Virtual Teams’ Communication gets “Lost in Translation”

In our global business community, chances are that your virtual teams frequently interact across time zones and cultures. While there are many opportunities to build impactful relationships, it’s easier for things to ‘get lost in translation’ when words and behaviors take on different meanings in these situations.

These differences in cultures lead to misunderstandings of spoken language, body language and even impact the speed of responsiveness and thus delivery of project tasks.

Added to the general challenges of managing and working closely with virtual teammates who you hardly see “in person”, the ability of any global team’s ability to deliver sought-after results is clearly impacted. However, and fortunately, with anticipation and recognition of these differences, good results can be achieved and the incidents of communications being “lost in translation” as the cause for poor teamwork can be minimalized.

What Happens When Communication Gets Lost in Translation?

Here’s an example of how things can ‘get lost in translation’: Project Leader Mary, working in a global manufacturing company with several overseas locations, often sends group emails to her team. In one instance she requested information about product manuals that were customized by location and received the following email from one team member located overseas 5 time zones away:

“As you demanded, I am sending information about the printing schedule.” 

She quickly dashed off her own email which stated,

“Just for the record, and for your own communication in English, saying ‘as you demanded’ is not PC! LOL. ‘As per your request’ would sound much better.” 

She received the following email in response:

“What is PC?  Are you referring to our computers?” 

At that point she phoned the team member and clarified the difference between demand and request; in addition, she explained that PC in this instance meant politically correct, not a computer!

In this case, nothing was impacted, the parties both had a good laugh and agreed to take extra care with future emails. An understanding of care was acknowledged.

Virtual Teams Translate English to English

The challenge of communications in the global language of English is well documented. (see this author’s A Manager’s Guide to Virtual Teams). Misunderstandings are caused by a combination of factors: differences in understanding the English language due to levels of competency based on experience and culture, differences in interpretations, literal translation issues, lack of language skills (hired for technical expertise) and accents.

With this data in mind, a key question to ask yourself is, how do you get colleagues to understand each other, despite cultural communication differences?

Whether you manage a global team or are a member of one (or more than one!), try using these four techniques and related mindsets in helping you to effectively engage with your colleagues around the globe.

Four Practical Tips to Getting Un-lost in Translation

1. Be Curious!

Keep an open mind, sharpen your ‘people antenna’ and ask questions. Here’s a noteworthy quote from a senior HR Leader (Ingrid) for a Food and Beverage Conglomerate:

Know that your culture is not the only one in the world. Be open-minded and willing to learn about the many cultures out there. Try to really understand what someone else’s language means, and trust your colleagues enough to ask questions.

Ingrid described a lost in translation situation with her colleagues in London. During a conference call to discuss downsizing employees, she noticed a silence on the phone. “I asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ and got no response. They were so quiet, and when I asked again, one of them said, ‘terminated in the UK means dead.’ They used the term leaver instead.

This incident got Ingrid to thinking about how language can sometimes impede understanding. She became curious about how the same words can have such different meanings and decided to create a global glossary. Here are a few of her entries:

Paid Time Off Annual Leave
Vacation Holiday
New Hire Starter
Terminated Leaver
Table a Conversation (leave for another time) Table a Conversation (talk about it right now)


Speaking about her learning, Ingrid said:

It’s a different way of talking. So it’s a matter of feeling comfortable and asking questions from the point of curiosity.


Have your cross-cultural virtual team create its own glossary so team members are clearer on expressions and the meaning of English when they translate their native language into English.

Here are a few more examples of interpretation differences, while simple in intent; they can create miscommunications that can affect the effectiveness and efficiency of any global team if they are not anticipated;

American ENGLISH Israeli ENGLISH
Things are in bad shape. Things are ‘on the face’.
No worries, there is a way of doing it. No worries, there is a patent.
Third time is a charm. Third time is ice cream.
Me too. Me either.
Are you sure? You’re wrong!
Private parking – unauthorized vehicles will be towed away. Private parking – an alien vehicle will be converted.


American ENGLISH Indian (Hindslsih/Tanglish/Bonglish) ENGLISH
Hello. How can I help you? Hello. What do you want? Tell me.
I went ahead and did it. I did it off.
He is definitely overweight, His built is on the healthy side.


