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Language, Culture and Teamwork: Core Questions

According to recent surveys, many employers refer to the importance of teamworking skills, especially in intercultural contexts. Researchers in various disciplines (e.g. in international management, international business communication, and pragmatics/discourse studies) have explored a variety of facets of this. Here we briefly review the findings on a number of questions, especially relating to the impact of language and culture.

  • How important is team composition?
  • Does global teamwork require special skills?
  • How does language affect mutual understanding and collaboration?
  • How does language (proficiency) affect participation and equal opportunities in teams?
  • How do language and culture affect team relations?

How important is team composition?

Traditionally, the main concern within international business has been the effect that diversity may have on team performance. The field has been grappling with a fundamental question: does diversity of team membership aid or hinder team performance and output?

A large amount of research has explored this question, taking two different interpretations of culture (Behfar, Kern, & Brett, 2006). One examines the impact of team members’ demographic differences (e.g. age, racio-ethnicity, gender) and the other explores the effect of members’ cultural orientations/values/beliefs.

Stahl, Maznevski, Voigt, and Jonsen (2010) undertook a meta-analysis of research on diverse teams, examining 108 empirical studies covering 10,632 teams and both interpretations of culture. Their study revealed a complex picture. They found both positive and negative effects for both demographic and value-based differences.

Overall, this and other studies show that input variables alone are very unreliable predictors of team performance and that contextual factors are of particularly key importance.

Nevertheless, faultline theory suggests that team composition can be important in terms of sub-group divisions. When teams are formed, members tend to use key demographic information, such as nationality, language fluency, age, gender, educational level, and professional role, to implicitly categorise themselves as similar or different to other members. This can lead to subgroups forming, especially when pressure mounts. Learn more about faultline theory and ways of handling it in our e-module Diverse Teams@Work.

Does global teamwork require special skills?

Behfar et al. (2006) compared the management challenges faced by same-culture teams with those faced by multicultural teams. Table 1 summarises their lists. The issues identified are not comprehensive, though, and need to be supplemented with some higher-level challenges, such as motivating members and creating a common culture (Earley & Gardner, 2005).

Management challenges in same-culture teams

Management challenges in multicultural teams

1. Personality and communication conflict

2. Differences of opinion about work

3. Deciding on a work method or approach

4. Issues with timing and scheduling

5. Problems with contribution and workload distribution

1. Direct vs indirect confrontation

2. Norms for problem solving and decision making

3. Differences in work norms & behaviours

4. Time, urgency and pace

5. Violations of respect and hierarchy

6. Inter-group prejudice

7. Lack of common ground

8. Fluency (accents & vocabulary)

9. Implicit vs explicit communication

Table 1: Management challenges faced by same-culture and multicultural teams, according to Behfar et al. (2006)

Behfar et al. (2006) argue that while both types of teams face similar procedural and interpersonal challenges, “the sources and consequences are more complex” in multicultural teams. We consider some of these challenges in the questions below. Our Global Professionals Profiler (GPP) helps you identify which of the issues are particularly challenging for you/your staff. Our e-Course GlobalPeople@Work uses authentic case studies to explore some of these challenges, with Diverse Teams@Work focusing particularly on the challenges faced by multicultural teams. Those working with students may prefer to use our e-Course, Working in Groups,.which is aimed at university students and has an accompanying Instructor Guide.

How does language affect mutual understanding and collaboration?

Language affects project partnerships and teamwork in numerous ways, one of which its impact on mutual understanding and collaboration.

One common issue is a lack of shared understanding of the meaning of key terms and concepts. For instance, Nunamaker, Reinig, and Briggs (2009) report the following example:

We once worked with a distributed group of 32 stakeholders who were negotiating the requirements for a large online bookstore. Progress broke down over the term, “affiliate.” Stakeholders could not agree on what rights and privileges affiliates should have. It turned out that among the 32 stakeholders there were five different meanings for the term, “affiliate”. The team agreed to use a different term for each of those five meanings, and agreed that nobody would use the term, “affiliate” for the rest of the project, to minimize confusion.

