Power and Language in the Workplace

Subject: Employee Relationships
Pages: 9
Words: 2550
Reading time:
9 min
Study level: PhD


The aspects of communication differ from one culture to another. Intercultural workplace creates various challenges to effective communication, besides the common barriers created by varying competence in the primary language of communication.

According to Ting-Toomey, communication is an expression of one’s realities and varied cultural perspectives that construct their worldview (1984, p.16). This means that interaction in a multicultural work setting is based on cultural influences. Dominion and subordination at work are a result of inequality. To create a proficient and competent workforce, an organization should provide a conducive environment for individuals to express themselves. This allows co-workers to appreciate others’ behavior, attitudes, and perspectives that form an informed point of view, without the common prejudices that lead to conflict.

Language is a marker for identity, a tool of expression of power. It is also used as a nation-state model to teach and learn; so is its importance in any given organization. The suppression of language and people from certain cultural backgrounds raises the question of language rights. In an intercultural work setting, it is important to identify and understand how power and language influence work relationships, how power relations are determined, and the role intercultural communication skills play to avoid and manage conflict.

How Power Relations are Determined in Intercultural Work Settings

Cultural diversity in the work setting continues to evolve as a result of globalization. To compete in the international arena, many organizations find the need to employ staff members who can communicate effectively with colleagues from different cultural backgrounds. Power relations in such a setting require dynamic and productive leaders and managers. Therefore, communication by definition is being able to articulate ideas well and exchange information with other staff members and the clients.

More importantly, however, is that a leader should identify the diverse competencies of others in the organization to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome. Firstly, identify and appreciate people’s cultural values and how they shape their world views and behavior towards others. By so doing, it is easy to understand their response to issues and conflict resolution approaches. To influence interpersonal work relations, managers communicate with assertiveness, without necessarily alienating their subordinates.

Motivational factors and leadership styles influence inequality in an intercultural workplace, which results from a perceived position of advantage or disadvantage. For example, where power is possible for a certain individual or group from a given cultural background, different cultural groups experience pressure at work; both the minority and majority especially, when a state of inequality persist. Sometimes, this is as a result of in- equilibrium between the stakeholders and also because power is experienced only when there is a state of disequilibrium that creates pressure at work.

Within individualistic cultures, there is a tendency toward lower power hierarchy, like in Europe-influenced countries; they vary in their degree of directness in expressing themselves. Therefore, they tend to allow more direct expression in most circumstances either in business negotiations or conflict resolution. For example, English-speaking and Germanic cultures believe in self-expression overwork relationships. Contrary to this, the dimension of power distance among Asian cultures, directness is constrained. Most of these Asian co-workers, unlike their English-speaking counterparts, refrain from expressing negative emotions or becoming confrontational. For instance, a Japanese who is unable to reach the objective of a project in the assigned timeframe is likely to present the project at a later date without necessarily going into details or seeing the need to explain the delay, unlike their fellow American co-worker who might feel the need to explain. In such a work environment, these differences should be identified and appreciated for positive power relations among workers. This creates a conducive work environment with mutual understanding, without one party feeling the pressure to conform to the other’s style of leadership or as a motivating factor.

In general distinctive communication patterns, like all human behavior, are governed by an individual’s cultural values. It is important in any intercultural work environment, to understand the implicit values that influence our own and our worker’s perspectives, attitudes, and behavior. Domination depends on the social position of the individual from a certain cultural background in the organization and their possibility to wield power (Robinson, 2003). The tolerance of how much power may be wielded and in what context in the organization, may differ between cultures. The legitimization of certain behavior and attitudes differs simply because different norms are established. Suitable approaches to issues may be learned in the process of acculturation.

Language management recognizes that decisions made in an organization and society, in general, are based on power relations

Business is conducted in different approaches depending on the given cultures. Therefore, it is important to identify cultural perspectives regarding work relationships. Some commonalities would work to strengthen these relationships. In the same way, the diversity of ethnic communities in the workplace should work determined differences in communication practices and traditions.

According to Kaplan and Richard (1997), the abuse of the agency of power in organizations like at the state level is legalized by the vague need for confidentiality. This allows a lack of accountability as certain information is suppressed or there is a covering up of certain debates (Kaplan and Richard, 1997, p.11).

Power relations are determined by many factors but it is important to understand that most people tend to accept the values of the culture around them to be absolute. Therefore, it is crucial for people in an intercultural work setting to rise above culturally imbued ways of viewing and responding to issues around them. As noted by Fairclough, language acts to maintain and change power as the organizational decision might be derailed because of cultural misunderstanding (2009, p.27). Therefore, managers need to work effectively with diverse people in a multicultural organization only if they understand their differences. They should also understand their cultures, personality, behavior patterns in resolving conflict, and life experiences. To work in a diverse workforce, managers need to develop competent intercultural communication skills.

