Encourage Foreign-Born Employees to Participate More in Meetings

Imagine the following: Feng Li is a Chinese-born management consultant for a major American-based professional services firm in Chicago. Feng has impeccable oral and written English and outstanding technical skills. He is also very creative. In fact, he is on the fast track to senior consultant, then director, and eventually partner, except for one major issue: Feng cannot get himself to participate actively in meetings. The problem has nothing to do with lack of ideas. Feng is one of the brightest consultants at the firm and has excellent ideas and insights. The problem is that Feng is simply unwilling to contribute his ideas in a public forum.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had conversations with senior managers about the challenges that they face in getting some of their best and brightest people to participate actively and effectively in meetings. In fact, these conversations are eerily similar to those I’ve had with business school faculty members about trying to encourage foreign-born and nonnative English-speaking students to participate successfully in class. Sometimes the challenge is culture: Many young professionals come from cultures like China, in Feng’s case, where it is simply inappropriate to speak one’s mind in a public forum, especially with senior colleagues in the room. Other times, it’s language: It takes significant linguistic dexterity to assertively join a conversation, and even nonnative speakers can struggle with this issue. Finally, personality can also be a stumbling block to assertive communication. Some people simply aren’t hardwired to participate comfortably in groups.

So what can we do to help our foreign-born professionals succeed in these situations? As any economist would tell you, the first thing to do is to make sure you have a robust reward system in place — in the classroom or in the professional environment. In academic settings, this is typically much clearer than in the corporate world, since a certain percentage of your final grade is based on class participation. But in the corporate world, in a sense, that’s the case as well. How you are ultimately going to be perceived and evaluated depends in large part on your ability to be seen and heard in meetings and in other situations where you can make a positive impression on your senior colleagues. So, make this reward system explicit to your young professionals: Make it very clear to them in formal and informal performance reviews that participation matters. That can help motivate the heavy lifting necessary to stretch outside of their comfort zones.

Once you alert them to the importance of participation, provide them with the actual skills and tools necessarily to be successful. There are two parts to this. The first part is to give your foreign-born professionals insight into what effective participation actually looks like. It might surprise you that this isn’t always so obvious! I know many professors who lament the fact that their foreign-born students don’t participate in class, but these very same professors don’t give students a sense of what effective participation actually looks like. The same is true in a corporate context. Make it clear to your foreign-born colleagues what effective participation looks like: point them to models of others who do it successfully and connect them with mentors who can help them learn the tricks of the trade.

When people are learning to act outside of their comfort zone, they also need psychological support. People can feel anxious, embarrassed, inauthentic, and disingenuous behaving in a manner that they’re simply not used to. Help them understand what specifically is challenging for them when participating in a meeting. Is it an unusually high level of assertiveness that they’re uncomfortable with? Or perhaps it’s the level of enthusiasm or directness required? And once they diagnose this cultural gap, help them develop strategies for overcoming the discomfort they experience. In doing so, you’ll help them develop the global dexterity to function more effectively not only in this particular situation, but also in many other challenging situations outside their cultural comfort zones.

As the convener of a meeting, there are also several specific tools at your disposal to encourage participation. The “cold call” is, of course, one such tool, and this can work well, especially if people know ahead of time that they may be called on. However, it can also be intimidating for people just learning to adapt behavior in this situation. An alternative is to ask a general question to the room, but frame the question as being in the area of expertise of the person you’re hoping to engage.

For example, if you are interested in a particular person’s participation and know he’s your local expert on developing countries, you might say you’re particularly interested in “ideas from the perspective of a developing country.” That then positions your target person as an expert, which in my experience often encourages participation. It may not feel legitimate or comfortable to speak one’s mind about certain topics or questions, but if the leader of the meeting has asked someone specifically for his or her very relevant expertise, he or she might be much more willing to offer an opinion.

Finally, as a leader, you can also increase participation from foreign-born employees by emphasizing how important participation is, not only for their own personal success and achievement, but also for the good of the business. For employees who come from group-oriented cultures and feel a sense of responsibility to the organization, this framing can actually be quite powerful in motivating them to work hard on behalf of the group. I actually find it also works well in the MBA classroom when I can link individual participation to group-level learning.

Helping foreign-born professionals learn to participate is not always an easy task. But it’s one well worth the effort — for your organization, of course, but also for the development and growth of the professionals themselves.

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