Communication Challenges with Spanish speaking employees

I once asked an English-speaking supervisor to describe his most pressing challenge. He immediately answered with one word: “communications”. I asked if could be a little more specific and provide a few examples. He replied: “My job is to keep downtime to a minimum and production to a maximum.” He became a little agitated as he said: “I don’t speak Spanish. Whenever I need to move a few of my people from one production line to another, it’s often a chaotic process”.

He went on to explain that the inability to communicate in a common language forces you to use crude communication techniques that at times may appear to be somewhat rude. You use hand signals and wide motions in order to catch the employee’s attention. You try to maintain eye contact, you point to an area where you would like them to start working. You learn to use a series of hand signals and facial expressions in order to communicate and keep the production line moving.

The supervisor expressed that resorting to these primitive communication practices is bound to leave an unwanted and wrong impression in the minds of the non-English speaking Hispanic employees. “That’s not what I’m about” he explained. “It’s very frustrating because it’s not the way I’m used to communicating with other human beings”.

No doubt, this is a difficult situation that most English-speaking supervisors experience in the busy production area. It’s not easy to nurture and motivate your team members under these unnatural communication conditions.

In the absence of a common language, it becomes doubly important for the supervisor to make every attempt to relay his/her true communication style and sincere intentions to the non-English speaking Hispanic employees. Despite the necessity to at times, communicate in the most basic manner, it’s always possible to make your true leadership identity visible to those who depend on you, your team members. Supervisors should never let an opportunity to provide support and guidance go by.

The production meetings are a good idea to explain that your signals and gestures in the production area should in no way be construed as your personal communication style. This is an excellent time to let everyone know that under these difficult circumstances, this is the best and only way that you can communicate with them.