Nunamaker et al., 2009, p.115

They then explain how a very large contract was lost because of inconsistent use of terms and standards and they emphasise the ongoing need for managing this issue. In line with this, Jankowicz and Dobosz-Bourne (2003, p. 123) argue as follows: “To the extent that people in different cultures understand the world differently, they must expend deliberate effort in trying to come to terms with each other’s meanings, over and above their translated vocabularies, if they are to collaborate successfully.”

Another key language and communication issue relates to choice of working language.. Spencer-Oatey (2012), for example, reports that the choice of English as the working language of the eChina-UK Programme significantly increased the workload of the Chinese partners and was problematic for several reasons. Some members felt quite strongly about this issue, and one commented as follows:

I think we should show consideration for each other in terms of language. China is now developing very fast; they should know some Chinese to communicate with us. … We have learned a lot of English, it’s their turn to learn some basic Chinese, as it is two-way communication. I find it weird that they don’t know even a word of Chinese. (p.251)

Spencer-Oatey (2012) points out that as the projects progressed, most of the British realized the importance of having a Chinese speaker to work with them in Britain, and so identified suitable people to bring in on an ad hoc basis. In addition, several of them started to take Chinese language lessons.

For more information on these issues, see Spencer-Oatey’s (2011) article on Achieving Mutual Understanding. Our Global Professionals Profiler (GPP) helps you identify how far language and communication issues are challenging for you/your staff. All three modules (Seeing Culture@Work, Diverse Teams@Work, and Global Leaders@Work) in our e-Course GlobalPeople@Work deal with language and communication and how to enhance mutual understanding. Those working with students may prefer to use our e-Course, Working in Groups, which is aimed at university students and has an accompanying Instructor Guide.

How does language (proficiency) affect equal opportunities in teams?

Language (proficiency) can affect team participation and engagement in various ways. One relates to the attitudes of other team members.

Investigating 15 teams in the German automotive sector, Tenzer, Pudelko, and Harzing (2014) found that individuals with lower language proficiency were seen as having less technical competence and also as being less dependable and less trustworthy. These perceptions were also found to be very stable over time and persisted in teams even after years of collaboration. In line with this, García and Cañado (2005) reported large power differences between team members of equal teams based on how fluent they were in the main working language. According to their participants, being very fluent was highly advantageous for future leadership positions for the following reasons:

  • places you in a favourable, less fragile position when it comes to negotiating and dealing with people from different countries;
  • compels others to turn to you first as a time-saving device;
  • helps avoid conflict;
  • empowers you, by reducing inhibitions, by increasing your amount of participation and hence, power, and by helping you believe you can contribute to the discussion to a greater extent. All in all, it promotes your leadership within the group.

(García & Cañado, 2005, p. 96)

Hinds, Neeley, and Cramton (2014), investigating the perspectives of the less fluent speakers, reported that their participants had strong emotional reactions to perceived power asymmetries including stress, anxiety and frustration, in addition to the anxiety they felt over speaking the company language in front of others. This led to two different avoidance behaviours in the German organisations they investigated: Team members concerned about their English would avoid going to meetings where they would be forced to speak English and, when in charge, attempted to only invite employees who were fluent in German, thus eliminating the need to speak English.

Exclusion and power imbalances can of course occur due to many reasons not only language proficiency. Lockwood (2015) argues that attributing communication problems to ethnicity or language fluency issues alone can sometimes mask more fundamental problems. In her study of a multinational financial company, she found that there were some underlying issues that had a significant effect, including misalignment around corporate values, professional identity struggles, and fear of (and resistance to) offshoring.

Language (proficiency) can also affect team members’ contributions to discussions, as some may find it difficult to take a turn. Our Global Professionals Profiler (GPP) helps you identify how far language (proficiency) issues are challenging for you/your staff. To learn more about these issues, ways of handling them, and the impact of language more broadly, see take our e-Course GlobalPeople@Work. All three of its component e-modules, Seeing Culture@Work, Diverse Teams@Work, and Global Leaders@Work, explore the impact of language in global contexts and ways of handling it. Those working with students may prefer to use our e-Course, Working in Groups, which is aimed at university students and has an accompanying Instructor Guide.

How do culture and language affect team relations?

In a study of knowledge sharing in a dispersed team in a multinational company, Lagerström and Andersson (2003, p. 94) concluded that “the core of knowledge management is social interactions”, in that it helps build mutual understanding and trust, and thereby helps members become more “motivated, committed, and secure in engaging in knowledge creation and sharing.”

