Language, emotions and disrupted collaboration

by | Nov 8, 2016 | Collaboration, Digital workplace, Intranets

It has been my immense good fortune to have had business experience in around 40 countries. Comparing notes with Paul Corney (Knowledgeetal) early this year I think we ended up with close to 60 between us. When we meet it will not take long for the conversation to move into projects we have been working on with multiple cultures, especially in terms of language. Work experience in 40 countries and with teams speaking 17 different languages as well as English certainly does not mean I am an expert. But I have become reasonably expert at listening and watching and learning from those on the project team who are almost certainly not speaking to me in their mother language and then trying very hard not to be an embarrassing Brit. Even working with Paul in Barbados (nominally English speaking) a few years ago we had to be especially alert not to make any assumptions about organisational and national cultures. You only have to read a book such as Understanding Global Cultures, by Gannon and Pillai, even to  begin to get a sense of national cultural complexities. Although When Cultures Collide, by Richard Lewis, was written in 1996, it remains an excellent starting point on business teams across multiple countries working together. Finally read Walking Through Jelly: Language Proficiency, Emotions, and Disrupted Collaboration in Global Work, a HBS Working Paper and I guarantee you will radically change the way you work with German colleagues.

Let me rearrange the words in the title of the paper and state that  “Collaboration in Global Work is disrupted by Language Proficiency and Emotions”. I have seen endless surveys about the propensity for collaboration with awesome exponential growth curves which take absolutely zero notice of this statement. Recent PR by Microsoft on the subject of chat is a case in point. When people wish to share opinions and ideas they will tend to use their mother tongue as it gives them the broadest possible range of nuances. You can sit on a train or bus in London and hear people float between English and their national language quite seamlessly. Working on a project in Germany recently one breakout group in the workshop wanted to use German as their working language, and why not? But then I had to depend on the summary given by the leader without being party to the nuances I could gain from the groups working (for my benefit) in English. As it happened the German language group came up with some of the best comments as  they were not constrained even by what was in general a high level of command of English.

Taking these issues forward from ‘collaboration’ to the digital workplace, the language challenges will remain. To be sure younger people will improve still further their command of English, and we are told confidently by Google and Microsoft and others than machine translation will soon be as good as a human interpreter. That word ‘interpreter’ is important. Working in European Commission meetings with simultaneous interpretation I am often aware that the interpreter is trying to convey subtle meaning and contexts. If you want to see some examples just take a look at @VeryBritishProblems to get a sense of the problems. Your colleague says “Interesting” in response to a statement from a colleague. What exactly do they mean? It may depend on the tone of voice or even the body language or your prior knowledge of their negotiating stance. Welcome to the real world of team work. But even fluent speakers of English may find it hard to write the language in a document or in social media without wondering if they have made a fool of themselves, and worse still their organisation. In English we just have the verb ‘to know’ but the French have both savoir and connaitre. Are you certain which to use, and why?

So as you continue to invest in applications to support collaborative working perhaps it might be worth understanding (not just documenting)  the linguistic and business cultural issues across the organisation and working through what the implications are for a wider use of these applications and the challenges that will lie ahead in what will certainly not a mono-lingual mono-cultural digital workplace.

Martin White