Collaboration, Empathy, and Language in Global Teams


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Panacousticon -- Athanasius Kircher (1650)

Panacousticon — Athanasius Kircher (1650)

The importance of empathy for design research, organizational collaboration, and language is one of my major focuses. The relationship between empathy and collaboration is a topic I’ve covered in a range of posts over the past few years. One post in particular, drawing from the Open Empathy Organization concept of Dev Patnaik’s Wired to Care, focused on how empathy improves the overall communication patterns in organizations.

Organizations, for-profit or not-for-profit, which ignore the benefits of using empathy as an organizing principle do so to their own detriment. The point is especially relevant to global companies that mandate a lingua franca. Companies currently mandating English as their lingua franca (ELF) include Daimler AG, Kone Elevators, SAP, Siemens, Philips, Nokia, Alcatel-Lucent, Nissan, Technicolor, Rakuten, and Microsoft in Beijing, among others.

The trade-offs in deciding whether to implement ELF are pretty well known. Pressure from other global players such as suppliers, customers, partners, and competitors who increasingly use English is one. Diversification of organizational tasks across departments in different countries creates bottlenecks without a lingua franca, increasing inefficiencies. A third reason relates to making mergers and acquisitions among global companies smoother in organizational terms.

Actual research into how ELF affects collaboration within distributed teams with members from different mother toungues and national cultures is less abundant. The following discussion looks at some recent research into the way ELF actually affects distributed team members of global companies.

However, before looking at the research, a brief review of the debate about ELF is useful to put the research into a broader context. Most of the points (pro lingua france and con lingua franca) below are drawn from a debate between Maury Peipert and Karsten Jonsen of IMD.

Lingua Franca Pros

Arguments in favor of imposing ELF for globally distributed teams distill into several key points, according to IMD Professor Maury Peipert:

  1. Translation and multi-lingual communication carries with it a degree of complexity that increases to the equivalent of the square of the languages used.
  2. English is already the common language for international commerce so it just makes sense to use it across distributed teams.
  3. Multi-lingual firms are disadvantaged competitively compared to those that use a single language, whatever the language.

Lingua Franca Cons

Arguments against imposing ELF for globally distributed teams go something like the following observations from IMD Research Fellow, Karsten Jonsen:

  1. It is deceptively easy to choose English as a common business language and doing so simply repeats the one-company/one people/one-language-fits-all cultural mentality of homogeneity.
  2. The choice of English as a lingua franca results from centuries of colonial, technological, and economic power of English speaking countries (in other words it is a historical accident).
  3. Imposing a common language often gives people (for us, distributed team members) the illusion of a shared context and interpretation when the real circumstances are otherwise.
  4. A lingua franca suppresses national, regional or ethnic identitity.
  5. Imposing one language limits the culture-specific frames of reference in mother tounges and limits the base of ideas and perspectives in distributed teams.

Sabine Fiedler, a linguist at Leipzig University recently reduced much of the overall debate to a basic question English as a lingua franca – a native- culture-free code? Language of communication vs. language of identification. Fiedler contends that,

ELF is not merely a language of communication, a neutral code stripped bare of culture and identity. Speakers of English as a lingua franca display an array of various identities, with the English native language and culture(s), their own primary languages and cultures and a specific ELF identity being important pillars. The degrees to which these three constituents are activated as well as their interaction depend on a variety of factors that are of influence in a specific communicative situation.

In other words, Fiedler contends that native speakers of English use cultural symbols and sayings (idioms) in communicating with non-native speakers of English. Moreover, the implication is that no variant of English totally strips cultural identity from communication. A key question going unanswered by Fiedler is whether institutional changes in the way distributed teams are managed can mitigate the negative consequences ELF poses to companies.

Recent Research on Lingua Franca in Distributed Teams

Neeley, Hinds, and Cramton recently published the results of some interesting research into the topic of lingua franca manadates in globally distributed teams, “The (Un)Hidden Turmoil of Language in Global Collaboration.” The paper is in the journal Organizational Dynamics, but if you are interested in reading it, an earlier version is available online. The initial draft of the research was titled, “Walking Through Jelly: Language Proficiency, Emotions, and Disrupted Collaboration in Global Work.” The research studied several multibillion dollar global companies including a German company, a French company, a Japanese company, and two U.S. companies. A detailed explanation of their methodology of the research (ethnography, semi-structured interviews, and concurrent observations) is available in Walking Through Jelly.

Neely, Hinds, and Cramton offer the following observation related to how each company implemented the langugage mandate:

“A misconception that plagued each company was the belief that people would adjust to the new communication protocol, given time, and that business would move forward as usual.”

To be blunt, executive management in each company that imposed ELF studied by the researchers assumed that English is simply a language of communication with no cultural implications. The leader of the French company noted that his management never talked about implementing the language mandate and never talked about it after the announcement. On the other hand, the CEO in one of the Japanese companies noted that it “assumed a vision of working for a globalized company and the threat of demotion would suffice” in implementing the language mandate. The transition was done after the CEO made a speech in English and told the employees to begin speaking only English at work.

