Culture Babble at The Principal

Dee Peters, Multicultural Programs Consultant, The Principal Financial Group

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Our Diversity Program

How do you respond to managers who approach you, asking for advice on how to "fix" the English of several employees who happen to come from other cultures?

As Multicultural Programs Consultant at The Principal Financial Group®, I have found that this is not an isolated situation. A culturally diverse employee group can assist the company to understand increasingly diverse customers and their changing needs. Creating and maintaining an environment that enables all employees to contribute to their full potential is a real challenge for most of us. We try to take a holistic approach to managing diversity by looking for ways to approach cross-cultural communication issues from many different angles. It's not "their problem," it's ours. We need training and support systems that enable all employees to develop a fluency and comfort level with diverse communication styles.

We define diversity as the collective mixture of similarities and differences among people. At The Principal, our Diversity Plan was created to explain why we value and how we will manage diversity. Each business unit works with Human Resources to develop a plan for implementing the strategies and achieving the objectives of The Diversity Plan. We spent close to two years conducting research and talking with other companies on their diversity and global awareness programs before finalizing our plan.

One of the difficulties in implementing any kind of diversity plan is getting true buy-in. It is important to get everyone "on the same page." At one end of the spectrum there are those who already know about diversity training and agree it is necessary; at the other end are those who wonder why it is being done; in the middle are those who wonder why they should bother. The company has promoted commitment to managing diversity by embracing follow-up and integration. There is a Diversity Council and Resource Group, six-week and six-day global awareness training courses, a Foundations of Diversity training program, Lunch and Learn opportunities, as well as an annual Diversity Week. Diversity is explicitly tied into our company's mission. We believe the "naturalization" of managing diversity is vital to our continued success and survival. For the Corporate Training and Education department, this means that even when a course is not specifically about diversity, the structure, content, and delivery of the course model ways to effectively "walk the talk" of managing diversity.

A Favorite Tool

We have found a simulation called Redundancía to be one of the most effective tools for enabling native English-speaking employees to stand in the shoes of nonnative speakers. Redundancía makes language issues real and palpable for host culture employees. Participants experience how speaking a language nonfluently can transform them from competent professionals into stammering students of an alien business style. Redundancía simulates communicating in a language other than one's native tongue. It is simple, elegant, and impactful. Incredibly unique, it provides the richest return on investment of any simulation we've found - you get real impact for a nominal amount of time and money.

Redundancía requires little preparation and can be done in as few as 30 to 40 minutes, yet it has a lasting effect on people. In addition, it is fun for participants and facilitators alike. There is really only one rule to learn. Participants can choose any topic they like for their conversation. Redundancía is designed to be done with small groups of three people. The triad format coupled with the fact that participants "play" themselves, dramatically reduces "performance anxiety." The simulation works well with both reflective and interactive learners. Even people who express a general dislike for interactive learning have found Redundancía enjoyable and informative. Department heads like Redundancía because it is something concrete that can be easily incorporated into departmental diversity action plans. The colorful brochure is also popular with participants.

How We Use Redundancía

Intro and Setup: I generally place Redundancía brochures at every table ahead of time. Before starting the simulation, I spend a few minutes making sure that participants understand the difference between simulation and role playing. I also explain that the focus of the simulation is the process itself. I usually ask if anyone in the audience has had any experience with living in another culture and/or trying to survive using another language. I explain that they are about to have a conversation in a foreign language. I then pass out a handout with a three-step flowchart of the entire Redundancía process, including: (1) setup (5 minutes); (2) process (3 rounds of 3 minutes each); and (3) debrief (20 to 30 minutes of individual reflection, and small and large group discussion). We review the three roles (speaker, listener, and observer) using the diagram in the brochure, then go over the Redundancía language. I urge participants to speak the language for the full three minutes when it is their turn to be the speaker.

Play: After a moment or two forming triads, determining roles for the first round, and allowing participants to gather their thoughts, I give the signal for round one to begin. After three minutes, I signal the next round and players change roles, continuing until I signal the final change.

Debrief: When the final round is over, we debrief. Participants take a few moments to reflect and answer the discussion questions from the handout. They share their observations with their partners, and then we have a large group discussion around those questions. I generally record key points on a flipchart.

Redundancía is a real eye-opener for most people. Participants report that the three minutes they spend as a "speaker" are among the longest three minutes they have ever known. Many are unable to keep it up for a whole three-minute round, and are visibly relieved to know they don't have to spend their entire work day trying to use the language. We talk about the fatigue and frustration second-language speakers must feel when trying to express themselves professionally. Participants also consider the difficulty of establishing one's personal identity and professional credibility when restricted to using a second language. We stress that throughout the entire process, they all knew it would end soon, and they would be able to return to their familiar modes of expression. Words such as "alienation," "isolation," and "inadequate" always come up somewhere during the debrief.

Redundancía works well in cultural-specific training, also. The Principal conducted the simulation with teams who worked with a Japanese insurance company - all 120 participants loved it. In another situation, a manager had a woman from Bosnia in her department who spoke English well enough to do her job. We did the Redundancía simulation with the entire department - 65 people, many of whom were under the age of 25. The Bosnian woman participated as well. She had a big smile on her face afterward, saying, "Now they understand." The manager has reported that this simulation has had lasting effects on how well the department communicates and works together. In addition to its usefulness with international audiences, we find Redundancía effective in team-building and other courses, such as our Perfecting Listening Skills course.