To help achieve this, Pullin (2010) emphasises the role of small talk in and around team meetings in establishing solidarity, showing interest and care. In her data participants spoke about uncontroversial shared interests such as music or food at work, positively affecting the mood and the collaboration more broadly. Debray (2018) found similar effects with regard to troubles talk. In her data, team members extensively engaged in talk about shared troubles during team meetings including about workloads, clients, long meetings or events, weather and other colleagues. Through this, previously unfamiliar team members gradually managed to establish common ground and shared perspectives on their work and institutional context, which facilitated decision-making in the team. Troubles talk also facilitated information sharing: Team members got to know each other better and could relate more to each other’s perspectives and approaches. In addition, they began sharing not only personal information but also information was work-relevant and facilitated collaborations. Troubles talk was also regularly done after disagreements and conflicts and thus seems to be one of the ways in which relationships in teams can be repaired and harmony restored.

Building strong relationships, including in teams, is an important theme in our e-Course GlobalPeople@Work. and is also a key component of our Global Professionals Profiler (GPP). Our approach draws particularly on Spencer-Oatey’s rapport management model and our development resource uses authentic case studies to explore the various facets within all three of its component e-modules, Seeing Culture@Work, Diverse Teams@Work, and Global Leaders@Work. Those working with students may prefer to use our e-Course, Working in Groups, which is aimed at university students and has an accompanying Instructor Guide.


This article draws on material in the following chapter:

Spencer-Oatey, H. and Debray, C. (forthcoming) Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Project Partnerships and Teams. In J. Jackson, The Routledge Handbook of Language and Intercultural Communication, 2nd edition. London: Routledge.



Behfar, K., Kern, M., & Brett, J. (2006). Managing challenges in multicultural teams. In Y.-R. Chen (Ed.), National culture and groups. Research on Managing Groups and Teams Vol. 9 (pp. 233–262). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Debray, C. (2018). Troubles talk as a relational strategy in intercultural teamwork. (Unpublished PhD thesis), Applied Linguistics, University of Warwick.

Earley, P. C., & Gardner, H. K. (2005). Internal dynamics and cultural intelligence in multinational teams. In D. L. Shapiro, M. A. von Glinow, & J. L. C. Cheng (Eds.), Managing Multinational Teams: Global Perspectives (pp. 3–31). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

García, M. d. C. M., & Cañado, M. L. P. (2005). Language and power: raising awareness of the role of language in multicultural teams. Language and Intercultural Communication, 5(1), 86–104.

Hinds, P., Neeley, T. B., & Cramton, C. D. (2014). Language as a lightning rod: Power contests, emotion regulation, and subgroup dynamics in global teams. Journal of International Business Studies, 45, 536–561.

Jankowicz, D., & Dobosz-Bourne, D. (2003). How are meanings negotiated? Commonality, sociality, and the travel of ideas. In J. W. Scheer (Ed.), Crossing Borders - Going Places. Personal Constructions of Otherness (pp. 122–137). Gießen: Verlag.

Lagerström, K., & Andersson, M. (2003). Creating and sharing knowledge within a transnational team - the development of a global business system. Journal of World Business, 38, 84–95.

Lockwood, J. (2015). Virtual team management: what is causing communication breakdown? Language and Intercultural Communication, 15(1), 125–140.

Nunamaker, J. F., Reinig, B. A., & Briggs, R. O. (2009). Principles for effective virtual teamwork. Communication of the ACM, 52(4), 113–117.

Pullin, P. (2010). Small talk, rapport, and international communicative competence. Journal of Business Communication, 47(4), 455–476.

Spencer-Oatey, H. (2012). Maximizing the benefits of international education collaborations: Managing interaction processes. Journal of Studies in International Education, 17(3), 244–261.

Stahl, G., Maznevski, M., Voigt, A., & Jonsen, K. (2010). Unraveling the effects of cultural diversity in teams: A meta-analysis of research on mutlicultural work groups. Journal of International Business Studies, 41, 690–709.

Tenzer, H., Pudelko, M., & Harzing, A.-W. (2014). The impact of language barriers on trust formation in multinational teams. Journal of International Business Studies, 45, 508–535.

A GlobalPeople diagram asking what impact language and culture have on effective teamworking