Interviewing people with poor English language skills

Allon asks-“tell me about the type of input you would like to get from HQ”. Answer- “Me no hap no sahlale inkalez lohne tahm, lah.”

Yes, interviewing people whose native language is not English is hard for for the interviewer! In the above case, it took me about 5 more minutes to understand that this Thai engineer had not had a salary increase for a long time, which did not even address my question as I had asked it!

Interviewing people whose level of English is poor presents a cultural as well as linguistic challenge. In many of my posts, I have provided tips on how to deal with cultural differences in an interview. In this post I will deal with the linguistics of interviewing someone whose English is substandard,.

  1. Prepare simply worded questions and pluck out all the tough words. Utilize becomes use; sinister becomes bad, harass becomes bother.
  2. Ask each question several times and in several ways. Please explain how Som deals with customers? Do customers annoy Som? How does Som solve customer problems? If you get very different answers, then try again, since many interviewees feign understanding.
  3. When there is a really hard concept to convey in a question, it makes sense to put the question in writing in the interviewees native language. One case I remember is asking “is there is an emphasis on the individual doing everything possible to get the job done”. This was really tough to convey to various populations.
  4. Some words don’t translate and you need to prepare a “work around”. For example there is no such word as “expedient” in Hebrew or teamwork in Chinese. So instead of asking if Dov solves problems expediently, you can ask if Dov is capable of functional compromise.
  5. Never assume you are understood. It is much better to assume that you are going to be misunderstood unless proven differently.
  6. Triple the time you allot for an interview.
  7. Take breaks frequently because in some cases, the interview process can be brutal. I remember one very painful migraine after interviewing one particular person in Seoul.
  8. Enjoy the ride. There are funny moments that can be enjoyed. Like when I asked how to pronounce someone’s name and it took me 15 minutes to get it right. Or when some asked me “you chew”, meaning “are you Jewish”?

 

 

Share

What happens when Indians and Israelis work together

Over the years, I have consulted more than a hundred teams of Israelis and Indians working together in all configurations. Israelis with Indian bosses, Indians with Israeli bosses and Indians and Israelis with a German boss.

Whilst India is a huge country and Israelis are a very diverse and individualist lot, there tend to be several common characteristics  that I want to share.

  1. Israelis challenge authority as a way of life; India based managers have a difficult time managing their “overly opinionated ” Israel based employees.
  2. Indians often request permission from their bosses if they need to overstep their role; their Israeli counterparts view this behaviour as “hiding” behind their bosses.
  3. Both Indians and Israeli bypass the system and leverage personal connections to get things done; this serves as an excellent platform for solving what seem to be insurmountable problems.
  4. Indian employees exhibit deference and their Israeli bosses often think that there is agreement on a course of action, when there is no agreement whatsoever.
  5. Both Israelis and Indians negotiate all the time as a way of life. The better the negotiation skills are, the more mutual respect is garnered. (These negotiation skills can drive US and German managers out of their mind.)
  6. Both Israelis and Indians work very hard and put in long hours, with constant availability via their mobiles. These similarities build trust.

Consultants who work with Israel Indian teams should focus on clarifying relationship to authority, defining expectations from follower-ship, communication styles under duress, ways to augment transparency and face saving. mechanisms.

On a personal level, I love working with Israeli and Indian teams. Both populations show consultants a lot of appreciation and warmth if the consultant does the work properly.

 

Share

Why do some OD consultants whore?


In her book about severely ill  mental health patients “Falling into the Fire”,  Dr Christine Montross illustrates how the psychiatrists  come to resent these patients who make them feel so inadequate. As Montross points out, this deadly dynamic works to the severe  detriment of the very people who need help the most.

In organization development, a parallel exists. Managers and organizations can present huge challenges to the feeling of competence of the OD practitioner, especially since 2008 when the shit hit the fan and people became more of a commodity than an important  resource, challenging OD’s basic assumptions.

Whilst psychiatrists tend to blame their patients, OD professionals tend to try and please their clients by pimping and whoring pre-packaged nonsense, useless tips and empty models and promises. The rational behind the whoring is not merely commercial. It is driven by a feeling of “if I do the right thing, I will be branded as incompetent by the idiot client, and fired for the wrong reasons.”

OD was not always about pleasing sycophant HR managers and narcissist CEO’s. My generation grew up trained to confront the client and challenge basic assumptions.