So what about the managers who wanted help fixing their international employees? After participating in the Redundancía simulation, more than one of those managers had new insight into the magnitude and complexity of the issues confronting those employees.


Language and Communication Style Affect Performance Appraisals

by Dianne Hofner Saphiere, Nipporica Associates

This article originally appeared in "Cultural Diversity at Work."

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

"Mr. Bae is never prepared; he talks in circles." "Victoria just doesn't seem to be a people person." These are conclusions drawn by American managers working with colleagues who speak English as a second (or third) language. In each case, the non-native English speaking employee strongly disagreed with the evaluation. And in each case, language and communication style were fundamental causes of the negative evaluations.

Anyone who has studied a foreign language knows the difficulty communicating ideas and even personality with any degree of accuracy, let alone flair, before achieving fluency. We focus on words and grammar, and lose our train of thought. We concentrate so much on what we want to say that we fail to connect with our listeners. Language difficulties can easily mask our talents, and our communication style can cause us to appear uncomfortable, unsure, and uninformed. Yet many monolingual managers fault colleagues' competence or personalities rather than their language abilities, and never consider the communication process itself or the managers' role in it.

One example is Suzuki-san, a Japanese engineer who was relocated to the U.S. to teach his American counterparts "Just in Time" practices. Quiet, polite, and not very assertive, Suzuki-san's English was fair. After four months in the U.S., Suzuki's American counterparts were wondering why he was there. Suzuki, privately, expressed extreme frustration and loneliness, and felt a lack of respect. Management considered terminating the project, but contracted for a multicultural teambuilding exercise before making a final decision.

The teambuilding consultants found out that during his stay in the U.S., no one had invited Suzuki out to socialize. He usually ate lunch alone. When questioned about this, Suzuki's American colleagues said that although they had worked with him everyday, they were still uncomfortable around him. Suzuki didn't seem to understand them, and they felt awkward trying to communicate with him.

As one part of a two-day teambuilding, the consultants conducted a simulation called Redundancía, in which participants take turns speaking a "foreign" language (in which they achieve proficiency fairly quickly). Participants speak for three minutes on a simple topic – discussing what they've done that day, or their last vacation. The speakers quickly became frustrated trying to find the appropriate vocabulary to communicate their meaning. Observers noted that the speakers tended to fidget and lose connection with the listeners in their search for phrasing. The listeners had a difficult time remaining focused on the story, as it was slow, they were distracted by the nonverbals, and were searching for ways to help the speaker.

The simulation was a real eye-opener for the Americans. One manager said, "No wonder Suzuki-san couldn't follow me. I'll speak more slowly from now on, and stop asking questions in rapid succession." Another colleague said, "I'll draw pictures when we're talking about manufacturing processes. And I'll summarize my understanding more often, just to make sure I've got the message." Suzuki himself was very encouraged by the simulation: "Finally my team members can understand! They were so frustrated with the new language! They were like different people!"

In another situation, managers in a prestigious financial firm asked their Human Resources representative to "fix" the English of several international employees. Before working with the employees, the HR rep asked the managers to spend one hour with her, in a simulation exercise. During Redundancía, the managers experienced how speaking a second language nonfluently transformed them from competent professionals into stammering students of an alien business style. One manager said "The three minutes speaking Redundancía were the longest three minutes I've ever known." Participants discussed the fatigue and frustration second-language speakers feel when trying to express themselves professionally, and the difficulty establishing a personal identity and professional credibility when restricted to using a foreign language. Rather than focusing on the language limitations of their employees, the managers gained a new respect for how well their employees actually were doing.

Language and communication style are important factors to consider in our quest to value and leverage diversity. After experiencing their own three minutes of torture, Mr. Bae's manager and colleagues learned that if they take responsibility to clarify their understanding, they can communicate more accurately and appreciate more fully the insight Mr. Bae has to offer. Likewise, after Victoria's manager became self-conscious and distracted while speaking Redundancía, she began to understand that Victoria's language ability was masking a naturally outgoing and gregarious personality. First-hand experience trying to communicate in a foreign language gives managers a personal gauge of how language and communication styles can affect their employee appraisals, and helps managers reflect on ways to improve the effectiveness of communication in their organizations.

Sidebar – How Redundancía Works

Redundancía is a quick and incredibly powerful tool for enabling native speakers to stand in the shoes of nonnative speakers. Participants experience first-hand the discomfort, fatigue and frustration due to an inability to connect with the listener or express ideas and personality adequately. Participants realize how difficult it can be to establish credibility in a second language.

Requires at least 30 minutes: 5 minutes for the introduction, 10 for the simulation, and 15 minutes minimum for debriefing.


1. Facilitator introduces the objectives and process of the simulation, and teaches the Redundancía language.

2. Participants form triads and take turns as Speaker (talk in the Redundancía language for three minutes), Listener (be attentive and encouraging), and Observer (watch nonverbal communication).

3. After the simulation, participants take a few moments to reflect, make notes, and share their experience with their partners. The facilitator then leads a large group discussion.

Redundancía has been used in English (British, Australian, Canadian, and American), German, Japanese and Spanish, with multicultural work groups, for training in hiring and employee evaluation practices, for families bound for overseas assignments, and with bilingual and multicultural educators.