How to manage multi-lingual teams?

Discusses Helene Tenzer's exciting research about the challenges of multi-lingual teamwork

Update 15 May 2021: Really pleased to see this research covered in the CIPD report on multi cultural teams. More on CIPD's excellent and accessible research reports here.

[Guest post by my co-author Helene Tenzer: Given my interest in linguistic challenges to multinational management, I invited Helene to post about her own work on multilingual teams. This post also led to a wonderful interview on the topic with Helene by a Spanish video blogger. You can watch it here.]

Most work in modern corporations is done in teams. In our knowledge-driven economy, they are formed to co-create, store and transfer knowledge to where it is needed within their organization. Globalized companies particularly rely on multinational teams to integrate their globally dispersed operations, to spread best practices and leverage innovation from anywhere in the world.

To fulfill these expectations, multinational teams need to manage their diversity effectively. Whereas cross-cultural management scholars have already studied the impact of cultural diversity on collaboration for decades, they have only recently caught on to the pervasive influence of language diversity on teamwork. This research field has grown exponentially over the past few years, leading a colleague to remark that “language is the new culture”.

Trust issues

I published my first paper from this series together with Anne-Wil and Markus Pudelko in the Journal of International Business Studies’ special issue on “The multifaceted role of language in international business”. Based on 90 interviews with team members, team leaders and senior managers in 15 multinational teams of 3 German automotive corporations, we show that language barriers can inhibit the formation of trust between team members.

This is a dangerous effect, considering that trust is the glue holding most collaborative relationships together. We found that team members perceive colleagues with lower language proficiency as less competent and are therefore less inclined to trust in their expertise. Due to language-induced misunderstandings and disruptions, they also consider colleagues less reliable and cannot build trust in each other’s integrity.

In addition, team members of all fluency levels frequently relieve stress by switching into their mother tongue, this way excluding many teammates from their conversations and reducing their own trustworthiness. Finally, language barriers create pervasive anxiety among those who consider their proficiency inferior compared to their colleagues. Feeling highly vulnerable, they are even less willing to open up and put trust in their colleagues.

  • Tenzer, H., Pudelko, M., & Harzing, A. W. (2014) The impact of language barriers on trust formation in multinational teams, Journal of International Business Studies, 45(5): 508-535. Available online... - Publisher's version

Emotional turmoil

The emotional implications of language diversity are at the core of my second research paper. This study reveals how language anxiety originates from the inability to express oneself and the subsequent fear of losing face, of missing information and of being evaluated negatively. It also demonstrates how linguistic barriers make people resentful of language policies, of more proficient speakers’ influence and of language switching.

Whereas anxiety is most prevalent among employees with low proficiency in the team’s working language, almost everyone may at times feel resentment. As these negative emotional dynamics reduce team performance, we explored how team leaders can successfully mitigate them.

A combination of three strategies appears to be most successful: First, leaders can reduce the impact of language barriers on their subordinates by keeping language switching to a minimum, by making sure everyone gets enough speaking time, and by repeating important information so no one is left out. Second, they may redirect team members’ attention away from language through humor and joking or by rallying everyone around common goals. Finally, they may help subordinates to positively reappraise language diversity by conveying appreciation for everyone’s input and by encouraging meta-communication about mutual feelings.

If implemented skillfully, these leadership measures can support sensemaking within the team, improve team climate, and strengthen the leader’s position.

Power distortions

However, leaders can only enact these strategies if they have the required language skills to do so. My third paper therefore analyzes the influence of language diversity on power dynamics in multinational teamwork.

The hierarchical position of officially designated leaders and the expertise of technical specialists are generally accepted as efficiency-enhancing sources of power, but language differences distort them in different ways. Policies to speak a specific language (such as English, the global lingua franca of business) in team communication can silence leaders if their proficiency is not up to par. They can also marginalize technical experts who should influence the team by contributing their valuable knowledge. These undesirable power-authority distortions are heightened if language proficiency between team leaders and members is highly disparate, i.e. if some individuals speak the team’s working language with (near) native fluency, whereas others constantly struggle to express themselves.

Beyond this, we also found that the linguistic structures of different working languages influence perceived power distance in teamwork. Whereas languages such as German or Japanese clearly distinguish between formal/polite and informal/amicable forms of address, thus emphasizing personal status, the English language minimizes status differences by offering the standard pronoun “you” for all numbers, contexts and cases. Interestingly, this ease of communication was appreciated by team members from all over the world, including those speaking mother tongues with strong hierarchy markers. This may be due to the homogenizing force of Business English as a lingua franca.

[This article was winner of the 2017 Journal of World Business Best Article Award]

Media choice in virtual team communication

As many contemporary teams span the globe, I conducted a follow-up study on language challenges in virtual collaboration.

Conversations on the phone often overwhelm non-native speakers of a virtual team’s working language, as they need to quickly process a foreign tongue and understand different accents while simultaneously thinking about the task. To avoid these stressful situations, many members of multilingual virtual teams prefer to communicate through email, which allows them to compose messages at their own pace, to look up words in online dictionaries and decipher the responses at rest. This strategy certainly relieves stress for the moment, but it creates a daily flood of emails, with which many employees are struggling.

My study demonstrated that new communication technologies can resolve this dilemma. Many companies have recently implemented corporation-wide chat systems, which virtual team members may use to sort out language-based misunderstandings during large teleconferences. Integrated web-based communication systems also enable video conferences, voice-over-IP telephony, screen- and file-sharing across multiple locations. Teammates frequently use these features to repeat the same message through different communication channels, first in writing then in speech or vice versa. Whereas this may at first glance appear inefficient, it fosters mutual understanding across geographic distance and language barriers.

Drop me a line

Have you experienced similar issues in your collaboration with international colleagues? Are you conducting language-related research yourself or are you interested in doing so? Would you like to learn more about my findings? I would love to get in touch with you, so please do not hesitate to drop me an email.

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