All communication is cultural. Therefore, in seeking strategic competitive advantage in an intercultural context in any organization instead of diminishing opposite forces, it is more beneficial to seek to leverage them. Integrating opposites is an important principle of business success. A language is a powerful tool that influences how people interact, from not only similar ethnic backgrounds, but also those from different backgrounds. Intercultural communication demonstrated from a different perspective regarding the diversity of the people in any workplace presents positive insights in the construction of meaningful interaction as do relational work.

In any workplace setting, it is important to understand the situational and personal practices that shape intercultural interaction and incorporate institutional norms. Even when a culture has the same understandings or beliefs, and work patterns, the message applicable in the type of context chosen is not always the same. For example, the decision to select a given system of power which is decided upon by existing standards of a certain tradition or culture for an official dialogue might be embraced by other cultures. However, it may relay a varying message to another culture.

The form of managerial communication is shaped by the relative authority conception of a certain culture. Mostly, the participative communication management model is accepted across many cultures. The concept of decentralized authority creates a sense of belonging for most people in any multicultural working environment without alienating others.

Impact Language Has on the Power Relations within a Workplace

A language is a sociological tool that is important in influencing the planning and organization of any place of work. At times it is used as a means of selection of individuals to certain positions in the organization because of their perceived loyalty. In so doing, this notion encourages suppression of minority languages.

Mastery of linguistic skills is crucial in interpersonal communication. An individual’s influence in handling a situation or in decision-making style mostly depends on their communication style. The relationship between superior and subordinate language is a means to renegotiate their position or challenge their subordination. Building a good working relationship requires open communication, whose basis is mutual trust and personal relationships, and the exercise of prudence. By so doing, it becomes easy to avoid breaking promises and meeting expectations goals within the given timeframe.

Communicative competence and language maintenance permits a comparison of different cultures in terms of imposing language use in social situations like at places of work. Language proficiency and maintenance especially among minority languages can be successful without necessarily preserving language competence. The key factor is to adopt open communication channels that allow decision-making based on informed perspectives rather than stereotypes.

Attitudes toward accents and dialects also create barriers in conducting business and influence decisions, like who to promote or assign certain projects. This also contributes to reinforcing negative stereotypes, for example, the level of education or business ability.

The reception of a given message is shaped by the view of authority in a particular culture which affects communication significantly in the business environment. Nevertheless of an individual’s pecking in the organization context, individuals tend to mirror a person with an ability to give an illustrative argument.

Gudykunst and Kim (1992) believe that although most people tend to have individual inclinations given relationships, the collective aspect should not be ignored. Communication in an organization is profound in exploring multicultural interaction aspects of the organization (Gudykunst and Kim, 1992, p.55). This also means differentiating cultural-level behavior from unique individual behavior within the organization.

The culture shock can be a result of incompatible interaction routines including communication. Power relations can result from the prediction of the co-worker’s behavior and allowing intercultural competency. As a manager or leader, to avoid a certain degree of misunderstanding that may cause acculturative conflict culture learning is important in modification of the habitual practices.

The Role of Intercultural Communication Skills to Avoid Conflict

Intercultural conflict in an organization occurs when individuals or a group of people are faced with real or perceived threats or interference in performing a certain activity.

Cultural differences can serve to create prejudices in a multicultural working environment, even before workmates develop credibility with each other. In dealing with the intra-cultural aspect, which involves interaction within members of the same culture, and the intercultural interaction, successful communication is important to cope with conflicts at the place of work.

Characteristics of competitive behavior in society are those marked by poor communication, intolerance, and stereotypical attitudes. Ting-Toomey (1984), shared how beliefs foster teamwork, whereas the perception of divergent beliefs could encourage competitiveness and feelings of ill will. This is because any time we encounter differences in others it is sometimes a result of the reaction to an explicit difference. Sometimes, a judgment that results in conflict is based on limited information and interpretations that are subject to confirmation (Ting-Toomey, 1984, p.173). Reacting to assumptions without curiosity to explore and become fully informed leads to misunderstanding. Developing both verbal and nonverbal communication cues is crucial in addressing intercultural misunderstandings among colleagues.

