Published on April 27, 2014
COMMON LANGUAGE DIFFERENCES IN GLOBAL VIRTUAL TEAMS: THE ROLE OF MEDIA AND SOCIAL CATEGORIZATION ANDERS KLITMØLLER Aarhus University, Department of Business Administration Bartholins Allé 10, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark SUSAN C. SCHNEIDER University of Geneva, Switzerland KARSTEN JONSEN IMD, Switzerland INTRODUCTION Global Virtual Teams (GVTs) are rapidly becoming the principal way of managing inter-unit collaboration in MNCs (Maznevski & Athnassiou, 2006). In the wake of the economic financial crisis and increased carbon emission awareness, we can only expect this trend to continue (Webster & Wong, 2008). This makes the successful management of GVTs one of the most pressing organizational issues of our time (Rosen, Furst, & Blackburn, 2006). However, despite GVTs’ apparent impact on MNC effectiveness, we have only recently started to identify factors affecting virtual collaboration. Here scholars have mainly been occupied with the notion of culture, disregarding other aspects of national difference (Berry, 2011). Specifically we suggest that a vital issue in international human resource management has been overlooked: the impact of variance in common language on GVT effectiveness (Lauring & Selmer, 2012; Piekkari, 2006; Zander, Mockaitis, & Harzing, 2011). LITTERATURE REVIEW Social categorization and common language proficiency Social categorization is intrinsically related to social identity which springs from group membership (Yzerbyt & Demoulin, 2010). In order to obtain self-esteem and avoid uncertainty, groups make social comparisons to other groups in the environment (Tajfel & Turner, 1986). This process of social categorization triggers stereotypical perceptions of non-group members and leads to discriminatory inter-group behaviour (Lauring, 2008). We suggest, as to understand social categorization in GVTs, to broaden our attention to characteristics that, unlike nationality and ethnicity, are highlighted and recognizable by the GVT members through all media (van Knippenberg & Schippers, 2007). Here variance in common language skills between GVT members could potentially challenge collaboration. Face-to-face teams with low or varying degree of proficiency are less effective as they take longer time to complete a task, and also members experience more insecurity (Glinow, Shapiro, & Brett, 2004). Team members with low proficiency are met with frustration and domination by more proficient members in collaborative situations (Barner-Rasmussen & Björkman, 2007). The latter often perceive low proficiency
individuals as being less intelligent and unprofessional (Barner-Rasmussen & Björkman, 2007). In consequence studies have shown that language proficiency is as important for social categorization compared to other identity traits such as nationality and ethnicity (SanAntonio, 1987). Thus, there are strong indications from studies on co-located multicultural teams that variation in common language proficiency could potentially impact GVTs through social categorization (Shahaf, 2008; Welch, Welch, & Piekkari, 2005). METHOD The Finnish owned MNC, Ronopu is a global market leader in the water pipe industry, with employees in over 30 countries, and in order to select teams which were facing communicative challenges a ‘snowballing’ technique was used (Wilkinson & Young, 2004). By interviewing the global HR manager located in Denmark, five GVTs with 28 employees from five European countries where identified. Interviewees included three top managers (7%), five project managers (17%) and 20 team members (76%). The interviews where distributed over eight locations in order to minimize the effect of geographical co-location known to create social categorization in virtual teams (Polzer, Crisp, Jarvenpaa, & Kim, 2006). The selected teams included from three to five nationalities so that no nationality was represented by more than two members in a team in order to avoid strong nationality-based faultlines (Shaw, 2004). All teams were involved in relatively knowledge intensive tasks such as strategic planning, supply chain management, logistics and R&D. Semi-structured interviews were the primary data gathering technique used; it consisted of both face-to-face and telephone interviews due to the distributed nature of the teams. Face-to-face interviews were conducted in Spain, Finland and Denmark, and the interviews took place in meeting rooms or personal offices and lasted between 60 and 120 minutes. The telephone interviews with members from Germany and Sweden lasted between 45 and 90 minutes. In order to compensate for limitations in telephone interviews, face-to-face follow up interviews with key German informants were conducted during a corporate strategy workshop in Finland thus adding to the reliability of the data. Interviews were conducted in English; however, one regular interview and two follow-up interviews with Danish members were conducted in Danish. Original quotations in Danish are translated in such a manner that the nature of the original responses has been maintained (Marschan-Piekkari & Reis, 2004; Xian, 2008). FINDINGS Common language differences and social categorization in GVTs Traits such as ethnicity and nationality were rarely mentioned in relation to challenges in virtual collaboration. The majority of the team members considered it a non-issue. Especially employees and managers would downplay the role of national culture and ethnicity when discussing team performance. However, it quickly became apparent that the informants were emotionally aroused when discussing the relation between language proficiency and cultural attributes:
It is not the fact that people have different backgrounds, culture and bring different things to the table that challenges collaboration in the teams. It is the fact that English pronunciation from the German and Spanish members is so bad that I do not understand what they are saying! (Swedish team member) Team members from the small Nordic countries would perceive their colleagues from larger southern countries, such as Germany and Spain, to be less proficient in the use of common language, using the term ‘North’ and ‘South’ to describe the variance in proficiency level. As noted by a Danish member: The ‘North’ members from the small countries have a better accent and are easier to understand than members from the big countries in the ‘South’ such as Germany and Spain. They do not speak English that well. I think it is because for historic reasons they have not been forced to interact with the outside like, for example, Denmark. (Danish team member) The lack of verbal common language proficiency was a sensitive issue for the GVT members. This was shown in how less proficient ‘South’ members would describe themselves in a derogative manner as this German member: ‘The Nordic members, for example Swedes and Finns, are very close to native speakers. The weakest and most stupid concerning English is the one you are speaking to right now.’ This suggest that the categories ‘North’ and ‘South’ based on variance in language proficiency were not a neutral description. Rather the category entailed negative connotations since proficiency variance prolonged team processes: You just get annoyed because every time you have a phone conference with people from the ‘South’ you cannot understand what they are saying and you end up having to write four or five e-mails afterwards just to clear up what was said. (Danish team member) This led to negative categorization of ‘South’ members by ‘North’ members, which was captured in an informal conversation with a Danish informant: ‘I am sure that the South team members would not be frowned at if they spoke better English. You start to develop these stereotypes […] these mental barriers because it happens every time you talk to the ‘South’. This was again, by other members from the North, linked to categories such as ‘professionalism’ and ‘intelligence’ in a negative manner. A Finnish manager stated: ‘The thing is that you work in an international environment, a global team. So either you are a professional and learn English or you leave the organization!’, and a Danish member said that: ‘The problem is that on the phone verbal proficiency is all you have to rely on, and the fact is that if you are hard to understand, you just come up sounding less intelligent.’ For both the less proficient members of the ‘South’ and the more proficient members of the ‘North’, it was associated with emotional distress to interact on the phone: Every time I have a telephone meeting with members from Spain who don’t speak English that well my hands start to get sweaty 10 minutes before. Because, you
know, it will just be so goddamn awkward because I know we will not be able to understand each other. (Danish team member) The ‘South’ members would feel more embarrassed than nervous in these situations suggesting a heightened awareness of how lack of proficiency would be perceived by the ‘Nordic’ members: ’I think it is very difficult. I have taken classes and so on, but I am still very conscious about the fact that my English is not very good. I feel embarrassed’. The two groups reacted very differently in the sense of uncertainty springing from variance in proficiency level. The Nordic members would demonstrate dominative behaviour by speaking very fast or interrupting if a ‘South’ member was taking up time trying to explain him or herself. The ‘North’ members of the GVT would, according to the interviews, pressure ‘South’ members aggressively: ‘Come on, Hans. What is your input on this? Say something’, and would ascribe it to a lack of empathy as this Danish informant: ‘The thing is my English is very good, and I find it difficult to put myself in their shoes. Therefore I might have a tendency to dominate the meetings’. However, most would relate it to the telephone as media, and the fact that spells of silence on the telephone made them feel uncomfortable: ‘The thing is that in face-to-face meetings when nobody is saying anything you can see the other is thinking. In phone conferences you cannot. So I feel like I have to say something’. The consequences of these practices, while not recognized by the ‘North’, were clear to the members from the ‘South: ‘The people from the ‘North’ tend to dominate every meeting, and, for example, if we have a German technician in the meeting who doesn’t speak English that well he will not give his input, and that influences the outcome of the meetings a lot’. In addition to the lack of input due to embarrassment about their pronunciation, ‘South’ members would also describe a tendency to ‘zoom out’ since the speed of the conversation led to a lack of understanding. This had a negative impact on GVTs’ effectiveness since the behaviour would hamper intra-team collaboration and knowledge sharing, which ironically also meant the more proficient ‘North’ members losing concentration. ‘The thing is that if there is not that Ping-Pong in the phone meeting due to language issues, your mind starts to wander’. In sum, the results suggest that variance in verbal proficiency and pronunciation leads to the formation of groups within the teams. The emergence of the groups - ‘North and ‘South’ - was closely linked with insecurity when encountering a virtual team member with differing language proficiency level. Thus more proficient ‘North’ members would refer to a sense of ‘awkwardness’ and ‘nervousness’ when encountering ‘South’ members. This led to a dominative behaviour and a startling realization of a spillover effect whereby the ‘North’ members described the ‘South’ members as less intelligent and non-professional. While the less proficient ‘South’ members to some extent questioned this behaviour, some would describe themselves as being ‘stupid’ taking on the categorization as of their group identity. These dynamics were continuously reinforced since according to both groups diversity in language proficiency obstructed team goals having a strong negative impact on team effectiveness.
