Journal of International Business Studies

, Volume 45, Issue 5, pp 536–561 | Cite as

Language as a lightning rod: Power contests, emotion regulation, and subgroup dynamics in global teams

  • Pamela J Hinds
  • Tsedal B Neeley
  • Catherine Durnell Cramton


Based on an ethnographic study comprising interviews with and observations of 96 globally distributed members of six software development teams, we propose a model that captures how asymmetries in language fluency contribute to an us vs them dynamic common in global teams. Faultlines, formed along the dimensions of asymmetries in lingua franca fluency, location, and nationality of team members, were associated with subgrouping in some but not all of the teams. Our findings suggest that divisive subgroup dynamics occurred only in teams that also suffered from power contests, suggesting that power contests activate otherwise dormant faultlines. Our findings extend theory on subgroup dynamics in global teams by adding language as a potential faultline dimension, showing how power struggles activated faultlines and were, in turn, reinforced by them and documenting the emotion-regulation processes triggered by subgrouping and enacted through language-related choices and behaviors.


ethnography qualitative research language (language design, silent language, translation) teams and teamwork geographic distance intercultural work relationship 



This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. IIS-0220098 and Grant No. IIS-0219754 to the first and third authors, respectively. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. We thank Aditya Johri and Tine Koehler for their help with data collection, and Steven Shafer and Heather Altman for their assistance with data analysis. We appreciate the generous assistance of the informants and the organization that participated in the study. We also would like to thank Steve Barley and members of the Harvard Business School Organizational Behavior workshop, especially Patricia Satterstrom, Robin Ely, David Thomas, and Lakshmi Ramarajan, for their insightful comments on earlier drafts.


