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What is the true language of global business?

No matter what country’s language you speak, conflict arises from our inability to successfully communicate values.

5 min read


Credit: Susan Fowler

Working globally is a privilege. I’ve had the honor of sharing my ideas, delivering speeches, conducting training, and consulting in dozens of countries. I speak five foreign languages. And as the joke goes, they are American English, British English, Canadian English, Australian English, and Pidgin English (which I learned while living in Hawaii years ago).

People often ask me, “If you could speak a language other than English, what would it be?” What is the most important language for conducting business globally?

The truth is that the most used language in business is English. A recent trip to Geneva — a melting pot of diplomats and foreign business people — proved that to me. I rarely heard any language but English. When two people didn’t speak each other’s language, they turned to English.

But while English might be the language most spoken in business, it is not the most important language. That title belongs to a language woefully undeveloped and rarely spoken effectively: The language of values.

Our vocabulary and common understanding of values has simply not evolved. No matter what country’s language you speak, conflict arises from our inability to successfully communicate values.

The big misperception: Conflict arises from miscommunication

No matter what the problem, people tend to blame it on poor communication. However, contrary to popular claims, miscommunication is not the biggest source of conflict in organizations. Ironic as it may seem, the biggest source of conflict is clearly communicated information and ideas that stimulate a values conflict. Clashing values that don’t get explored or resolved are the culprits behind most conflicts.

To begin developing a language of values, begin by understanding ends and means values.

Distinguishing between ends and means values is not only helpful for understanding your own values, but also for discovering the source of most values dilemmas and conflicts.

Let’s say that you and your spouse both have a value to raise honest children. This is an end value — it describes the future outcome or final state that you desire for yourself or others.

You and your spouse agreeing on the end value of raising honest children is a good thing. But end values do not dictate means values. A means value describes the way you want to go about achieving an end value—it is your belief about the best way to bring your end value to fruition.

This is where you and your spouse could get into conflict. If values haven’t been discussed, you act on your means value by spanking and holding the kids accountable whenever they lie. Your spouse, however, has a different set of means values, so demonstrates tenderness, tolerance of the natural unfolding of the innate goodness of a child, and thoughtful dialogue about why certain behavior is unacceptable. Not having the language to discuss the difference in means values may result in marriage woes despite the common end value of raising honest children.

Matching values is the greatest determinant of lasting and meaningful relationships; mismatching values is the greatest determinant of interpersonal conflict.

In the workplace, discussing ends and means values is a critical component for understanding yourself in relation to others. If your primary end value is to create an organization that makes the world a better place, and your business partner’s primary end value is to create wealth for all senior-level executives within five years, you may not want to be in business together— there’s an obvious mismatch in ends values that will influence what long- and short-term decisions are made.

Let’s say that you and your partner both agree on an end value — to create products and services that exceed the expectations of the customers. The issue then becomes: how do you propose to go about doing that? You mean to organize the workplace by following traditions and policies that hold employees responsible for the welfare of the customer. But your partner means to organize the workplace based on employees’ rights that encourage them to take initiative and act on their own conscience to create customer satisfaction.

You are both working hard to create a successful organization, but you believe in very different approaches. Over time, you get irritated because your partner seems to ignore or bypass the traditional paths of communication and decision-making and embraces what you consider situational standards; your partner gets irritated because you appear attached to dogma and are loyal to traditions that may seem outdated for the circumstances.

Having the language to understand values differences can lead to the empathy needed to resolve potential or existing conflict.

I encourage you to begin a conscious and conscientious effort to learn how to speak the language of values. Leadership requires you are conscious and conscientious about the values you declare, the values you live, and the values you communicate.

Imagine how a common language of values might resolve conflicts regardless of what kind of English you speak.


Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest bestselling book, she explains “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing. She is the author of by-lined articles, peer-reviewed research, and six books, including the bestselling “Self Leadership” and the “One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit

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