The impact of language barriers on trust formation in multinational teams

Abstract

This study systematically investigates how language barriers influence trust formation in multinational teams (MNTs). On the basis of 90 interviews with team members, team leaders and senior managers in 15 MNTs in 3 German automotive corporations, the authors show how MNT members’ cognitive and emotional reactions to language barriers influence their perceived trustworthiness and intention to trust, which in turn affect trust formation. The authors contribute to diversity research by distinguishing the exclusively negative language effects from the more ambivalent effects of other diversity dimensions. Their findings also illustrate how surface-level language diversity may create perceptions of deep-level diversity. Furthermore, their study advances MNT research by revealing the specific influences of language barriers on team trust, an important mediator between team inputs and performance outcomes. It thereby encourages the examination of other team processes through a language lens. Finally, their study suggests that multilingual settings necessitate a reexamination and modification of the seminal trust theories by Mayer, Davis and Schoorman, and by McAllister. In terms of practical implications, the authors outline how MNT leaders can manage their subordinates’ problematic reactions to language barriers, and how MNT members can enhance their perceived trustworthiness in multilingual settings.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Sebastian Reiche for his helpful comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript. We are very grateful for the constructive and thoughtful guidance by special issue editors Rebecca Piekkari and Mary Yoko Brannen, as well as by three anonymous reviewers.

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Correspondence to Helene Tenzer.

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Accepted by Rebecca Piekkari, Guest Editor, 16 October 2013. This paper has been with the authors for three revisions.

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Tenzer, H., Pudelko, M. & Harzing, AW. The impact of language barriers on trust formation in multinational teams. J Int Bus Stud 45, 508–535 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1057/jibs.2013.64

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Keywords

  • interpersonal trust
  • language
  • multinational teams
  • cognition
  • emotion