As global companies increasingly adopt a dominant language, usually English, which all employees must use to simplify communications and increase collaboration, many are dismayed to find an unexpected outcome.
Results are exactly opposite of what was intended.
Instead of making business operations more efficient, the use of such a lingua franca can add layers of complication and delay. And instead of fostering collaboration, it can create cultural fissures between employees.
“It's volcanic, waiting for something to ignite it, and then it explodes”
It turns out that language wars are always simmering beneath the surface, as Harvard Business School Associate Professor Tsedal Neeley's research demonstrates.
"It's volcanic, waiting for something to ignite it, and then it explodes—and this is what we see in these global teams," says Neeley, whose work identifies not only the language problems but also what managers can do to overcome them.
Neeley explores language and its connection to power dynamics on global teams in Language as a Lightning Rod: Power Contests, Emotion Regulation, and Subgroup Dynamics in Global Teams, published in the Journal of International Business Studies in December. She cowrote the paper with Pamela Hinds of Stanford University and Catherine Cramton of George Mason University.
The authors point to classic research by Dora Lau and Keith Murnighan on "faultlines"—team subgroups that form based on demographics. In Language as a Lightning Rod, this prior work is advanced to examine how language differences in subgroups can create an "us versus them" dynamic among workers, and how those schisms are linked to who holds power in firms.
The study follows 96 workers on six software development teams at a global high-tech company called by the pseudonym GlobalTech, based in Germany, with mixed nationality teams working in the United States, Germany, and India.
Two years before the study, GlobalTech standardized on English as its business language, to mixed reaction from employees. The US- and India-based workers seemed fine with the new policy (most Indian workers are already bilingual, training at university in English), while many Germans found reading and speaking English awkward, making it difficult to express and defend their ideas. According to the paper, based on interviews conducted by the research team, "nearly all of them expressed feeling some anxiety about having access to appropriate words," particularly when the work became highly technical, conversations became emotional, or when the workers were tired.
Five researchers interviewed and tracked GlobalTech team members through the workday, following them to meetings, teleconferences, at lunch, and at after-work social gatherings. For a team split between Germany and India, one researcher conducted observations at the German site, while another researcher observed in India during the same week.
"We lived and experienced these teams," Neeley says.
And they asked questions. Can you tell us about your project? How do you interact with your colleagues at other sites? Describe what you did yesterday from the time you walked into your office.
Neeley and her colleagues found ample evidence that language anxiety and frustration were common throughout many of the interviews; many reported a sense of being "other" or experiencing an "us versus them" dynamic at a work site. The researchers rated the teams as high, medium, or low, based on the intensity of this "us versus them" effect.
For example, one team that ranked high on the scale, which had a dozen members located in Germany and six in the United States, suffered severe subgrouping among both Germans and Americans.
The Germans viewed themselves as quite different and more competent than their American colleagues. Meanwhile, US team members repeatedly described themselves as "outsiders" and complained that some German team members spoke in German during meetings, making them feel excluded or talked about.
"They are certainly entitled to speak their language. It's just sometimes infuriating because they'll just break into it in mid-meeting…," one American explained.
In another multinational group, this one featuring four German workers in Germany and 14 Indians in India, the "us and them" effect was rated in the middle, neither high nor low. None of the Indian team members spoke German but overall were positive about working with Germans. The Germans, however, expressed some frustration that Indian team members were not as capable as they had hoped and were anxious to have the Indians learn German work practices.
The fewest "us and them" issues occurred among a team of 24 members split between Germany and India who were working on a data standardization project. Neither the Germans nor the Indians saw language as a problem, even when Indian team members communicated in their native Tamil and switched languages among English, Hindi, and Tamil. The researchers found that teams that were empathic and accepting about language issues and who didn't get emotional when workers, say, switched languages at a meeting, experienced less subgrouping.
So how to explain why language was such a divisive force in some groups, and not as much of a factor in others?
The Power Position
"Emotions around power or lack of it is a key contributor," Neeley says. Power—specifically who is perceived to have it and who doesn't—acts as a catalyst that triggers and reinforces anxieties over language and creates subgrouping. Without the power component, language differences don't seem as troublesome to team members; workers without power might be less emotional about language issues.
In the study, there was little subgrouping when workers accepted a power imbalance and were clear that the standards, decision-making, directions, strategy, and most of the opportunities flowed from one place: from Germany to India. "Our observation was that although the power imbalance was acknowledged, it was not contested," the paper states.
Power issues were more of a problem in US-German team relations, however.
Some American workers were wary that teams located at German headquarters had access to more of the company's resources. This caused subgrouping among the Americans who felt outnumbered—they described the dynamic as a rivalry, which the Germans acknowledged. (The team manager based in Germany told researchers that "every time the US team members develop something, it may get rejected because it does not fit with what the German team members have in mind.") Nonetheless, the American-based team also had power because they were closer to the key US software market, the company's core marketing team, and to tech industry analysts. Power struggles were constant.
Neeley says that the Indians, overall, in this study were less emotional because they didn't hold much power in the company. "They are younger, less knowledgeable (about the industry), and they were at the mercy of the Germans."
What Managers Can Do
In a previous paper—The (Un)Hidden Turmoil of Language in Global Collaboration—the same authors outline steps managers can take to control the damage of language-motivated subgrouping. These include:
Anticipate challenges and employee reactions. Managers must prepare for the communications challenges brought on by a new lingua franca system and watch for coping aids used by employees to avoid embarrassment, such as not attending meetings.
Create a safe communications environment. Watch for and remove communication barriers that threaten employees' sense of belonging.
Encourage practice of the new language. Provide nonthreatening environments where the new language can be studied and practiced.
Encourage empathy. Promote sharing of experiences as employees grapple with the challenge of working across languages.
Test assumptions. Help collaborators identify and test the assumptions they make about the intentions behind their colleagues' behavior.