and they don’t think they’ll cut it.
The reality is that without buy-in, employees won’t bother to brush up their language; without belief, they’ll lose hope. Tsedal Neeley identified some guidelines managers can follow to help people along. Rakuten’s Mikitani has successfully implemented a version of this framework.
Leaders and managers can help employees move from one box to another more easily than you might expect. There are fairly simple strategies that aid the shift, typically involving some combination of a strong psychological boost and practical training. To shift employees from “frustrated” to “inspired,” for instance, managers must offer constant encouragement and an array of language-development opportunities. To shift employees from “indifferent” to “inspired,” managers must work on improving buy-in—once these employees feel invested in the change, their skills will follow.
Managers can use four strategies to help people boost their belief in their ability to develop language proficiency.
Whether through education, employment, or living abroad, experience tends to give people the confidence they need to succeed in this task. You can’t change the past experience, but you can provide opportunities, such as overseas language training and job rotations, that open new doors and allow employees to stretch their skills. Rakuten has sent senior executives to English-speaking countries like the UK and the U.S. for full language immersion training. Employees have also been offered weeks-long language-training programs in the Philippines. Although not easily scalable to 7,100 Japanese employees, the programs successfully produced individuals with functional English skills. Rakuten also plans to send more than 1,000 engineers to technology conferences outside Japan.
Attitudes are contagious: People’s faith in their own capabilities grows when they see others around them—peers, managers, friends—having positive experiences with the radical change. The reverse is also true, unfortunately. Managers can model good risk-taking behaviours by showing that they too are trying new things, making mistakes, and learning from those mistakes.
Mikitani focused his personal attention on middle managers because he knew that collectively they could influence thousands of employees. He encouraged them to constantly improve their own language skills and even offered to teach them English himself if need be. (Nobody took him up on the offer.) He also encouraged managers to support their subordinates in their efforts to develop their language proficiency.
Encouragement and positive reinforcement from managers and executives—simple statements like “You can do it” or “I believe in you”—make all the difference. To mitigate turnover threats at Rakuten, managers identified talent that the company wanted to retain and tailored special programs for them, all the while cheering them on. Also, Mikitani repeatedly assured his entire workforce that he would do everything in his power to help every employee meet his or her English-proficiency goals. He made it clear that he believes that with effort everyone can adequately learn the language of business and that he did not want to see anyone leave the company because of the English-only policy.
Companies need to contract with language vendors who specialize in helping employees at various levels of proficiency. The vendors need to be intimately familiar with the company context so that they can guide employees’ learning, from how best to allocate their time in improving skills to strategies for composing e-mails in English. Rakuten considers language development to be part of every job and grants people time during the workday to devote to it. Every morning, employees can be seen flipping through their study books in the company’s cafeteria or navigating their e-learning portals.
Shifts in buy-in call for different measures. But they don’t operate in isolation: Buy-in and belief go together. Strategies that can help people feel more confident include:
Continual communication from the CEO, executives, and managers is critical. Leaders should stress the importance of globalisation in achieving the company’s mission and strategy and demonstrate how language supports that. At Rakuten, Mikitani signalled the importance of the English-language policy to his entire organisation relentlessly. For instance, each week some 120 managers would submit their business reports, and he would reply to each of them pushing them to develop their language skills. I surveyed employees before and after Rakuten implemented the adoption framework. Results indicated a dramatic increase in buy-in after Mikitani showed his employees that he was “obsessed and committed to Englishnization,” as he put it. The vast majority of the employees surveyed said that the policy was a “necessary” move.
Encouragement from managers and executives—simple statements like “You can do it” or “I believe in you”—make all the difference.
Because a language transformation is a multiyear process whose complexity far exceeds most other change efforts, it is crucial to maintaining employee buy-in over time. At Rakuten, the now-English intranet regularly features employee success stories with an emphasis on best practices for increasing language competence. Companywide meetings are also held monthly to discuss the English-language policy.
Managers should encourage people to self-identify as global rather than local employees. It’s difficult to develop a global identity with limited exposure to an international environment, of course. Rakuten tackled this challenge by instituting an enterprise-wide social network to promote cross-national interactions. Employees now interact and engage with colleagues worldwide through the company’s social networking site. Adopting a universal English policy is not the end of leadership challenges posed by global communication. Using English as a business language can damage employee morale, create unhealthy divides between native and nonnative speakers, and decrease the overall productivity of team members. Leaders must avoid and soften these potential pitfalls by building an environment in which employees can embrace a global English policy with relative ease. In this way, companies can improve communication and collaboration.
When Tsedal Neeley asked Mikitani what advice he’d give other CEOs when it comes to enforcing a one-language mandate, he was emphatic about discipline. CEOs need to be role models: If they don’t stick to the program, nobody else will. Mikitani even holds one-on-one performance reviews with his top Japanese executives in English. “If you forgive a little,” he says, “you’ll give up everything.”
Mikitani doesn’t fear resistance. He believes, as I do, that you can counteract it—and ultimately bring about a significant transformation in employees’ beliefs and buy-in. A global language change takes perseverance and time, but if you want to surpass your rivals, it’s no longer a matter of choice.
This article was originally written by Tsedal Neeley who is an associate professor in the Organisational Behaviour unit at the Harvard Business School and the founder of the consulting firm Global Matters. She is the author of The Language of Global Success and full credit goes to the Harvard Business School, who published this article over a year ago. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.