Does Your Leadership Get Lost In Translation?

As a child, I remember being dragged to a department store by my mother (what 10 year old boy likes going shopping?) and having to serve as the interpreter between my Mom and the sales clerk.

I should mention: I’m no polyglot.  I only speak English.

Both my Mom and the clerk were speaking English; it’s just that my Mom had immigrated to the USA at the age of 29 from Belgium, and she had a very thick French accent.  The clerk couldn’t understand her at all.  My job was to restate what was being said.

While my Mom’s example is an obvious case of “lost in translation”, we deal with more subtle losses on a regular basis.

For example, have you ever used a slang expression with a non-native speaker and they didn’t get it?

I saw this play out this past week.

I was working with a group of 48 senior leaders from around the world.  They were together for a 5 day training course on learning to lead through change.

One whole section of content was based on the concept of the ‘ripple effect’.

If you had to spell it out, the ‘ripple effect’ would best be explained as ‘any action or event has an impact that continues to spread over time.’   It’s a widely used concept in the USA when describing the influence a leader has on their environment.

There’s just one problem: “the ripple effect” is an English language idiom that doesn’t (and didn’t) translate to non-native speakers.   As you can guess, it didn’t go over well with the group.

It’s easy to assume that everyone understands what you mean.  But we all parse meaning from our own frame of reference.Here are two more examples:

  • An IT company called me last month to help them because their client satisfaction ratings keep dropping. It turns out the main reason for the dissatisfaction is that the clients are frustrated that the IT help that comes to help them with their IT issues only speak “tech”.

  • Have you stepped into a meeting, and started drowning in “Acronym Soup”? Acronyms are great if you’re in the know. For those on the outside, however, they create a secret cult-like language.

As a leader, do you take the time to confirm that the ‘tongue’ you’re speaking in works for the people you’re speaking to?

What other examples do you have of meaning getting “lost in translation”.  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.  

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