American ENGLISH Japanese ENGLISH
I just split up with my boyfriend. I have split up my boyfriend.
My father is a doctor, my mother is a typist. My father is a doctor, my mother is a typewriter.
I work hard 10 hours a day. I work hardly 10 hours a day.


American ENGLISH Portuguese ENGLISH
Q – What will you do when you retire?

A – I will breed horses.

Q – What will you do when you retire?

A – I will breed with my horses.


American ENGLISH Swedish ENGLISH
Q – Are you hopeful of any change?

A – No, I have given up hoping that things will change.

Q – Are you hopeful of any change?

A – No, I am hopeless.


American ENGLISH Finnish ENGLISH
He took two pills (medicine) every night. He took two trucks every night.
He took a quick look. He took a fast watch.
Q – How old is your son?

A – Seven and a half.

Q – How old is your son?

A – Half past seven.

 2. Put Virtual Teams’ Communication 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. One manager told me that after his team missed deadlines due to misunderstandings around key deliverables, he puts as much information in writing as time permits:

“I had a team of analysts who fed data to the sales departments. I thought I gave clear instructions, but after the third time we missed the mark I had to rethink how I did things myself before I could blame my analysts who were mostly located overseas.”

Leading virtual teams and their communication requires creating new ways of working together. This starts with you, as the leader, stressing that every team member must recognize that cultural differences exist. Therefore it’s everyone’s job to work on understanding each other’s point of view.

Lastly, adapt their behavior accordingly. In addition, managers must adapt their own styles of leadership to juggle the different locales that own various aspects of a project requiring cross-cultural collaboration. Be sure to:

(1) provide multiple communication channels for team members

(2) conduct frequent progress checks and

(3) refine complex directions into simple ones

Another global team leader learned to ‘put it in writing!’ He concluded that the best way to ensure that teleconference participants achieved clarity and understanding is by sending a summary email or storing minutes on a shared system.

For many cultures, this written follow-up serves to confirm the verbal. Some cultures (many Asian cultures) are more structured and respond to ‘command and control – ‘tell me how to do it and I will wait for your direction’ approach while other cultures (the U.S.) are more entrepreneurial and may just ‘go ahead and do it and get sloppy’ as John, a virtual manager at a technology company pointed out.

He follows up all meetings with copious notes and written summaries so his virtual members (particularly the ones in China) can read and understand what he expects at a time of their own choosing.

Virtual Teams

3. Create Cross-Cultural Collaboration.

When working across cultures and time zones, it is important to create commonalities within the team, despite the differences, time zones, and nationalities. Here’s a smart tip for breaking down barriers across oceans and time zones that works:

“We have colleagues all over Europe. Before new members join us, we send basic information about their culture to the rest of the team, and we send them a PowerPoint presentation with details about every culture represented on our team. We also ask them to email everyone on the team two things:

(1) what one thing – personal or professional – do they want colleagues to know about them, and

(2) what their favorite holiday is, and why. We do this so that people can begin to build connections and we encourage them to dialog among themselves.

Also, to avoid any misunderstanding, we give clear and univocal instructions and we repeat them via mail, phone or internal IMs”.

We, humans, are social beings, and many of us respond well in inclusive situations. Smart virtual team managers look to create this sense of community within their own team. The payoff is quality work product achieved within budget and deadline.

4. Become a True Manager of Cultures

Create a vision, and spread that vision across your team. Whether local or global, look at the landscape beyond the horizon, recognizing that events at one location impact another. It requires the proverbial looking in the mirror and putting yourself in the shoes of others.

Strive for a hyper-openness to how people interact in diverse cultures. Here is an effective approach from a leader of 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; people don’t speak exactly what they mean. They maintain distance, and when you are a global manager who is not from their side [location] you need to understand them.”

As many global leaders earn their positions through technical mastery, they quickly find that success eludes them if they treat their people like numbers on a spreadsheet. As an orchestra conductor who makes music from disparate instruments, an effective global team performing virtually can orchestrate the right balance from all the (human) elements within your own domain by making the effort to bring out everyone’s best.

Some Final Thoughts for Your Virtual Team…

Find that connection with people, the common piece that connects us as human beings. It always starts with respecting people and their experiences and discovering new ways to link people with each other.

As a virtual manager or team leader, your greatest contribution to your team is to enable connection across time and space and to keep the human interaction alive across your team.


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