Bilingual supervisors are under a great deal of pressure. (I could write about 19 Light Bulb Moments on this topic alone, but I’ll be brief!) Not only are they dealing with meeting production goals and managing employees (which is never easy), they are also being pulled (hard) in opposite directions. Spanish-speaking employees often feel that if one of them accepts a promotion, that person has sold out to the Dark Side. He is no longer one of “us,” he is one of “them.”
New supervisors tend to react to this in one of two ways: they either bend over backwards to accommodate employees (“Don’t worry if you’re running late—I’ll punch you in”) or become overly authoritarian and dictatorial. Clearly, both of these strategies only wind up creating more pressure. Employees will not step up to the plate and produce either for a supervisor who has no authority or for one who is, for lack of a better word, mean.
Employers are rarely aware of this phenomenon. When the supervisor communicates (in English) with leadership, he or she often presents everything as under control. After all, as explained in Light Bulb #6, these folks are very reluctant to ask for help. In addition, the priorities and perceptions of a Spanish-speaking workforce can often be at odds with that of English-speaking management. These differences go well beyond the language barrier, but employers tend to expect bilingual supervisors to work miracles in bridging these barriers. These are people who very rarely have leadership training. They are drywall installers, housekeepers, machine operators. They are not diplomats. Still, all too often they are expected to change hearts and minds. Simply putting words into Spanish does not change people’s beliefs or behavior. (If it did, I would have no trouble whatsoever getting my son to do his homework or clean up his room.) So, what to do?