‘Us versus Them’ in Multinationals: The Case of a Lingua Franca

The ‘Us versus Them’ mentality

A couple of my previous blog posts related to the topic of adopting a dominant language, mostly English, in multinational corporations. Even though using a lingua franca is generally considered to improve communication, simplify information flows and increase collaboration across culturally different units of the company, some possible roadblocks need to be mentioned too.

Specifically, a very recent research on the topic by Hinds, Neeley and Cramton (2013) revealed that adopting a dominant language in organization can result in increased ‘us versus them’ feelings, a global team splitting into subgroups, and finally hostility between these differentiated groups.


The ‘us versus them’ dynamics

The phenomenon of ‘us versus them’ led me to think more generally about social dynamics. Indeed, the well-established social identity theory in social psychology posits that (a) part of each person’s identity relates to his or her group memberships, (b) adopting a social identity automatically links to in-group/out-group categorizations, and (c) people have a general motive to develop a positive social identity either by enhancing the status of one’s in-group and/or degrading the out-group. This results inI nter-group comparisons, possible rivalry and competition, and conflicts. Already in 1961 social psychologist Muzafer Sharif demonstrated in his classical study called ‘Robbers Cave Experiment’ how quickly and naturally a sense of ‘us versus them’ emerges.


Language, power and inter-group conflicts

In the Hinds et al. (2013) study the researchers viewed language as a motive for subgrouping, linked it to perceived division of power, and hence explained rivalry between subgroups as struggles for power. The study results suggest that differences in dominant language fluency, the geographical location of employees, and nationality can all be used as a basis for subgroup categorization. However, this categorization is activated only within those global teams that suffer from power contests. Moreover, it can be seen as a reciprocal process, where power contests enhance perceived ‘us vs. them’ feelings, while such categorization further motivates engaging in power contests.

As such, coming back to the practice of using a dominant language, it is possible that introducing a single corporate language in organizations can provoke subgrouping and the resulting inter-group conflicts. Most likely, introducing a dominant language will create differences between employees based on their fluency, with dominant language holders having advantages over ‘other language’ holders. Given that language is a very important part in information and knowledge sharing, and the latter two relate to power, it becomes clear why creating asymmetries in language fluency can contribute to inter-group conflicts.


What to do? Some practical implications 

Speaking more generally, it is important to acknowledge that multinational organizations will always have employees of different nationalities, countries of origin and native languages, which all may induce categorization into subgroups and ‘us versus them’ mentalities. As such, organizations should be cautious of not further reinforcing these processes. Putting together cross-culturally mixed teams, improving cross-unit and cross-team communication, and creating a common multicultural identity in the organization are some useful suggestions here. Moreover, the aforementioned Robbers Cave Experiment showed that superordinate goals, which require more than one group to achieve the goal, is effectively reducing conflicts and diminishes group differentiation.

As for dominant language practice, it is important to encourage practice of a new language, promote empathy and patience along the process, and communicate clearly the reasons behind introducing this change.


Further reading:

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

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