Latest Research: How Do Employees Respond to a Radical Global Language Change over Time?

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Radical change, such as through mergers or acquisitions, is integral to organizational life. Radical changes bring about qualitative changes in the ways people in the organization cognitively, emotionally and behaviourally interact with each other and the world around them. One increasingly common form of radical change in global organizations is replacing the native language of an organization’s home country with a relatively unknown lingua franca (common language), usually English. As previously discussed in this blog, a common language appears to benefit multinationals by improving communication and information flows between headquarters and subsidiaries. Although a potentially beneficial change for organizations as such, the process of adopting a common language is likely challenging, as it profoundly impacts employees’ cognitive, emotional and behavioural experiences in the workplace.

Although there is a growing body of research into the process of organizational change, we still lack knowledge about how, and with what consequences, employees’ cognitive, affective, and behavioural responses interrelate, evolve over the course of a radical change mandate, and influence relevant work-related outcomes, including the willingness to adapt change and the intention to leave. Given the need for further investigation of the topic, my colleague Tsedal Neeley and I (2019) conducted a longitudinal study of a mandated language change from Spanish to English at a Chilean subsidiary of a large U.S. multinational. Because the language change was considered critical for firm performance, the company hired fulltime language consultants for two years. The consultants provided our study with detailed accounts of employees’ progress, attitudes and behaviours during the change. Moreover, we gathered self-report data from employees at five time points over the two years.

Our results indicate that the radical change of adopting a common language does evoke negative affective reactions in employees. Contrary to the premises of appraisal theory, which suggests that cognition tends to precede emotion, our data suggest that employees’ negative emotions towards the change drive negative cognitive appraisals of one’s change self-efficacy (i.e. perceived language fluency). Low change self-efficacy does, in turn, makes employees engage less in English language learning. We also found that employees with lower levels of negative affect had a higher willingness to communicate in English than their high negative affect counterparts. Interestingly, our data shows that low levels of negative affect may elicit higher willingness to engage in language learning than any level of positive affect.In other words, there is evidence for an especially important role of low levels of negative emotions towards the change for driving positive change outcomes. Taken together, we would advise managers to pay close attention to change recipients’ affective experiences and provide necessary support, keeping in mind that higher levels of negative emotions may hinder the willingness to adopt change.

Although we found that affective responses influence employees’ willingness to adopt English, employees’ turnover intentions were rather driven by their cognitive responses to the change.Our findings suggest that employees with higher English language self-efficacy (i.e. higher perceived fluency) also have higher turnover intentions, be it due to the difficulties of working with less language-skilled colleagues, a perceived loss of their higher skilled status as others increase in their language proficiency, or because English language skills are a valuable asset on the external labour market. This result implies that managers may need to identify employees with high self-efficacy levels and try to better engage and integrate those into the change process. Moreover, we suggest clearly delineating employees’ starting baselines in language-related skills (or other change-related skills), and provide language training in homogeneous groups, as the relative comparison among learners can be intimidating.

Further reading: B. Sebastian Reiche, & Tsedal B. Neeley (2019) Head, Heart, or Hands: How Do Employees Respond to a Radical Global Language Change over Time? Organization Science. doi.org/10.1287/orsc.2019.1289

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