As new technologies make international business easier than ever before, multilingual teams are becoming the norm—and that trend ushers in plenty of benefits. According to the International Journal of Human Resource Management, multilingual teams benefit from increased cultural sensitivity, better multitasking abilities and all the benefits that come with diversity and inclusion. Even so, multilingual teams also come with the potential for more misunderstanding and conflict—and as more companies trend towards international business, this will likely be the case across many different industries.
Still, even if some additional conflict can be expected on international and multilingual teams, the problem is really no different than other problems of communication. No matter the situation, implementing effective multilingual conflict management strategies is the key to success—and what’s often overlooked is how effective language-learning can be as a multilingual conflict management solution.
Cultural differences lead to butting heads—especially on multilingual teams
According to research from the Human Resource Management Academic Research Society, conflict is natural, often necessary and based on real differences between individuals. In a company setting, conflict can occur when one department makes a promise that another department has to fulfill…without taking the time to understand that the second department doesn’t have the resources to deliver on it. Another common circumstance is when multiple departments share the same limited set of resources and the system in place to share those resources is sub-optimal or appears unfair. Finally, authority-related tensions between employees and managers can also lead to conflict when expectations aren’t made clear or communication is limited.
All of the above situations come down to communication, each requiring sensitivity and nuance to navigate. Though issues like these are solvable, the complexity of doing so with international teams speaking multiple languages can be a challenge. At the most basic level, there’s an issue of fluency between employees and departments—does everyone fully understand one another and do they feel comfortable contributing at work? Speaking more abstractly, different languages often contain different implicit cultural beliefs that can affect communication as well.
Many languages have different grammatical markers for respect, authority and seniority which can affect workplace dynamics. In German, for example, “du” and “Sie” both mean “you” but denote different levels of formality and respect; in English, these differences are all compressed into the same word, though respect might be shown in other ways. Many languages have similar linguistic nuances built in that can get lost in translation, which can understandably lead to cultural conflicts and confusion in the workplace.
When handled improperly, these interpersonal complexities can be the perfect recipe for confusion and miscommunication. Fortunately, using language-learning as a simple conflict management strategy can help improve nearly all of these problem areas.
Why language-learning programs are the secret weapon for multilingual teams
As a study published in the Journal of International Business Studies showed, having a significant language barrier between team members can inhibit the formation of trust between employees, which can be disastrous for productivity and team cohesion. Teams who don’t trust one another are more likely to get into unnecessary conflicts and less likely to communicate well with each other. One of the best solutions to these problems is to implement language learning as a corporate practice.
By way of example, consider the food services and facilities management company, Sodexo. The company is one of the world’s largest multinational corporations with hundreds of thousands of employees of many different nationalities. The challenges the company faced were twofold: first, many of their frontline-employees had low English proficiency and struggled to communicate fluently with customers; second, some of Sodexo’s managers had low Spanish proficiency, leading to communication difficulties with employees.
The company’s solution was to implement a language-learning program for all employees and managers through Babbel for Business. The solution was flexible and individualized with employees and managers able to learn on lunch breaks and during downtime. The app was intuitive to use and provided weekly reminders to keep everyone on track towards their learning goals. By the end of their experiment, Sodexo reported better customer service and improved internal communication. After polling their employees, 90 percent reported higher self-confidence and self-efficacy and 85 percent of native Spanish speakers felt more comfortable speaking English at work.
The ultimate result? Multilingual conflict management was improved. The team was able to communicate more easily and could thus work together to solve their shared problems.
Language-learning programs can turn impasse into innovation
Though conflict can sound intimidating from a managerial perspective, it remains an unavoidable part of life and business that can be productive when handled correctly—after all, healthy conflict under good leadership can become “creative abrasion” that drives teams forward. To that end, teams in international companies can stay ahead of the curve through language-learning practices to improve communication for better multilingual conflict management.
As a growing body of research shows, the paradigm shift for forward-thinking multilingual businesses is not to avoid conflict but to embrace it—but conflict can only be meaningfully resolved through clear communication. It’s here that language-learning programs can serve a powerful purpose: when everyone on a team can speak fluently to one another across language barriers, miscommunications melt away and any cultural differences can be bridged effectively and directly. Rather than being slowed down by the logistical problem of language differences, these teams start ahead of the competition with a shared vocabulary of empathy and respect. When business conflicts emerge in that context of cross-cultural understanding, the results are increased productivity, creativity and innovation.
Sr. Content Marketing Manager B2B
Raised bilingually, Thea is invested in intercultural communication. She sees language learning at the intersection of individual education and globalisation.