Don't Let Internal Communications Get Lost in Translation

Posted by David Grossman on Thu,Aug 04, 2011

global commsWorking with global clients who need to communicate with employees around the world, I’ve been hearing a lot lately about the challenges of translation. This issue is not likely to go away any time soon as more companies see opportunities and set goals to grow their international business.

We see clients responsible for internal communications struggle with the best way to send and receive timely information to engage employees in multiple languages and cultures. We hear from employees who feel frustrated because they want to receive information in their native language, with the same immediacy as they receive it in English.

My own experience reinforces how we need to be aware of our individual points of view when working with people from other cultures and languages. Recently, when conducting employee focus groups in Germany, I knew I had to slow down my typical rapid speech and be cognizant of the slang that’s so prevalent in the English language. But I also discovered the need to explain the terms “focus group” and “guidelines,” neither of which exist in German, to help attendees understand the goals of the session and how a focus group works.

It reminded me that it is critical — regardless of where you are and with whom you deal — to establish a shared understanding with stakeholders. This is important even with fellow English-speakers who come to the table from different backgrounds and geographies. You think about a topic in a certain way based on your personal experience, while I think about it based on my experience. We could be talking about the same thing and not understand each other at all because we are coming at the concepts in a very different way. The potential for misunderstanding increases when language differences enter the mix.

Whatever the specific issues and situations you face with people of different cultures, it’s important to find common ground and recognize that senders and receivers share the same goals. They all seek to understand their company’s objectives and needs, and they all want to be effective at their jobs.

To be sure your internal communications don’t get lost in translation, consider these solutions:

Make sure mission-critical information is translated — Across the globe, people need to have a common understanding of the vision and business goals, along with their role in achieving them. This should be communicated in their native language. Many organizations identify the key 10-12 languages most common in their organization and translate mission-critical information accordingly.

If you want an employee to do something, translate the communication – Employees can’t contribute if they don’t understand the message and how they can help – not to mention what’s in it for them.

Create a quality-control process that ensures accurate translation — Translate material locally to address cultural nuances, but coordinate all translations centrally to ensure the broader company message and meaning are getting through.

Support communication with dialogue — Incorporate face-to-face conversations and feedback techniques into your communication process to build a foundation of understanding and help you know whether you are in sync with your audience. When addressing a complex topic, start at the broadest, highest strategic level and ensure understanding there first, then go deeper.

Give employees the choice of language – Don’t assume you know the language your employees want to use. Give them the option to get materials in the language of their choice to best ensure the messages resonate. Doing so also allows you to merchandise your translation efforts and get “credit” from employees for communicating in ways that are most relevant to them. It’s an investment to translate materials into multiple languages, so make the most of the opportunity to let employees know you care about their needs.

Define critical terminology — When you are using specific words that you want understood and repeated consistently, ask questions to ensure you and your employee audience are defining terms in the same way. For example, you might start by agreeing that your organization wants to grow and be profitable, then you could discuss what that means to the audience. In this case, questions like, “What does ‘grow’ mean?” or “What does ‘profitable’ look like in the context of this organization (what are the targets, milestones, how are we growing)?” can help individuals relate to the larger goals.

Focus on what your audience is saying — Check for understanding with occasional clarifying questions such as, “How would you explain what I’ve just told you?” or “Could you share your understanding of this approach?” When you ask people to paraphrase back to you what they’ve heard, you know where they are coming from and whether they have received the message or not. And just as important, the questions people ask tell you what they are thinking and how much they are connecting with your message.

Where could your messages get lost in translation? What steps will you take — locally and globally — to ensure understanding in the future?


- David Grossman

Tags: Internal Communication, Leadership Effectiveness & Planning

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