Applied Linguistics

Much of what the Language in the Workplace Project team has discovered in general terms about communication and miscommunication in the workplace will be of interest and relevance to professional practitioners involved in vocational training of various kinds, including workplace literacy, English for employment, diversity training and team development programmes. In particular, the research underlines the importance of understanding the social aspects of workplace communication. The ability of a team or individual worker to use language appropriately to manage their relationships with others at work is an important component of communicative competence and can be just as important to their success as how well they cope with doing practical tasks.

Workers with intellectual disability

Research on the integration of workers with intellectual disabilities has shown that the inability to use language in an expected and appropriate way with co-workers is a far greater impediment to successful integration in the workplace than the inability to work machines or do tasks. For instance, workers with intellectual disabilities often do not understand the expected topics of small talk among co-workers. They often reply inappropriately to small talk initiated by their co-workers, which can lead to misunderstanding and bad feelings, or they may be unable to play their part in sustaining a conversation. People with intellectual disabilities can also miss the times when small talk is expected, such as on the first meeting of the day, or during break times.

For example, compare the first typical exchange between two co-workers, with the second, where Ron has an intellectual disability. Joan and Elizabeth pass in the passage:

Liz: hi Joan
Joan: hi how are you
Liz: oh busy busy busy
Joan: mm terrible isn't it

Supervisor, George, to worker with disability:

George: you been busy Ron
Ron: not much

Because of these difficulties, intellectually disabled workers tend not to mix socially at break times and after work, further distancing them from other workers.

Communication in multicultural teams

Cross-cultural miscommunication is often a result, not of poor linguistic competency, but of a lack of understanding of cultural differences. The literal contents of a message may be understood, but the intentions contained within a message can be easily misconstrued.

English for speakers of other languages

Difficulties caused by a clash of cultural norms can be even greater when one interlocutor in a workplace speaks English as a second language. Although miscommunication can happen in the workplace for any of a number of reasons, the danger when ESL speakers are involved is that problems with communication may be routinely put down to a lack of English competency. Social talk is often one site of difficulties.

Communicative strategies for maintaining good social relations in a new workplace are not necessarily self-evident for ESL workers. The requirements of politeness, how to make contributions in a meeting, how to compliment or apologise and how to challenge without offending are examples of communicative tasks that present extra challenges to ESL workers. Customs that are taken for granted in one culture do not necessarily apply in another.

For example, compliments are a frequent and expected form of small talk in the workplace. However, what actually counts as a compliment may vary from culture to culture, as in this example: A worker is showing colleagues family photographs during a tea break:

Recent Chinese immigrant: Such a big family!
Pakeha New Zealander: Yes, but it has advantages too

Cross-cultural pragmatics study

The LWP team has completed a study on the pragmatics of cross-cultural communication focusing specifically on issues such as these. This research focuses on the ways in which people from different social and cultural backgrounds accomplish tricky communication acts such as complaints, refusals and disagreements (known as "negatively affective speech acts" in linguistic terminology). Beginning with material selected from the large LWP database, the study describes the range of ways in which such speech acts are performed in different workplace contexts. Teaching materials have also been developed to assist new workers, including those for whom English is a second language, to accurately interpret and appropriately produce negatively affective speech acts in their own workplace interactions.

Evaluation and development of communication

The traditional pattern of training in workplace communication tends to consist of delivering courses focusing on a set of discrete, rigidly defined “skills” and tasks, and then sending the participants back to their workplaces to practice and apply what they have learned. The research conducted by the LWP team has illustrated, however, that there are many different ways of communicating at work and that the specific context of any interaction is crucial to the choice of communication strategy. People adapt their communicative approach according to a myriad of social, personal and contextual factors. Moreover, particular work groups tend to develop their own particular communication strategies and patterns and experience their own specific problems.

No pre-packaged course can hope to prepare people for such communicative diversity and the associated challenges. Rather, people need assistance in developing their analytical skills so that they can identify for themselves the appropriate ways of interacting in their specific community of practice on any particular occasion. Our data provides support for the position taken by critics of narrow competency-based approaches and suggests that to be of real practical use, training and development in communication must go beyond a narrow focus on individual skills to encompass a context-sensitive, interactive model of communicative competence.

One approach, which we have developed, is known as the Communication Evaluation Development (CED) model. The process adopts a reflexive approach: it is based on participants observing, reflecting on and evaluating their own particular communication processes in their specific workplace. This allows them to identify specific aspects of their communicative behaviour which they would like to alter or develop and then experiment with new communicative strategies which may improve the effectiveness of their workplace interactions. Application of this process suggests that it can be very effective in a range of different work environments.

The model is based on the two key elements of an action learning approach, namely, evaluation (developing insights from reflection on past events and observation of current practices) and planning (applying these insights to future actions). It also draws on the principles of appreciative inquiry. This is an approach to organisational development which involves looking for what is done well with the aim of finding ways to share strengths with others and develop them further, as distinct from looking for “problems” and setting out to solve them.

Resource kit: talk that Works

Talk that Works

Please see the entry for the Talk that Works resource kit in the Teaching and Learning Resources section.


Please see our list of Applied Linguistics publications in the Bibliographies section.