Walking Through Jelly: Language Proficiency, Emotions, and Disrupted Collaboration in Global Work

by Tsedal Neeley, Pamela J. Hinds & Catherine Durnell Cramton

Overview — As organizations increasingly globalize, individuals are required to collaborate with coworkers across international borders. Many organizations are mandating English as the lingua franca, or common language, regardless of the location of their headquarters, to facilitate collaboration across national and linguistic boundaries. What is the emotional impact of lingua franca adoption on native and nonnative speakers who work closely together and often across national boundaries? This study examines the communication experience for native and nonnative English speakers in an organization that mandates English as the lingua franca for everyday use, and the impact of the lingua franca on collaboration among globally distributed coworkers. HBS professor Tsedal Neeley and coauthors describe in detail how emotions and actions were intertwined and evolved recursively as coworkers attempted to release themselves from unwanted negative emotions and inadvertently acted in ways that transferred negative experiences to their distant coworkers. Their findings have implications for managers who are charged with overseeing internationally distributed projects. Key concepts include:

  • Disparities in English language proficiency were a major challenge for workers in the study.
  • These disparities not only disrupted information sharing, they often triggered a cycle of negative emotional responses that interfered with collaborative relationships on the teams.
  • It is important that workers engage in perspective taking with the goal of understanding the experiences and constraints of their colleagues.
  • Building awareness of the experiences of coworkers with different language backgrounds and proficiencies and empathizing with those experiences can circumvent the negative cycle.

Author Abstract

In an ethnographic study comprised of interviews and concurrent observations of 145 globally distributed members of nine project teams of an organization, we found that uneven proficiency in English, the lingua franca, disrupted collaboration for both native and non-native speakers. Although all team members spoke English, different levels of fluency contributed to tensions on these teams. As non-native English speakers attempted to counter the apprehension they felt when having to speak English and native English speakers fought against feeling excluded and devalued, a cycle of negative emotion ensued and disrupted interpersonal relationships on these teams. We describe in detail how emotions and actions evolved recursively as coworkers sought to relieve themselves of negative emotions prompted by the lingua franca mandate and inadvertently behaved in ways that triggered negative responses in distant coworkers. Our results add to the scant literature on the role of emotions in collaborative relationships in organizations and suggest that organizational policies can set in motion a cycle of negative emotions that interfere with collaborative work. 38 pages.

Paper Information