And if you are skilled and fear not, it is still possible to do a good job. I have encountered clients who make me believe that I would feel better had I participated in the boxing match between  Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, known as the Thrilla in Manilla rather than consulting them. But I try and stick to a core OD value -speak truth to power.

Let’s not forget the famous words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav-all the world is but a narrow bridge, and most important of all is to fear not. (kol ha olam kulo, gesher tsar mod, vhaiqar, lo lefached klal)

gesher-tzar-meod_0

 

Share

3 very strange things that happened in my career

There is an expression in Arabic, “live a lot and you’ll see a lot.” (Ish ktir-betshuf ktir)

I am approaching my 67th birthday and that is a long time on the road; perhaps now is the time to share a few of the very strange things that have taken place during my career.

Year 2016

I was invited to meet with an investor who was very disappointed by the results of the startup in which he had invested. He was about to cut funding in half, but before he did so, “I wanted to ask you if you know how to double the productivity of the staff who will remain after they downsize by 60%”.

Year 2012

A CEO told me that I was to report only to him. “However, make sure that HR is in the loop so that she does not walk out on me”. Therefore, I set up a monthly meeting to update HR. The HR manager called me 2 seconds after I set up the monthly meeting  to bellow at me that “I want a daily report on your progress. Not monthly, not weekly, but daily.” People who read my satiric blog are well aware of the “daily” term.

Year 2001

I was sent to Seoul to interview 12 people because of the low level of communication between the Seoul group, the Toronto HQ and R&D in Tel Aviv. The local manager (Canadian) warned me that “their English ain’t to good Allon, so instead of 60 minutes per person, I gave you an hour of a half. And I’ll arrange them in order of their English language skills”. After the first interview, I told the manager that I did not understand one word. And he told me, “she’s the best English language speaker we have”. He was right. And you know what, it’s hard to get an Advil for a migraine in a Seoul pharmacy.

 

 

 

 

 

Share

Forcefeeding Engagement

Dr Andy is giving a course in organizational diagnosis to a group of students in Asia, His students are in classrooms in Beijing, Bangkok and Taipei. Andy gives the course via Skype from his home office in Montreal.

Andy is having a hard time with this course; he feels his students are not engaged. “They never ask anything unless asked. There is too little ‘learning traction. I seem to be talking to myself”’.

Let’s look at what is happening under the surface.

Jie from Bangkok believes that were she to ask about the many issues that go through her mind, she would stick out like a braggart. Her English is perfect since her mother is British and this is very embarrassing for Jie.

Rei from Beijing often has ideas different from those of Dr Andy. However Rei always censors himself because he loves the course and wants to show his respect by not sharing controversial thoughts.

When Norman from Taiwan does not understand something, he fears that were he to ask Dr Andy,  he would be hinting  that Andy does not know how to teach. Norman does not want to hurt Andy’s “face.”

“Engagement” with authority figures (asking questions, taking ownership to be active, sharing opinions) is seen in many parts as insulting, rude and arrogant. While digital reality  and globalism have dented this slightly, cultural codes have not been rewritten.

It is not only difficult to “engage” certain populations, it is downright wrong and disrespectful to try and do so.

In other societies, levels of engagement levels need to be tempered because there may be  too much counter productive engagement. In Israel for example, there is a tendency to speak out all the time, have firm opinions and not show respect to people in positions of authority. Israelis tend to argue for the sake of arguing, which has deep roots in tradition. It is not uncommon for experts to face an Israeli audience and totally lose control of a discussion because of “too much engagement”.

 

Share

Beyond the bull—t.

There are so many organization and management fads out there that you can virtually drown in a sea of verbiage, or even get a case of mild indigestion from overdosing on slogans.

The goal of this post is to provide 5 organizational principles which apply to most types of organizations and cut through all the fashion-based repackaging of the basics.

  1. You cannot define away complexity. If your organization is complex, as most organizations are, the complexity will not disappear by only defining roles, responsibilities and processes. Definitions help, but only up to point.
  2. Distance breeds mistrust. One can use Whatsapp, Snap chat, Skype or the most sophisticated of tools. But distance breeds anxiety, lack of trust and deep control based issues.
  3. Staffing is strategic. Bad hires cause phenomenal pain which cannot be mitigated by coaching, management development or change management plans.
  4. Business processes do not replace common sense.
  5. Over reliance on IT systems dumbs. The dumbness does not appear immediately, but develops over time. If one does not deal with this dumbing, you end up with great IT systems and a bunch of stupid behaviours, like no accountability, and 120 emails on every issue.
Share

They saw the sea, and I felt free

atthesea

At the sea

I must have been to the Tel Baruch Beach in Tel Aviv thousands of times. But today, I had the time of my life. I started volunteering for Min el Bahar.