  1. Auer, P. 1984. Bilingual conversation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Auer, P. 2000. A conversation analytic approach to code-switching and transfer. In L. Wei (Ed), The bilingualism reader. 166–187. London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  3. Barsade, S. 2002. The ripple effect: Emotional contagion and its influence on group behavior. Administrative Science Quarterly, 47 (4): 644–675.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Barsade, S., & Gibson, D. 2012. Group affect: Its influence on individual and group outcomes. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21 (2): 119–123.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bezrukova, K., Jehn, K. A., Zanutto, E. L., & Thatcher, S. M. 2009. Do workgroup faultlines help or hurt? A moderated model of faultlines, team identification, and group performance. Organization Science, 20 (1): 35–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bono, J. E., & Vey, M. A. 2005. Toward understanding emotional management at work: A quantitative review of emotional labor research. In C. E. Härtel, W. J. Zerbe, & N. M. Ashkanasy (Eds), Emotions in organizational behavior: 213–233. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  7. Brannen, M. 2003. What is culture and why does it matter? Current conceptions of culture from anthropology. In N. A. Boyacigiller, R. A. Goodman, & M. E. Phillips (Eds), Crossing cultures: Insights from master teachers: 20–37. New York: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bucholtz, M., & Hall, K. 2004. Language and identity. In A. Duranti (Ed), A companion to linguistic anthropology, Vol. 1. 369–394. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  9. Bucholtz, M., & Hall, K. 2005. Identity and interaction: A sociocultural linguistic approach. Discourse Studies, 7 (4–5): 585–614.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Carton, A., & Cummings, J. 2012. A theory of subgroups in work teams. Academy of Management Journal, 37 (3): 441–470.Google Scholar
  11. Chrobot-Mason, D., Ruderman, M, Weber, T., & Ernst, C. 2009. The challenge of leading on unstable ground: Triggers that activate social identity faultlines. Human Relations, 62 (11): 1763–1794.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cossette, P. 1998. The study of language in organizations: A symbolic interactionist stance. Human Relations, 51 (11): 1355–1377.Google Scholar
  13. Cramton, C. D., & Hinds, P. 2005. Subgroup dynamics in internationally distributed teams: Ethnocentrism or cross-national learning? Research in Organizational Behavior, 26: 231–263.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Davis, M. H. 1983. Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44 (1): 113–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Dewaele, J. M., & Wei, L. 2012. Multilingualism, empathy, and multicompetence. International Journal of Multilingualism, 9 (4): 352–366.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Earley, P. C., & Mosakowski, E. 2000. Creating hybrid team cultures: An empirical test of transnational team functioning. Academy of Management Journal, 43 (1): 26–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Elfenbein, H. A. 2007. Emotion in organizations: A review and theoretical integration. Academy of Management Annals, 1 (1): 371–457.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Feely, A., & Harzing, A. W. 2003. Language management in multinational companies. Cross-Cultural Management, 10 (2): 37–52.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Fixman, C. 1989. The foreign language needs of US-based corporations. National Foreign Language Center (NFLC) Occasional Papers Presentation. (also published in Annals, 511: 25–46).Google Scholar
  20. Giles, H., & Johnson, P. 1981. The role of language in ethnic group relations. In J. C. Turner, & H. Giles (Eds), Intergroup behavior: 99–243. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  21. Gross, J. J. 1998. The emerging field of emotion regulation: An integrative review. Review of General Psychology, 2 (3): 271–299.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Gross, J., & Thompson, R. 2007. Emotion regulation: Conceptual foundations. In J. J. Gross (Ed), Handbook of emotion regulation: 3–24. New York: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  23. Harzing, A. W., & Feely, A. J. 2008. The language barrier and its implications for HQ–subsidiary relationships. Cross Cultural Management: An International Journal, 15 (1): 49–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Harzing, A. W., Köster, K., & Magner, U. 2011. Babel in business: The language barrier and its solutions in the HQ-subsidiary relationship. Journal of World Business, 46 (3): 279–287.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Heller, M. 1992. The politics of codeswitching and language choice. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 13 (1–2): 123–142.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Henderson, J. K. 2005. Language diversity in international management teams. International Studies of Management and Organization, 35 (1): 66–80.Google Scholar
  27. Hochschild, A. R. 1979. Emotion work, feeling rules, and social structure. American Journal of Sociology, 85 (3): 551–575.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR). 2012. Skill level descriptions for competence in intercultural communication,, accessed 27 June 2013.
  29. Jan, J. M. 2003. Code-switching for power wielding: Inter-gender discourse at the workplace. Multilingua, 22 (1): 41–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Jehn, K., & Bezrukova, K. 2010. The faultline activation process and the effects of activated faultlines on coalition formation, conflict, and group outcomes. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 112 (1): 24–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D., & Anderson, C. 2003. Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110 (2): 265–284.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Kingston, P. 1996. Bridging the language gap through international networking. In M. Berger (Ed), Cross-cultural team building: Guidelines for effective communication and negotiation: 58–70. London: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  33. Knapp, K. 2003. Approaching lingua franca communication. In K. Knapp, & C. Meierkord (Eds), Lingua franca communication: 217–245. Frankfurt: P. Lang.Google Scholar
  34. Lau, D., & Murnighan, J. K. 1998. Demographic diversity and faultlines: The compositional dynamics of organizational groups. Academy of Management Review, 23 (2): 325–340.Google Scholar
  35. Levine, J. M., & Moreland, R. L. 1998. Small groups. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds), The Handbook of Social Psychology: pp. 415–469. New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  36. Li, J., & Hambrick, D. 2005. Factional groups: A new vantage on demographic faultlines, conflict, and disintegration in work teams. Academy of Management Journal, 48 (5): 794–813.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Lo, A. 1999. Codeswitching, speech community membership, and the construction of ethnic identity. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 3 (4): 461–479.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Magee, J., & Galinsky, A. 2008. Social hierarchy: The self-reinforcing nature of power and status. Academy of Management Annals, 2 (1): 351–398.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Maloney, M., & Zellmer-Bruhn, M. 2006. Building bridges, windows and cultures: Mediating mechanisms between team heterogeneity and performance in global teams. Management International Review, 46 (6): 697–720.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Marschan-Piekkari, R., Welch, R., & Welch, C. 2005. Handbook of qualitative research methods for international business. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.Google Scholar
  41. Metiu, A. 2006. Owning the code: Status closure in distributed groups. Organization Science, 17 (4): 418–435.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Mettler, S. 1984. Acculturation, communication apprehension and language acquisition. Paper presented at the papers and reports on Pidgin and Creole languages, Vol. 16, Fifth Biennial Conference, Kingston, Jamaica.Google Scholar
  43. Miller, J. M. 2000. Language use, identity, and social interaction: Migrant students in Australia. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 33 (1): 69–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Neeley, T. 2013. Language matters: Status loss and achieved status distinctions in global organizations. Organization Science, 24 (2): 476–497.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Neeley, T., Hinds, P., & Cramton, C. 2012. The (un)hidden turmoil of language in global collaboration. Organizational Dynamics, 41 (3): 236–244.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. O’Leary, M. B., & Mortensen, M. 2010. Go (con)figure: Subgroups, imbalance, and isolates in geographically dispersed teams. Organization Science, 21 (1): 115–131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Orzechowicz, D. 2008. Privileged emotion managers: The case of actors. Social Psychology Quarterly, 71 (2): 143–156.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Polzer, J., Crisp, C. B., Jarvenpaa, S., & Kim, J. 2006. Extending the faultline model to geographically dispersed teams: How collocated subgroups can impair group functioning. Academy of Management Journal, 49 (4): 679–692.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Sebba, M., & Wootton, T. 1998. Sequential versus identity-related explanation in code-switching. In P. Auer (Ed), Code-switching in conversation: Language, interaction, and identity: 262–289. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  50. Sivanathan, N., Pillutla, M., & Murnighan, J. K. 2008. Power gained, power lost. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 105 (2): 135–146.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Spradley, J. P. 1979. The ethnographic interview. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.Google Scholar
  52. Stahl, G., Maznevski, M., Voigt, A., & Jonsen, K. 2010. Unraveling the effects of cultural diversity in teams: A meta-analysis of research on multicultural work groups. Journal of International Business Studies, 41 (4): 690–709.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Strauss, A., & Corbin, J. 1998. Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  54. Vaara, E., Tienari, J., Piekkari, R., & Säntti, R. 2005. Language and the circuits of power in a merging multinational corporation. Journal of Management Studies, 42 (3): 595–623.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Wharton, A. S. 2009. The sociology of emotional labor. Annual Review of Sociology, 35: 147–165.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Academy of International Business 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Pamela J Hinds
    • 1
  • Tsedal B Neeley
    • 2
  • Catherine Durnell Cramton
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Management Science and EngineeringCenter for Work, Technology and Organization, Stanford UniversityStanfordUSA
  2. 2.Harvard Business SchoolBostonUSA
  3. 3.School of Management, George Mason UniversityFairfaxUSA

Personalised recommendations