S2E21 – VacationCast – A Small Story of Language Diversity

Show Notes

Join Mon-Chaio in this VacationCast episode where he recounts an anecdote from his past involving collaboration, inclusion, and using diverse language in a business environment.


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Mon-Chaio: Hi everyone, and welcome to this week’s episode of The TTL Podcast. Andy is off on a bike adventure somewhere. I think the last I heard from him, he was at a Neanderthal museum of some sort, but that he was visiting … anyway, so it’ll just be me today, which means this is officially a VacationCast episode. Both Andy and I’ve gotten feedback from our listeners that they really enjoy hearing real life stories of ours and other people’s experiences. So we generally try to weave those in as much as we can into all of our episodes, though, of course, some episodes lend themselves better to that than others.

But for today’s VacationCast, I thought I’d dive directly into a real life story and share a short, but I think memorable war story from my past. Hopefully you all find it interesting. And my hope is that maybe you’ll have advice for me about how to handle a similar situation in the future. I know that Andy and I do a lot of teaching on this podcast, which we love, but we are also always eager to learn from our audience as well. And there’s no better way to do that than to share some of the challenges that we’ve experienced in the past.

So to set some context for this particular story, at the time I was working at a large tech company. Some people use the phrase, Big Tech or FAANG to colloquially referred to these types of companies, even if they’re not actually part of the FAANG acronym, which has very specific set of companies within that acronym. This company that I was working at was a global company. It was well capitalized. And it had a bunch of features of those types of companies: think centralized HR departments, well-defined career ladders, you know, that sort of a thing.

For this company, I was heading up an organization that consisted of multiple AAA teams. So as a reminder for our new listeners or for those that don’t quite remember, AAA stands for authority, autonomy, accountability. So these teams were fairly autonomous and had distinct charters, KPIs, that sort of a thing.

One of these AAA teams was fairly new and consisted of a large number of external hires, including having an externally hired new manager. So, you know, new-new. I would say the average tenure for folks on this team was about six months at this point in time when I’m relaying the story. I think another piece of important context is that most of the new people came from the same former company. This was during a hiring boom so many people were moving from company to company. And as part of that move, they would often command more senior titles or larger compensation packages. And, as happens, Big Tech regularly hires from other Big Tech, as employees get used to the benefits and culture that’s often similar between companies in that realm.

About a year into building this team, I started seeing an interesting interaction. Many of the new employees were of the same ethnicity, and they would default to their native tongue when speaking with each other. Apparently, this was very common at their previous company and, as as more and more people from that company were hired in that were the same ethnicity, this culture came to manifest itself in my company as well. Now, this was pre-COVID, so everyone was still in the office full time, with very little, if any, remote work. And as is common in tech, we were seated in a cubicle type structure, although not specifically cubicles. So these employees would lean over to their neighbor or they drag their chair over to another desk and work together with their peer, only conversing in their native tongue and not English. This was actually more than just short conversations too. Sometimes, you can imagine, they’d drag a whiteboard into their common space and a few employees would gather around that whiteboard and brainstorm in their native tongue. Or if there was a meeting with folks of the same ethnicity, in a meeting room or out in the open, those meetings would often be conducted in their native tongue.

Now I’m curious what all of our listeners think of this situation, and how you all would handle it if this were your organization. For me, on the one hand, many of these folks were quite a bit more facile in their native tongue than in English. And I believe they felt like they could get work done faster and better by speaking in their native tongue. Also, respecting diversity is obviously extremely important. And if this only happened in say short conversations between just pairs of people, I don’t think it would have even piqued my interest. But, on the other hand, I’m also a big believer in information radiation. And I think that’s one of the huge benefits of being co located. You can overhear conversations that you can then have positive contributions to. Information radiation. Is also a huge enabler of informal learning, which if you’ve listened to any of our previous episodes, you would know, we think informal learning is critical to building a true learning organization. And I think the last thing in my mind was there felt like there was a little bit of an exclusionary effect as well. As the size of that team grew, for whatever reason, the non-native English speaking population became larger and larger and larger. And the native English speakers began to feel excluded.

Now, I want to point out that this is a feeling right? We’re talking about that they felt excluded. It wasn’t that there was specific process or intent to exclude them. And it wasn’t like they were actively being shut out of conversations. that they quote-unquote needed to be in. So as an example, any meeting that had the whole team in it, for example, would always be conducted in English. There was no question about that.

So given all that, what do you all think? Was this a situation that required any sort of leadership intervention? And if so, what sort of intervention, what sort of guidance would you give if you were to intervene in this situation? And if you feel like it didn’t require intervention,, is this something that you would continue to monitor? And if so, I’m curious, what would be your framework for deciding when, if ever future intervention was required?

So curious to hear everyone’s thoughts and I’d be happy to share mine as well. Let me know what you think: hosts@thettlpodcast.com. And if we get some good discussion going here, we might even have another episode pulling in people’s comments. But for today, I think I’ll end it here and keep it short and sweet. I hope you all have enjoyed this VacationCast and until next time, be kind and stay curious.


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