Getting Lost in Translation

Virtual teams (VTs) are increasingly popular work arrangements. Their undeniable efficiencies are tempered by cultural and language differences that lead to what I call ‘Lost in Translation’ challenges. One common difficulty noted in global virtual teams pertains to differences in understanding English, both in levels of competency and interpretation. For example, words such as “yes” or “done” often mean different things in different cultures. I purpose four strategies that may increase your effectiveness as a virtual manager. These recommendations come from extensive research that I conducted about culture in the virtual space which includes extensive interviews with virtual managers and team members.

Four Strategies to Get UN-Lost in Translation

When researching material for my book I asked VT managers and team members: how do you get team members un-lost in translation despite cultural differences? Below are suggestions worth repeating.

1. Be Curious

Keep an open mind, sharpen your ‘people antenna’ and ask questions. Know that your culture is not the only one in the world. Be willing to learn about various cultures and trust your colleagues enough to ask questions. If your team is a cross cultural one, ask everyone to participate in creating a team glossary so members are clear on the different variations of English expressions.

2. Adapt to Cross Cultural Differences by Putting it in Writing

Encourage your team to understand and adapt to each other’s personal work styles and preferences. To facilitate this, provide multiple communication channels, clear directions for each phase of a project and check in frequently. For many cultures it is better to follow-up with the written word to confirm the verbal. Many managers follow-up their virtual meetings with written summaries to ensure clarity. Some cultures (many Asian cultures) are more structured and respond to a ‘tell me how to do it and I will wait for your direction’ approach, while other cultures (the U.S.) are more entrepreneurial and might ‘go ahead and do it and get sloppy‘ as one VT manager at a technology company pointed out.

3. Create Cross Cultural Collaboration

When working across cultures and time zones, it is important to create commonalities across your team. One way to do that is to create shared goals, provide clear and specific direction and offer support and encouragement. Besides putting communication routines in place and regularly checking on your virtual team, what else can you do? A VT manager from a Litigation Firm told me, “It is just a matter of finding that connection with people; finding the common piece that connects us as human beings, and it always starts with respecting people and their experiences and discovering new ways for linking people.”

4. Become a True Manager of Cultures

Whether local or global, look at the landscape beyond the horizon, recognizing that events at one location impact another. I call this type of visionary leadership VISTA-leadership. It requires advanced understanding, visioning, and a hyper-openness to how people interact in different cultures.

As so beautifully put by a client who led a global team at a Healthcare Solutions Company, “When it comes to becoming a manager of cultures, you need to know that you don’t know. There are so many unknowns and you have to manage and look for them.”

I hope these four strategies for getting UN-lost in Translation will help you translate English to English across your own teams.

Copyright 2011 – Yael Zofi and AIM StrategiesĀ®. All Rights Reserved