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Walking Through Jelly: Language Proficiency, Emotions, and Disrupted Collaboration in Global Work


  • Tsedal Beyene

    () (Harvard Business School, Organizational Behavior Unit)

  • Pamela J. Hinds

    () (Department of Management Science & Engineering, Stanford University)

  • Catherine Durnell Cramton

    () (School of Management, George Mason University)


In an ethnographic study comprised of interviews and concurrent observations of 145 globally distributed members of nine project teams of an organization, we found that uneven proficiency in English, the lingua franca, disrupted collaboration for both native and non-native speakers. Although all team members spoke English, different levels of fluency contributed to tensions on these teams. As non-native English speakers attempted to counter the apprehension they felt when having to speak English and native English speakers fought against feeling excluded and devalued, a cycle of negative emotion ensued and disrupted interpersonal relationships on these teams. We describe in detail how emotions and actions evolved recursively as coworkers sought to relieve themselves of negative emotions prompted by the lingua franca mandate and inadvertently behaved in ways that triggered negative responses in distant coworkers. Our results add to the scant literature on the role of emotions in collaborative relationships in organizations and suggest that organizational policies can set in motion a cycle of negative emotions that interfere with collaborative work.

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  • Tsedal Beyene & Pamela J. Hinds & Catherine Durnell Cramton, 2009. "Walking Through Jelly: Language Proficiency, Emotions, and Disrupted Collaboration in Global Work," Harvard Business School Working Papers 09-138, Harvard Business School.
  • Handle: RePEc:hbs:wpaper:09-138

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