Familiarize yourself with accents to empower diverse team members.
Listening is one soft skill leaders need. However, they need to not only hear but also understand all employees, regardless of their accents.
In the Quartz article "Accent Bias Is an Unchecked Sign of Racism in the Workplace," Heather Hansen makes the case that communication is a two-way street. The accent modification specialist and American communications advisor based in Singapore urges leaders to work on developing their accent recognition skills.
"There are only 400 million of us [who] were born into the English language. Compare this to the 2 billion voices who have had to learn this language in the classroom," Hansen explains. Those born into English have an advantage in the business world, she says.
However, Hansen notes that when leaders put forth the effort to understand all speakers and help create an environment where individuals feel comfortable speaking up regardless of their dialect, they can unearth hidden value on their teams. For example, she says some nonnative English speakers who have insecurities about their accent may hold back their contributions.
To sharpen accent recognition skills, Hansen says leaders must first recognize that everyone has an accent. Then, to train their ears to different dialects, she advises leaders to watch international sporting events; listen intently to English-speaking athletes from different parts of the world; and pay close attention to the variations in lilts, intonations, and drawls as individuals speak. She also suggests they use contextual clues to determine words they are struggling to understand.
How leaders handle situations where they have difficulty understanding a dialect is important. Instead of asking a person to repeat something multiple times, Hansen suggests asking them to rephrase their comments. Responding with "I want to be sure that I've understood you correctly. Could you please explain that again?" shifts the onus on a leader's inability to understand rather than on the individual and their dialect or pronunciation.
Hansen sums up: "I don't think there's any way to not become a better leader when you begin to truly hear others who are different from yourself."