There are frames of reference to the conflict that gives insight to conflict in the working environment. According to Coleman et al (1989), there are five aspects to intercultural conflict resolution which include; security and stability, human relations, medical model, systems, and postmodernism. The provision of security and stability at work is essential in addressing conflict. Human relations, this advocate for tolerance and cooperation in satisfying equal needs and reconciliation as the result of the conflict. The medical model deals with addressing malignant systems like emotional trauma. Postmodernism, on the other hand, is based on the belief that reality encompasses multiple aspects; this is a result of the social construction of our realities. This means that communication and socialization are the factors involved in both creating and resolving conflicts. Systems show that conflict is built at various levels of interdependence and interaction. To resolve conflict at the specified level one has to understand the right approach (Coleman et al, 1989, p. 243).

According to Fisher-Yoshida and Geller (2009), in intercultural conflict, we have to develop a diverse approach in understanding an individual’s previous experiences and backgrounds. This is because our worldviews are created by our belief systems, assumptions, and values which in turn are shaped by past experiences. Therefore, evaluating culturally diverse behavior which is likely to be ethnocentric should be well interpreted because they interfere with the communication (Fisher-Yoshida and Geller 2009, p.154). Organizations in attempting to understand and develop a mutual appreciation for other cultures should develop communication channels that allow colleagues to understand factors that shape others’ world views.

Cultural polarization at work is stimulated by factors like advancement opportunities, cultural differences, and influence in power relations among different ethnic groups (Robinson, 2003). Language and communication style has been used over time to strengthen and sustain positive working relations and challenge one’s assumptions and prejudices.

Creating awareness of cultural differences is a step towards appreciating and understanding others, hence, creating a positive working environment. Understanding intercultural issues help to cope with communication breakdowns, especially in an ethnically diverse workplace.

Responses to conflict involve our thoughts, behavior, and feelings. If proper communication channels are inhibited, mostly there is an inclination to avoidance. The history of the relationship of the individuals involved is important as it gives a broader perception of the situation that could result in a reluctance to negotiate, considering that most cultures tend to provide alternative responses to conflicts rather than negotiation. Individuals are perceived to be aggressive and competing rather than collaborating and are often rewarded by others who prefer to accommodate. Managers are rewarded for their aggressive approaches to issues, while a compassionate approach to issues by a leader appears to be indecisiveness to their staff. Negotiated solutions to conflicts should be modeled in all areas. For example, in circumstances where a staff member respectively raises concerns should not be seen as a problematic staff member.

Individuals need to accept their respective roles in any given conflict, both the management and subordinate staff. It is effective to approach problems with a sense of empathy and respect for other people’s perspectives. Collaborative approaches to conflict management need all stakeholders to engage in meaningful dialogue.

Conflict arises in intercultural relationships because cultures are embedded in how we respond to issues. For example, labeling or stereotyping some interactions as conflicts and in the process analyzing them to make meaning might lead to intractable conflicts at work.

To avoid escalating tensions between co-workers that create communication breakdown and stressed relationships as a member of any organization, it is important to understand culture is inextricable from conflict, although it does not cause it. The differences emerging among co-workers result because culture shapes behavior, attitude, perceptions, and results.


There are many approaches to resolving conflict in any multicultural work setting but, the most important intervention is to recognize the role of all stakeholders in the conflict. This means identifying and acting respectfully from the knowledge that labeling and stereotyping others, based on their cultural background is bound to result in conflict. Instead, proper channels of communication should be provided among co-workers to create judgment from an informed point of view.

Power and language are both intertwined in the cultural context of any society. A critical approach is valuable in understanding communication patterns that might contribute to power relations, not only in an organization but also in society.


  1. Coleman. P.T., Deutsch. M., and Marcus. E.C., 2006. The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice. New York: John Wiley and Sons
  2. Fairclough, N., 1989. Language and Power. London: Longman
  3. Fisher-Yoshida, B. Geller, K., 2009. Innovations in Transformative Learning: Space, Culture, & the Arts. Volume 341 of Counterpoints. New York: Peter Lang Publishing
  4. Gudykunst, W. B., and Kim, Y. Y., 1992. Communicating with Strangers: An Approach to Intercultural Communication. New York: McGraw-Hill
  5. Robinson, P., 2003. Language in Social Worlds. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers
  6. Kaplan, R. B., and Richard B.B., 1997. Language Planning and Power, Ch. 7, in Kaplan and Baldauf, Language Planning from practice to theory. Cleveland: Multilingual Matters Ltd
  7. Ting-Toomey, S., 1984. Qualitative research: An overview. In W.B. Gudykunst, & Y.Y. Kim (Eds.), Methods for intercultural communication research (pp. 169-184). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.