Neeley, Hinds, and Cramton began the research intending to explore collaboration across distributed teams in global corporations. The researchers report that they weren’t initially focused on the impact of lingua franca mandates until they began to analyze the data from observations and interviews, finding that fully 70% of their informants at the German company brought up the issue without prompting. The following emotional challenges related to communication anxiety were noted regarding ELF mandates across globally distributed teams:

  1. Regardless of the level of English fluency, “almost all nonnative speakers experienced a feeling of diminished professional standing as their companies designated English as the organizational sine qua non…Feeling both restricted by language ability and reduced vis-a-vis their organizations created difficulties for nonnative speakers, because the gap between their mother toungue and English remained stark. This hidden turmoil had drastic consequences for employees and their global collaborators.”
  2. Nonnative English speakers who were confident and vocal in their native langugage “became reluctant to talk with others in English due to performance anxiety”…which was “often, and understandably, coupled with job insecurity.”
  3. The emotional experiences of nonnative speakers also negatively impacted their interaction with native English speakers. Mistrust developed. Situations involving use of English were often avoided. Nonnative speakers sometimes resorted to code-switching to their mother toungue in meetings, or simply excluded native English speakers from meetings.
  4. The experience of anxiety, mistrust, and avoidance in the globally distributed teams negatively impacted the bottom line through decrements in process and productivity.

As Neely, Hinds, and Cramton note:

“Central to learning is the capacity for coworkers to feel safe taking interpersonal risks, such as making mistakes for the purpose of learning. Language mandates created a context in which not only were nonnative speakers generally apprehensive about language performance, the divisive nature of the language haves and have-nots further undermined the trust needed for effective collaboration. Work process suffered and productivity was impaired.”

In other words, the tacit knowledge involved in just “knowing what to do” increases in difficulty as employees and customers become more culturally diverse and geographically distributed, leading to fragmented markets and increasingly siloed organizations. Globalization may flatten markets but it increases such differentiation.

At this point, you could reasonably ask “So What?, global corporations need a common language, and even if there are problems with using English it is simply the one we are stuck with at this point in history”. The key point though is whether distributed team members can develop awareness of how native and non-native speakers use language, and consequently act to diminish negative consequences. Neely, Hinds, and Cramton contend there are strategies for using empathy as an organizing principle for communication by global teams.

Empathic Communication and ELF

Patterns of empathic communication are basic to the ability of cross-cultural organizations, especially global businesses, to benefit from the open innovation opportunities that emerge from the social networks (human and digital) making them up. The research by Neely, Hinds, and Cramton makes a powerful case for the importance of empathic design for ELF in global organizations. As they summarize:

“When coworkers empathized with the plight of their distant colleagues, they often behaved in ways that were less likely to be interpreted as threatening or devaluing. For example, they listened more carefully, worked harder to involve their colleagues in project-related interactions and took pains to avoid causing offense in their communication. The simple expression of understanding and concern for their distant colleagues helped people interpret their coworkers’ actions in more forgiving ways.”

In my estimation, the above statement applies as well to all distributed teams, even where a native toungue is shared. However, in cases of global teams using ELF, native speakers must help nonnative speakers by focusing carefully on the nuances of talk, whether in meetings, email, or other communication. In addition, nonnative speakers benefit by actively trying to express their thoughts in the lingua franca.

What can global managers do?

Neely, Hinds, and Cramton’s research offers five recommedations for global managers, or team leaders, who oversee internationally distributed collaborations in which their company employs ELF:

  1. Anticipate challenges and coping strategies — Look for ways to manage the emotional dynamics of differential language proficiency.
  2. Create a safe communication environment — Look for, and remove, barriers to communication that threaten employees’ sense of belonging.
  3. Encourage practice — Look for ways to encourage nonnative speakers to practice the lingua franca by providing non-threatening environments. Neely, Hinds, and Cramton found that many fluent nonnative English speakers lacked confidence and held back from making valuable contributions due to anxiety.
  4. Encourage empathyWithout empathy the first three recommendations will not succeed. “Managers can encourage perspective-taking and empathy by promoting conversations that reveal peoples’ experiences as they grapple with the challenge of working across languages.” For example, managers can make sure idiomatic expressions are clarified whenever used by a native English speaker where non-native English speakers are involved.
  5. Test assumptions — Managers can test their assumptions about collaborators’ intentions whenever instances of avoidance or code-shifting occur in face-to-face meetings, teleconferences and videoconferences, thereby providing a basis for mutual understanding.

In other research, Deepening Relational Coordination: Why Site Visits Matter in Global Work, Hinds And Crampton contend that knowing who one is collaborating with is a crucial part of the know how, the practical, institutional knowledge, that enables the adaptive capability organizations widely recognize they need to innovate. They report that site visits by globally distributed teams increased the team members’ ability to mutually reconstitute collaborative practices and maintain a level of comfort to promote ongoing learning and adaptation. Indeed, these are similar reasons people give for the importance of working together face-to-face. It makes work personal.