Min el Bahar (From the Sea) is a program which provides Palestinians from the occupied territories a fun day at the beach. Accompanied by two wonderful nuns, a bus transports them from one of the despicable roadblocks in the occupied West Bank to Tel Aviv where a group of volunteers (me included) greets them and, together we have a wonderful day at and in the Mediterranean.

Today on my first day, I served as a volunteer life guard, and my tasks included coaxing them to take their very first footsteps into the sea. It was so good to see and feel the sea via their eyes.They had never been to sea before; they were born in the wrong place and on the wrong side of history.

3 girls pointed to a few  high slippery rocks which were off limits. They asked me if we could sneak away and take some pictures from the rocks. I agreed and we stole off. The nuns and lifeguards all called us  back, but we took some pictures anyway and ran back, laughing. All 3 girls thanked me effusively  for the rest of the day, often smiling at me. When they got on the bus, I got a few winks!

I saw one girl who was trying very hard to swim and kept swallowing the ocean! I gave her a short lesson (knees straight, hands cupped, breath properly) and she then swam at least 500 meters on her own.  A real “batal” (champion in Arabic)!

Over the past decade, I have read almost all of of Hans Fallada’s books, one of which, “Alone in Berlin (Everyone Dies Alone) ” describes the heroism of people trapped in the tyranny of a fanatic political regime. Fallada has inspired me to think about what can be done under a regime of oppression.

Unlike Fallada’s characters, I  am not a hero. But today, I did not feel like an oppressor. I felt I was doing what I can, at grass root level, to create contact at a human level. I will never forget today.

They saw the sea, and I felt free.

hans-fallada-jpeg

Hans Fallada    ששונות זעירים

 

 

Share

Self management is a manipulation and cop out

Self management certainly has its place and time in the right context. The value of self management over command and control is  not disputable. This having been said, self management is often promulgated as an ugly manipulation. One fable will suffice.

The fable

Paul heads a team of 50 top notch developers based in Tel Aviv for US based company selling software for public electrical and water utilities worldwide. Paul’s team is overwhelmed due to the massive amount change requests flooding his team.

Clients are supposed to funnel their change requests via Change Request Management, which is part of the Product Management group based in New Zealand.

However, the Product Management/Change management group lacks technical knowledge, and so clients often turn directly to Paul or to the developers themselves for changes.

Alternatively, changes are requested via Sales, who have no problem forwarding these requests to Paul, ccing the CEO.

Paul has asked that Change Management acquire more technical skills in order to serve as a better filter. This however is too expensive to execute since it would mean hiring engineers to replace the present set of administrators, who serve as change managers.

Paul then asked for more staff, in order to build a technical change management team in Tel Aviv, through which priorities can be set. His request was put off till 2017 budget talks in November.

When the level of client bitching got out of control, the CEO summoned Paul to a meeting with EVP HR, a certain Gloria Ramsbottom. A decision was made that the developers “become better aligned with the principles of self-management”. A training vendor “specializing” in self-management was hired and a webinar on the virtues of self-management was commissioned.

The moral

Self-management can be used by management as a cop out to abscond from their responsibility  of setting priorities and applying more resources. Self-management, when applied in this manner, is a manipulation of the more evil ilk, exploiting the very people who need to be assisted.

Share

My British Grandmother

fay0001

My maternal grandmother was British. Born in the Shoreditch area of London, Fay came to Canada in her teens; she maintained her British accent until her death. All my friends called their grandmothers by the name Grandma or Buba (Yiddish) , but I called my grandmother Nana Fay.

Fay lived in Montreal for over 85 years and never learnt one word of French. And it’s not that she did not try. “I have a tin ear (eyah) for languages”, she claimed. However, once I dropped by a toy shop where she was working as a sales clerk. “Touchez-pas” she was saying to a few kids who were feeling out the merchandise. For years and years after, I used to ask her what does “touchez pas” mean in English, and we would both laugh.

Fay was also a dental assistant for Dr Vosberg. Then she owned a dress shop  named “Moleen’s” on Queen Mary Road in Montreal. A massive theft shut Moleens’s down and my grandmother was heartbroken and financially  busted. But she survived.

