The competitive advantage of North-American toddlers

Let me introduce myself. I am a thirtysomething woman, mother, traveler, professional, … in various orders of appearance. In the beginning of this year, I moved from Belgium to Vancouver. And for the first time in my life, I am living in a society where my main skill – communication – is not just highly valued, but stronger, perceived as one of the key skills to develop.

I was born, raised and educated in Europe – Belgium – Flanders, in a culture where people are mainly trained in technical skills, being book smart and delivering high quality. But communication skills are treated rather shabbily. I never gave it a second thought however, as…it is rooted in our culture. When I moved to North America – Canada – Vancouver, I discovered that we Europeans can learn something from the vocal community I am living in.

My partner is doing his fellowship at the Vancouver General Hospital as an Intensive Care physician. The single most important thing that he has learned during the past year is how to communicate. The North-American hospital culture requires doctors to have excellent communication skills and it’s by far the main focus of the medical training. Because they acknowledge that the same patient care and treatment can result in a satisfied patient or in a law suit, only by communication. But it goes beyond doctor – patient communication. It is also about communication within a team. A patient in the ICU easily asks for a 25 headed medical team. This means that the leading doctor on the case must be able to quickly and confidently present treatment for a patient. Being able to clearly present cases and recommendations shows thorough insights in the case. Linguistics as thé key to crystallize a plan of treatment. So, you become a better doctor by arguing your case. If you find yourself not being able to summarize the case and treatment, you can conclude that your plan most likely needs improvement. And this is where communication saves lives. Arguing for your plan of treatment and discussing it with fellow doctors, nurses, … results in a better annotated plan. All team members are on the same page and a plan gets executed by each team member on its own level. You reduce the chance of malpractice during the course of treatment. So, in point, you save lives by communicating.

In North America, communication permeates the entire society. It’s everywhere. On the playground, where 4-year-old toddlers are not afraid to go up to strangers to explain a problem they are facing, because their caregivers learn them to use their words, speak out and vocally look out for each other. In the streets, where you have to yell “on your left” when passing a fellow biker. If not, you get yelled at for being reckless. In my ballet class, where you are expected to ask questions about each movement or choreography or otherwise perceived as not being engaged. I am living in a society where you have to speak up, or you get called upon. Where people smile to strangers, want to get to know their neighbors, small talk whilst waiting in line for the restroom at the ice hockey game, …. Communication is all around me. I live in a society where I can practice my communication skill just by walking out the door.

Belgians often frown upon this North American way of interaction. We perceive it as “loud”, or as “fake”. And maybe this is sometimes the case. But still, there is a great positive effect of living in a vocal society. Students in North America don’t just sit in the class room and listen to the teacher ex cathedra. They have to participate. It requires a greater understanding of the curriculum as you need to summarize and reason to conclusions on a day to day basis. You learn to debate, summarize your arguments, listen to your fellow students, …. from the moment you step into a classroom. And these are all skills that are very valuable later on in your (professional) life. We live in a globalized world where talent is as mobile as it gets so, we mustn’t be oblivious to the competitive advantage of North American professionals and businesses who are raised or created in a vocal community.

Communication skills are often called “soft skills”, but communication significantly affects the bottom line and offers tangible return on investment. According to David Grossman’s “The Cost of Poor Communications”, the average loss per company per year is $62.4 million because of inadequate communication to and between employees. However, the best-known Belgian management school “Vlerick Business School” doesn’t offer an extensive course specifically focused on communication skills. Robert Half Management Resources Survey stated that the two skills todays managers need most to improve, are communication and diplomacy communication and diplomacy. The study found communication skills were rated more important than technical expertise. Why? Because a manager with adequate communication skills succeeds in engaging employees in their daily tasks. Too often, Belgian meeting rooms consist of one or two managers taking the floor, indistinctly briefing the mainly silent others in the room. Because we are raised that way. Or, we weren’t raised to ask questions, speak up, … However, resulting in a team that is not really sure what is expected from them. In the Intensive Care Unit, that can be catastrophically. In a business context, that can lead to loss in efficiency, investment and long-term success.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not a call for a devaluation of hard technical skills. We Belgians must be proud of our excellent reputation when it comes to delivering high quality. But I do believe we must start to really appreciate the importance and benefits of communication skills and mustn’t set them aside as mere secondary skills.

Author: Mieke De Sutter