Article | Organizational Dynamics | July–September 2012

The (Un)Hidden Turmoil of Language in Global Collaboration

by Tsedal Neeley, Pamela J. Hinds and Catherine D. Cramton

Abstract

Companies are increasingly relying on a lingua franca, or common language (usually English), to facilitate cross-border collaboration. Despite the numerous benefits of a lingua franca, our research reveals myriad challenges that disrupt collaboration and contribute to process decrements and productivity losses, many of which are hidden from leaders' attention. Through a series of field studies with global companies, we document language dynamics among global workers. Most notably, we found that both native and nonnative English speakers suffer anxiety when faced with conducting business in English. Nonnative English speakers respond with anxiety-mitigating strategies, such as avoiding English-only speakers or reverting to their native language, thus passing the problem like a "hot potato" to their native English-speaking colleagues. Native English speakers respond with strategies to reduce their own anxiety, such as exiting meetings and demanding that English be spoken, which passes the burden back to their nonnative English speaking colleagues. This back-and-forth dynamic often occurs because the feelings and experiences of native and nonnative co-workers are hidden from each other. Empathy arrests this cycle, leading to more sensitivity and accommodation of language diversity. Based on the insights from our research, we present lessons that global managers and collaborators alike can employ to halt the "hot potato" cycle and minimize productivity loss in global collaborations.

Keywords: Strategy; Loss; Spoken Communication; Performance Productivity; Research; Global Range; Problems and Challenges; Diversity Characteristics; Cross-Cultural and Cross-Border Issues;

Citation:

Neeley, Tsedal, Pamela J. Hinds, and Catherine D. Cramton. "The (Un)Hidden Turmoil of Language in Global Collaboration." Organizational Dynamics 41, no. 3 (July–September 2012): 236–244.