You Think You Have Language Issues at Work?

Human Resources

Queen’s IRC Facilitator Lucinda Bray is a management development consultant based in Dublin, Ireland. In the following piece, she muses on the brilliant cultural chaos of the European Commission workforce.

The Head of the Department is Italian, who also speaks fluent French and passable English. Her deputy is from Finland, and has excellent English and useable Russian. They have just hired a new project manager from Lithuania, whose second language is Russian and who is currently learning English. The rest of the department is a mixture of European nationalities and languages: Greek, English, Dutch, Portuguese, French, Austrian, and Czech.

Welcome to the European Commission.

The European Commission is the public service of the European Union which, since May 2004, now includes 25 countries and operates in 20 official languages. Within the Commission itself, there are three working languages – French, English, and German, which means that everybody has to be able to speak at least one of these. To add to the complication, most of the staffers come from previous careers in their member states and bring different organisational cultures with them.

The Italian Head of Department wonders if her Finnish deputy is a bit slow because he says very little and shows no reaction to her comments. The Finn admires his boss (of course he won’t tell her!) but finds her a little emotionally overwhelming. They are both wondering how the Lithuanian project manager will turn out – she’s only 30, so won’t have been molded by the Communist work ethic, but still… And the Lithuanian is starting to get frustrated by all the bureaucracy and red tape.

I have been leading management development seminars within the Commission for the past 10 years, and am fascinated by the place. At first glance, it looks chaotic. By any normal organisational standard, it shouldn’t work. The whole thing should have collapsed years ago. Traditional bitter enemies working side by side? Twenty official languages? No majority language or working culture? Crazy!

In fact it works very well, by capitalising on those enormous cultural differences. Canadians are used to multinational workforces, but there is always a dominant organisation culture to which the various nationalities are expected to adapt. This does not exist in the Commission. Although the organisation structure is modelled on the French civil service (very hierarchical and vertical), the day-to-day working culture varies from department to department, depending on the nationality of the senior manager. And because of the Commission’s mobility policy, managers must change positions every four years, so the working style in any department shifts constantly.

This multicultural vegetable soup appears to be one of the Commission’s major attractions for new recruits, who look forward to the challenge of working with such a wide cross-section of people. Surprisingly, the Commission provides almost no diversity training apart from an initial induction programme. Yet the atmosphere in the offices is one of respect, tolerance, and good-humoured willingness to accept others’ differences. Racism is almost unheard of.

So… the Italian department head learns that the Finn only speaks when he has something constructive to say, and that he can sum up entire discussions in a single sentence. The Finn learns not to be distracted by his boss’s exuberant body language. The Lithuanian starts to streamline the department’s procedures. And the work gets done.

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