CONCLUSION This exploratory study sought to capture the relation between common language proficiency, social categorization and media. As GVTs, consisting of members with different proficiency levels in the common language, are becoming an integrated part of MNCs, this study contributes to an improved understanding of the challenges in managing such teams. In prior literature it has been suggested that social categorization might be less prevalent in GVTs due to lack of observable attributes. This study suggests that if we are to understand the challenges in virtual teams, we must broaden our understanding of differences in traits to include verbal variance in common language proficiency, as this may have a detrimental effect on GVT effectiveness. LITTERATURE Barner-Rasmussen, W. & Björkman, I. 2007. Language fluency, socialization and inter-unit relationships in Chinese and Finnish subsidiaries. Management and Organization Review, 3(1): 105-128. Berry, G. 2011. Enhancing effectiveness of virtual teams: Understanding why traditional team skills are insufficient. Journal of Business Communication, 48(2): 186-206. Glinow, M., Shapiro, D., & Brett, J. 2004. Can we talk , and should we? Managing emotional conflict in multicultural teams. Academy of Management Review, 29(4): 578-592. Lauring, J. 2008. Rethinking social identity theory in international encounters: Language use as a negotiated object for identity making. International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, 8(3): 343-361. Lauring, J. & Selmer, J. 2012. International language management and diversity climate in multicultural organizations. International Business Review, 21: 156-166. Marschan-Piekkari, R. & Reis, C. 2004. Language and languages in cross-cultural interviewing. In R. Marschan-Piekkari & C. Welch (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research methods for international business: 224-226. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. Maznevski, M. L. & Athnassiou, N. A. 2006. Guest editors´ introduction to the focused issue: A new direction for global teams research. Management International Review, 46(6): 631-645. Piekkari, R. 2006. Language effects in multinational corporations: a review from a human resource perspective. In G. Stahl & I. Björkman (Eds.), Handbook of research in international human resource management: 536-550. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing. Polzer, J., Crisp, C. B., Jarvenpaa, S. L., & Kim, J. W. 2006. Extending the faultline model to geographically dispersed teams: How colocated subgroups can impair group functioning. Academy of Management Journal, 49: 679-692.
Rosen, B., Furst, S., & Blackburn, R. 2006. Training for virtual teams: An investigation of current practices and future needs. Human Resource Management, 45 (2): 229-247. SanAntonio, P. M. 1987. Social mobility and language use in an American company in Japan. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 6(3-4): 191-200. Shahaf, P. 2008. Cultural diversity and information and communication technology impacts on global virtual teams: An exploratory study. Information and Management, 45: 131-142. Shaw, J. B. 2004. The development and analysis of a measure of group faultlines. Organizational Research Methods, 7(1): 66-100. Tajfel, H. & Turner, J. C. 1986. The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations: 7-24. Chicago: Nelson-Hall. van Knippenberg, D. & Schippers, M. C. 2007. Work group diversity. Annual Review of Psychology, 58(1): 515-542. Webster, J. & Wong, W. 2008. Comparing traditional and virtual forms: identity, communication and trust in naturally ocurring project teams. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 19: 41-62. Welch, D., Welch, L., & Piekkari, R. 2005. Speaking in tongues: The importance of language in international management processes. International Studies of Management & Organization, 35(1): 10-27. Wilkinson, I. & Young, L. 2004. Improvisation and adaption in international business research interviews. In R. Marschan-Piekkari & C. Welch (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research Methods for International Business. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. Xian, H. 2008. Lost in translation? Language, culture and the role of the translator in cross- cultural management research. Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management: An International Journal, 3(3): 231-245. Yzerbyt, V. & Demoulin, S. 2010. Intergroup relations. In S. T. Fiske & D. T. Gilbert & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology, Vol. 2: 1024-1083. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. Zander, L., Mockaitis, A. I., & Harzing, A. 2011. Standardization and contextualization: A study of language and leadership across 17 countries. Journal of World Business, 46: 296-304.
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