Get lost in translation

Virtual teams (VTs) are an increasingly popular work arrangement. Their undeniable efficiency is tempered by cultural and linguistic differences that lead to what I call “Lost in Translation” challenges. A common difficulty noted in global virtual teams relates to differences in understanding of English, both in level of competence and in interpretation. For example, words like “yes” or “done” often mean different things in different cultures. I envision four strategies that can increase your effectiveness as a virtual manager. These recommendations stem from extensive research I’ve conducted on culture in the virtual space, including extensive interviews with virtual managers and team members.

Four strategies for getting UN-Lost in Translation

When researching material for my book, I asked VT executives and team members: how do you ensure that team members are not 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 prepared to get to know different cultures and trust your colleagues enough to ask questions. If your team is a cross-cultural team, ask everyone to participate in creating a team glossary so members are clear on the different variations of English phrases.

2. Adjust 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 stage of a project, and check in regularly. For many cultures, it is better to follow 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’ll wait for your directions’ approach, while other cultures (the US) are more entrepreneurial andgo ahead and do it and get sloppy‘, as one VT executive at a technology company pointed out.

3. Create intercultural collaboration

When you work across cultures and time zones, it’s important to create commonalities in your team. One way to do that is to create shared goals, provide clear and specific direction, and offer support and encouragement. Besides setting up communication routines and checking your virtual team regularly, what else can you do? A law firm VT manager told me: “It’s just a matter of finding that connection with people; finding the common piece that connects us as people, and it always starts with respecting people and their experiences and discovering new ways to connect people. “

4. Become a true manager of cultures

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

As so beautifully stated by a client who led a global team at a Healthcare Solutions Company: “When it comes to becoming a manager of cultures, you have 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 to translate from English to English in your own teams.

Copyright 2011 – Yael Zofi and AIM Strategies®. All rights reserved