How do language differences affect trust in multinational teams and what can we do about it? Professional development coach and facilitator, Anne Wolff, shares her research


Multinational teams (MNTs) are increasingly common in corporate life. Whether through mergers or a global HR system, they attract superior talent from around the world.

Cultural differences play an important role in the working life of MNTs and have been well-researched. But language, a facet of culture, is often ignored. By mandating a single corporate language (usually English), the language problem will be solved, right? Well, no, not necessarily.

In research I recently conducted for my Henley Business School MSc in Coaching and Behavioural Change, 14 non-native English speakers (NNES) were interviewed to hear their experience of working in an MNT with an English language mandate.

This article reflects their experiences. It also suggests actions by the team leader and team coach to mitigate some of the worst effects, and to take advantage of the potential benefits of the diversity characteristic of an MNT.


Diversity in teams

Research is mixed on the value of cultural diversity in teams. Broadly, it agrees that diversity can be very positive where the team task is ‘creative’ and a range of points of view is valuable for decision-making. But diversity can slow teams down where the task is more process-driven.

Nevertheless, research interviewees were overwhelmingly positive about the advantages of working in a culturally diverse team:

“You get a broader, richer perspective on what the possibilities and the options are”

“It’s great when you meet other people and understand how they think and what they like and how they see the world”


Proficiency differences

When interviewees talked about differences in English language proficiency among team members, though, they were quick to highlight difficulties and problems.

Native English Speakers (NES) themselves have a wide range of accents, speech styles and cultural backgrounds. Unsurprisingly, interviewees reported problems with pronunciation, accent, word usage and use of idiom:

“He speak[s] fast and he has also [a] Scottish accent, and he didn’t realise that it’s difficult for others to understand”

Problems are also caused by differences in speech styles. In particular, they struggled with the ‘indirect’ or ‘polite’ style of the British:

“So when the British person tells me, ‘You may consider doing it…’, I know that he said, ‘Do it!’ ”


Language disparities

There are, of course, practical consequences to these language disparities. There can be misunderstandings and mistakes and it’s time-consuming to check back:

“And sometimes you don’t ask and then you are in trouble because you didn’t ask”

Less obvious perhaps was the negative emotional response that NNES experience as they try to overcome the language disparities: when they have to ask for things to be repeated or to repeat themselves, when their language is corrected insensitively, when they are not given the time or the opportunity to express themselves.

They used words like ‘embarrassed’ and ‘annoyed’. Significantly, they talked of the perception of a link between language proficiency and professional competence. They felt NNES are seen as ‘stupid’ when their language ability falls short:

“If somebody cannot explain themselves… or… isn’t quick enough, I believe people just put them aside as being stupid”

Some situations are more difficult than others for NNES. Larger groups (particularly when there are senior people present) are challenging. Perhaps surprisingly, informal and social occasions also pose problems: where they may not have the vocabulary or the cultural or social context for small talk.

Difficult conversations involving negotiation, persuasion or argument are harder to deal with:

“Obviously you don’t have the same effect when you need to persuade and convince in a different language”

These are all situations that are hard to avoid for a well-functioning team.

A notable theme for NNES was the loss of identity or a sense of not being themselves when speaking another language. They talked about losing their full range of expression, of being perceived as having a different personality (often much quieter), of having to ‘play a role’:

“I have the feeling that speaking English I lose at least 30-40 per cent of my potential expression”

This loss of identity, of inauthenticity, contributes to the fact that having to speak a foreign language involves extra effort – sometimes described as ‘emotional labour’. There is extra effort involved in having to ‘translate’ their ideas as well as to assert themselves to make sure they understand and are understood.

The interviewees all believed that it was primarily up to them to make the effort. However, they drew attention to the asymmetry between their extra effort and the relative lack of effort made by NES team members.

This ‘lingua-centricism’ was sometimes attributed to a lack of awareness or neglect: native speakers not adapting their own language to make it easier to understand. Sometimes it seemed to go further, to be based on an intolerance of incorrect English. Either way, the responsibility for effective communication is not equitably shared.

As a result, they talked about how NNES simply withdraw and stop contributing to the team, especially in group settings. When this occurs, important and valuable input is lost, not least the full range of ideas and problem-solving approaches that are the biggest benefits of cultural diversity in an MNT. Fault lines start to form in teams with sub-groups of NNES who find it easier to communicate with each other.


The effect on trust

When asked about the importance of trust in teams, interviewees most often talked about openness, honesty, feeling included and part of the team, or of emotionally based trust. They also referred to the importance of knowing that someone is capable of doing a job without having to double-check or look over their shoulder; or capability-based trust.

Based on these definitions, it seems clear that language disparities and how they are handled in MNTs can impact trust and team performance.

Trust will be negatively affected where:

  • NNES believe their professional competence is questioned as a result of their English language proficiency
  • Either NNES or NES feel inhibited from freely questioning and asking for clarification, resulting in misunderstandings
  • Team members are not able to properly know one another – either because the challenge of informal situations makes relationship building difficult for NNES or because NNES are not able to be authentically themselves when they are speaking English
  • There is a sense of unfairness or a lack of equality – where there is an asymmetry of effort being made by NES and NNES, with sub-groups forming as a result.


What can be done?

Trust is a core attribute of high-performing teams (Lencioni, 2005)* and so there is a clear case for recognising and addressing the problems arising from language disparities.

Bearing in mind the perceived association between language proficiency and professional competence, the subject of language diversity needs to be treated with sensitivity. And yet, what emerged was that the interviewees would welcome an open, honest conversation about language disparities, preferably early on in the team’s life. This gives the opportunity to set some norms and ground rules for team interactions that can improve communication, regardless of language.

It is clear that team leaders (and coaches) play a pivotal role. Most importantly they can emphasise that the work of the team is its business goals, that effective communication is more valued in service of these goals than correct language and that team members have been selected for their professional expertise, not their language ability.

The team leader can role model good language awareness: making sure that NNES are given enough time and opportunity to express themselves, by not talking over or interrupting them, by simplifying their own language and avoiding unnecessary jargon and idiom.

The responsibility for effective communication then becomes a shared endeavour, with native speakers also making an effort to adapt their language to make it more easily understandable.


The opportunity

Even in organisations with the most enlightened of diversity and inclusion policies, language diversity is rarely addressed.

And yet the challenge of language differences, once recognised, represents an opportunity for team leaders and coaches. By slowing down to ensure effective communication, opportunities for building mutual understanding, empathy and trust emerge that are not present in homogeneous teams, where language is taken for granted. As one interviewee put it:

“Any difference in language really is an opportunity to increase trust between us because you do need to work on the language. So it should always be something that helps build trust.”

*Patrick Lencioni, Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005

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