Hellmann's Marlize Kriel on how to overcome the language barrier when working abroad

Marlize Kriel contended with a variety of cultural barriers in the 10 years she spent in the Middle-East and, in this article, she offers a few ideas on how to endear yourself to employees in a foreign country

I spent 10 years in the Middle-East, working specifically places like Afghanistan, which were instrumental in shaping my approach towards people in challenging times. The most profound part of this journey was being able to experience the significance of this ancient culture’s influence on every part of society, and how all this played itself out in the workplace.  

I was gripped by the unimaginable human resilience of the some most vulnerable people. There were a multitude foreign realities that I had to grapple with;  tribal segregation, extremism that drew a virtual line through every geography and social engagement, political tension at a constant boiling point, and an overwhelming international military presence, but also sincere humility like I have never experienced before, and endearing hospitality that left me searching for words.           

In my role HR role with the UN in Afghanistan, I was primarily tasked with rapid turnaround recruitment and deployment of expert skills assigned to high priority projects.  We played a significant part in the recruitment and deployment of expert skills assigned to the upcoming parliamentary elections. It was a role that had a critical element of local staff skill development as well, and I had to ensure that clearly defined tasks were assigned to local HR staff.  Between myself and one of my German colleagues, we were responsible for the structure and successful functioning of the entire HR function.  

The scale and magnitude of the projects were signed, with an increased risk to consider on every foreign deployment to this volatile environment. This rather peculiar HR role required substantial emotional resilience, the ability to mitigate risk and think on your feet.

I had a team of 14 colleagues, consisting of a blend of international, regional and local staff to support the general management and administration of the HR function. The vast blend of foreign cultures in the team very quickly transpired into fertile territory for miscommunication, misinterpretation and conflict.     

How did I manage, you ask? 

Being sincere and honest gets you far. It brings a sense of relief and creates a comfortable platform for dialogue, and that’s how I approached uncomfortable situations.  In many instances, the lack of skills, or not fully understanding a process can create unnecessary anxiety, resulting in defensive behaviour.  

In my particular experience, I had to learn very quickly to calibrate my approach to suit that unique environment and did my best to influence my international colleagues to do the same because it was evident that the circumstance required a unique ability to influence people and get everyone on board.

The local male and female staff were particularly withdrawn and very reserved. Also, because of the language and culture barriers, it was very difficult, at first, to figure out whether staff was deliberately being uncooperative, or that they simply did not understand me?

This was a real concern in the team dynamics and something that required a tactful approach that needed to be resolved.  The local team’s limited command of English often led to tasks not being completed or only partially done.  

I would often address the matter in a way that I identified the consequence, and risk associated with tasks not being completed. I would explain how staff in remote locations not having security escorts when they need to fly between provinces. The process remained the focus and the consequence of not completing the work.  

This created an elevated awareness between myself and my staff to ensure a task was well understood, as people’s safety depended on it in many instances.  There were never less than 50 design and engineering staff travelling countrywide, and HR was a critical link in their safety.   

To counterbalance the sensitivity around the local staff having to learn English, I thought it might help if I asked them to teach me Farsi.  At that point, I was still struggling with the most basic words.  The staff were delighted about the suggestion and found my English pronunciation of Persian words very amusing.  

The local staff had a great time teaching and correcting me and, at the same time, the trust between us was restored. They started to become more comfortable with me and continued to improve their language skills and the HR department was functioning well.  

At the end of it all, I thought ‘why don’t I do this more often’ Just make an example of yourself, it cost nothing, and the gain was instant and lasting.’ It was an experience that taught me how to be mindful of how a message is conveyed and to use simple language to help people understand what the mission is.