Lost In Translation

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

In your Time Span workshop, you talk about the breakdowns in communication that can occur when a manager skips a layer, for example a Stratum IV manager working with a Stratum II supervisor. How can you tell when you have a lost-in-translation issue?


Communication breakdowns can occur for many reasons. Elliott Jaques, in his Time Span research often found, that problems we attribute to communication breakdowns or personality issues, turn out to be a misalignment in organizational structure.

A Stratum IV manager and a Stratum II supervisor are typically working on goals with markedly different Time Spans. Even looking at the same problem, their analysis will be different. The Stratum II supervisor may piece some of the elements together while the Stratum IV manager looks to see how this problem impacts other related systems down the road. Indeed, they may describe the problem using different words (terminology).

The S-II supervisor may wonder what the S-IV manager is talking about while the S-IV manager wonders why the S-II supervisor cannot see what is altogether clear. They use different words and see the world in different ways, creating that lost-in-translation syndrome.

But, your question was, how can you tell if this is Lost-in-translation? More importantly, how can we recognize the difficulty and what steps can we take to prevent it or cure it?

Underperformance of any kind indicates a problem. Any time performance does not meet expectation, there are three places to immediately look.

  • Is it a problem with the performance?
  • Is it a defect in the expectation?
  • Is there a problem with the communication of the expectation?

If it’s a problem with the communication, then lost-in-translation could be the culprit. And the accountability lies with the manager. It is (always) the manager who I hold accountable for the output of the team member.

What needs to change? What managerial behavior needs to change? I see two steps.

  1. The manager should recognize the time span framework of the team member. Here is a quick set of diagnostic questions – “What is the task? When should this task be completed?” The response from the team member is a clear indication of the Time Span the team member has in mind. This Time Span is impacting every decision surrounding this project. The adjustment for the manager is to speak in terms of the other person.
  2. The manager should examine the language (words) being used to make sure the meaning of the words is common and clear. During a task assignment, I will often ask the team member to take written notes and feed back to me their understanding of the work instruction. In there is confusion, it can generally identified in this step.

It is the manager I hold accountable. The manager is 100 percent responsible for the communication in this lost-in-translation issue.

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