I heard my father say once that Fay was a “tough old bird”. I asked Nana Fay if she considered herself as such and she said, “I guess you can say so, but not as far (fah) as you are concerned”.

As she got older, Nana Fay had a craving for sugar and it was a family chore to make sure that she did not have access to chocolate because of her diabetes.  I used to smuggle her cubes of chocolate and Nana Fay used to say “this is just OUR little secret, isn’t it boychik”. I was about 10 years old at the time.

This was not the only secret I had with my grandmother. When I was studying at McGill, I dropped by my grandmothers for “tea”. After she poured me the tea and gave me some of her home made cookies , she said “if you ever smoke pot, or whatever it’s called, I wouldn’t mind trying the stuff myself.” And so we did. Another little secret.

Nana Fay and I joked a lot. I used to ask her how to convert Canadian dollars into British currency and she would go through a long explanation, doing calculations in her head and getting it all wrong….”did you say 2 dollars into pounds or 2 pounds into dollars”?

My grandfather who trained his famous boxer-brother was  also a Brit and died when I was young. My grandmother remarried. Her second husband was divorced. Fay and her husband got married  in the States to avoid any hassle with the then very conservative Quebec government, which did not recognize the divorced status. Nana Fay took me aside at her wedding and like a character from a John Irving novel, told me, “I certainly did not attend my grandmother’s wedding. You are a lucky boychik, you are”.

 She read me lots of children’s stories from the old country, and our favourite poem was “Albert and the Lion”, which she must have read me two thousand times. So, for those who ask me where the Ramsbottom name comes from in my satiric Gloria blog…….

I left for Israel in 1970. Before my departure Nana Fay told me that “I left England as a young girl and broke my parents hearts God bless them, so who am I to tell you how to live your life, boychik”.

My grandmother had a stiff upper lip and demanded it from me. Fay loved gardening; so do I. Fay was a real character. I appear to be one as well.

We loved each other very much, stiff upper lip and all.

 

 

 

 

 

Share

Towards understanding self-deprecative behaviour in a consulting relationship: My White Face in Asia

 

Rei’s boss, Alex, had forced Rei to work with me after a survey indicated that Rei’s management style was “totally unacceptable”. Attrition is Rei’s group was 47% a year! Yet Rei was an outstanding marketer, salesman and technical whiz.

For one year, I shadowed Rei for 5 days a quarter; every four hours we would have a feedback session, over lunch or supper.

During the initial two visits, the shadowing was a learning process for us. Rei and I did have a few things in common, and we “leaned” on them heavily at first.  Both of us are history buffs, read voraciously, and follow boxing. Naturally, it was not easy for Rei to accept my presence which at first undermined his authority, and both Rei and many of his direct reports speak poor English with a very heavy accent, which made the listening process very, very tiring.

A huge change occurred  during my third visit. We met for breakfast in a hotel in Bangalore, and he told me that “all this work with you is very humbling”. This was very much unlike Rei, who had been very reserved with me. I shadowed him for two days in India and we flew off to Bangkok on a punishing night flight. During the flight, he asked for my opinion on many issues in which I felt that he had a higher level of expertise. (For example, he asked me how I thought Mao had blended certain elements of Confucianism to drive communism into the Chinese countryside! At 3 am!)

As the week progressed, he continued self-deprecating ever so slowly, giving me more and more “face”. When he introduced me to his staff in Shanghai, he told them to watch the way they speak about me, because Professor Allon “may” understand you, which greatly exaggerates my ability to understand spoken Chinese. (I am not a professor, nor do I have a doctorate.)

On the fourth and fifth day of the third visit, Rei was more engaging with me than usual, and actively spoke with me. He stopped writing down my feedback, and started frank discussion. He told me that “we do not share the same understandings” about the motives of  team members”. He also told me that “although you are not naïve Allon, may I suggest that you re-examine the way that you read Paul’s behaviour.”

From then on in until the end of the project, a pattern emerged: Rei self-deprecated, praised me, thanked me, and then engaged me.

Rei’s self-deprecating was (and remains) to be a strategy he uses which allows him to open up to Westerners in positions of power and influence. Rei creates “credit” by self-deprecating and piling face onto the person he is dealing with, and this credit provides Rei with a springboard to actively engage without showing lack of respect.

Rei, 谢谢 .Thank you for reading this, commenting on this, and allowing me to publish it.

PS-For more on the westerner and OD, read this.

Share