Nevertheless, we know from other research that it is also feasible for team members to develop personal relationships online, even though it may take more time. I do not believe these types of relationships develop without experiences where people, or employees, share common interests that are not directly work related. Empathic communication occurs between people, not between role-players. In other words, if your organization wants distributed teams to collaborate and innovate, make sure your employees have the opportunity to get to know one another as people, as distinct individuals.

Personal Relationships Make Collaboration Work Better

Feelings count in collaboration and that is a human reason why empathy is important. We may share face-to-face in situations that build trust, or we may build a solid enough relationship online to trust that specific team members’ accounts of what it makes sense to do in this or that situation is reasonable and actionable, from a distance. Either way, collaboration works best when those involved incorporate personal stories about their lives outside their formal work, and in the workplace itself. Jay Cross recently referred to this as personal networks. Unfortunately, this basic insight about institutional practices and social networks still seems to elude many people thinking about collaboration and innovation in the context of organization.

Dialogue and debate over whether enterprise networks need to permit employee discussion of non-work related topics on corporate networks dates at least from the early 1990s. In their book Connections in 1992 Lee Sproull and Sara Kiesler noted that employees in a Fortune 500 company they studied received an average of twenty-one discussion list messages per day from a range of over seven hundred discussion lists. About half the discussion lists studied were work-related with the rest covering extracurricular interests and activities.

You can’t know who you work with if you don’t share some common experiences. Shared experiences occur when people interacting over time use significant symbols to tell their personal, and work, stories to others who want to hear them. People convey significant symbols by sharing their experiences relating to self, family, friends, work, and other socio-cultural activities.

When I work in a building colocated with others, as I duck into their cube or office space it is typically adorned with symbols of relationships they consider significant. In noticing those symbols I am given an opportunity to get to know the person behind the corporate badge. By taking those opportunities to engage, people get to know who they are working with, how they work, and often learn what the best ways are to work together. Employees do this every day as they go about their work engaging others. Comfort with one another is more likely to occur when such mutually intelligible situations happen, especially when the people involved express empathy for the accounts others offer for common interests, whether those are external in nature (i.e. sports, arts, programming, etc.) or difficulties with a work practice, or ideas on how to approach a problem differently.

As Dr Nicola Millard noted in “Getting to know you”, from BT Global’s recent white-paper on collaboration and unified communications, The Great Technology Take-Up:

Social media is not that rich a tool for relationship building, but it can be a good way to give people a bit more idea of what someone is like. If you have a page that gives your photo, shows what you’ve studied and worked on, and what your interests are, then it will really help people relate to you.

Millard correctly identifies the challenge as one of relationship building. However, profiles alone are not going to take us very far, especially in global teams but, also, most distributed teams. Shared experiences make it more likely that people will engage the challenges they face in getting their jobs done, as well as the people and technology involved, in ways that aren’t in the books, or the script, or the user manual. People do this all the time and don’t recognize it, or don’t want to toot their own horn.

For a good example of the importance of personal stories to collaboration consider David Wilkins‘ description of how Intel’s use of wikis developed in its Intelpedia. He notes that Intel didn’t start the wiki by loading it with work content right off the bat.

The greatest number of posts was around the soccer pickup schedule, and where to stay when you came to Santa Clara. It struck me how wise it was that they didn’t shut that conversation down. What happens when I come into town, and I join that pickup soccer game? What are we going to talk about, other than work? We don’t have anything else in common. And all of a sudden this thing that’s social becomes, like the water cooler, a mechanism to drive cross-pollination. Which is why, when people start with community, you shouldn’t just have a pure work focus. It’s OK for there to be a community of practice on your Web site about knitting, or about a soccer game, or about fantasy football, or conversations about dogs and kids, because people who participate in that way are from silos, and that can be the way to get cross-pollination, and to get people to socially network across divisions or across subject areas.

Regarding the design of enterprise social networks, Mike Gotta of Cisco recently noted that we neeed to:

“…leverage affordance-centered design: While there are scenarios where social networking is explicit and directed towards a particular activity or outcome, there are many situations where employee participation is entirely voluntary. While it may not seem necessary to design for interactions that may not occur, or to design for collective interactions to be observable by an unknown audience, it’s important to accommodate open-ended and serendipitous ways for employees to connect.”

In other words, collaboration is enabled by the shared experiences of people working together who know more about one another than their expertise or team status. They know who they are working with, as Hinds And Crampton put it in their research.

Comfort with one another is needed to develop shared experiences if the overall purpose of collaboration is to increase the open sharing of information and, over time, tacit knowledge. These are institutional activities that facilitate human connection. They enable a context for people to symbolize themselves in a way that increases their comfort in sharing experiences and the information that goes along with those experiences, especially when participants are distributed across the globe.

All the more reason to enable collaborators to get to know one another as people as well as employees, or partners, or whatever the formal relationship defines, but to afford relationship building apart from the official goals of the organization. New institutional practices are needed in how conversations are structured about organizations across social software applications. We already have hints about how these institutional changes may play out for organizations involving global teams.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Larry Irons
Larry Irons, PhD, is the Principal of Customer Clues. Customer Clues provides consulting services to design manageable product and service experiences across your marketing, learning, and organizational performance initiatives.


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