Tech solutions for language translation have come a long way. While hardly perfected or mainstreamed yet, devices exist right at this moment that allow two people speaking in different languages to understand each other. As amazing as this is, though, such devices can only facilitate the exchange of literal words and statements back and forth.
Unfortunately, true and meaningful communication isn’t that easy.
Figurative language aside, we’re all at the mercy of both cognitive and personal bias. Which is to say, we approach any given conversation with our own distinct personalities and experiences and beliefs and expectations intact. These color what we express to others, how we express it, and how we interpret what’s expressed back to us.
Some years ago, author Gary Chapman penned the popular and successful “5 Love Languages” series of self-help books, based on a variation of this concept. In these books, he spelled out the five distinct ways people in relationships perceive and communicate love. One spouse may value spending quality time, for instance, while the other prefers to receive words of affirmation. The result can be two people who care deeply for each other but are consistently doing or saying the wrong things to express it.
What’s a Business Language?
Such biases exists in the business world as well, where people tend to speak and best understand “languages” that are related to their departmental roles. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody. After all, besides having its own vocabulary (jargon), each department also has established priorities that govern the part it plays in the company’s big picture. Therefore, it’s only natural that the members of a specific department would essentially “speak the same language”–one distinct from other departments with different priorities.
So then how do different departments within the same company manage to work together effectively and efficiently as a coherent team if they’re speaking different languages? The short answer is that too often, they don’t.
We’ve all been in that meeting. The one where revenue numbers are below projection. Or maybe the deadline for some crucial project is just around the corner. Or it was missed a week ago. All departments are represented in the room, the tension is palpable, adrenaline is pumping, words are bouncing around … but very little of worth is actually being communicated. Instead, sides are being taken and actions are being defended. When departmental priorities conflict, it can be hard for people to find common ground, in large part because language and communication breaks down when it’s needed the most.
Taking a cue from Chapman, below is my take on the five business languages I’ve encountered during my time spent working in or with various departments. Think of each as the kind of primer you might use before visiting a foreign country for the first time. There’s hardly enough here to teach fluency, but it might just be enough to keep you from getting into a bar fight.
1) Executive/C-Suite Speaks the Language of Results
According to Henry IV, in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” In modern business terms, I’ve always understood this to mean that those at or near the top have an extra burden of responsibility. Particularly if they answer to some sort of governing or funding entity above them, like a board or private equity investors.
If we think of a company as a cruise ship, then chief executives are the officers, with the captain at the top. It’s the captain, with the help of the other officers, who decides in which direction the ship should travel, and who has the ultimate responsibility for the ship (the company), its crew (the employees), and its passengers (the customers).
In corporate terms, this translates to budgets, bottom lines, business development and strategy, the setting and enforcement of quarterly and annual goals, hiring and firing, and shepherding the company’s overall vision.
Naturally, anybody in a role like this will be focused on these high-level concerns, and their bias will represent this reality. For this group, the top priority is either the achievement of results (invariably growth of some kind), or securing and enforcing commitments from other parties to achieve results. To extend the ship metaphor, everything else for them–technical details, procedural minutia, interdepartmental squabbles–amounts to the rearranging of deck chairs.
2) IT/Operations Speaks the Language of Details
If the company is a ship, traversing wide oceans, then the job of its engineers–to keep the ship running and efficiently so–is of critical importance. If the bulkhead or engines or navigation system fails, then the ship could potentially find itself dead in the water or miles off course. At which point, anything the captain wants becomes an entirely moot point.
In corporate terms, this role can encompass responsibility for a broad range of operational considerations, including but not limited to: office space, office equipment, electricity, heating/cooling, computers, software, internet connectivity, copiers, phones, AV equipment, web servers, email servers, shipping, dispatching, warehouses, and even heavy machinery.
Those acting in an IT/operations capacity will tend to care less about the why of big picture results and more about what needs to be done operationally, exactly how it will get done, and when it needs to be done by. In any given month, there will invariably be more items on IT’s to-do list than they have the time or resources to complete. Which means their priority cues are sometimes communicated by other departments. If there’s only time to complete three things this week, what are those three things?
It’s important to note that for an IT professional, details are important … because they matter. Technology costs vary widely, and those costs impact the bottom line. And choosing the wrong computer or server or software for a job can easily hamstring a project. So if, in meetings, IT coworkers seem preoccupied with specs and techno-jargon and ask a lot of questions, it’s best to assume this isn’t because they’re trying to confuse or annoy people; it’s because they care about what they do and about getting it right the first time.
3) Sales Speaks the Language of Revenue
Unless somebody buys tickets to travel on our metaphorical cruise ship, there won’t be any money for fuel or crews or repairs, and it will be left stranded at port.
In corporate terms, the goal of anybody in a sales role is relatively straightforward: create or facilitate the creation of revenue. The methods and sources of revenue can vary widely and might include: A) selling a product or service directly to customers; B) securing corporate sponsorship or advertising dollars from other businesses; or C) establishing strategic partnerships that will then indirectly result in revenue. Whatever the source, the bottom line is that unless this team is successful at what it does, no company will survive for long.
A major dilemma for Sales is that every prospective source of revenue, whether it’s a consumer or a corporation, has a limited spending budget. Not to mention, other businesses are actively competing for the same budgets. Which means their goal will always be to increase the odds of landing a sale by offering customers and clients as much value as possible for the lowest cost. This single-minded focus, combined with a commission-based compensation structure, can sometimes put Sales at cross purposes with other departments.
In particular, those coworkers who act in a producer capacity may perceive such revenue-driven activity to be mercenary, and maybe even a slight to the value of what they’ve created. After all, nobody wants to feel as if something they’ve put a lot of time and energy and thought into is being sold for pennies on the dollar. But consider the alternative–a product or service that sits unbought on the shelf (literally or figuratively) or is discontinued entirely due to a lack of revenue. Ultimately, it’s for those at the C-Suite level to evaluate if discounts cut too deep and revenue returns no longer justify the time and resources being invested.
4) Marketing Speaks the Language of Perception
Somebody at our fictional cruise line needs to be concerned with how they are perceived by the outside world. This could be as broad as helping people understand that ships are a safe way to travel or as specific as portraying their own ships as larger, cleaner, faster, or more fun than the competition’s. It may even extend to establishing the look and feel of the ships themselves.
In corporate terms, this translates to such marketing efforts as websites, advertising, social media presence, email marketing, press releases, webinars, print collateral, trade shows, telemarketing, audience development, and lead generation. In addition, it usually encompasses a variety of branding initiatives like logo design, mission statements, slogans, business cards, and style guides. If it concerns the perception of the company or its products and services, then odds are the marketing department is involved in some way.
Much of the vocabulary for those in Marketing revolves around the gathering and dissemination of information. The more they know–both specific details and broader context–the easier it is for them to perform the job of managing external perception. If a new widget is launching in a month, they can’t effectively build anticipation for it unless they know everything there is to be known about it. For this reason, timely and thorough communication with Marketing is critical, and few things will frustrate a marketer more than being left in the dark.
With the rapid growth of marketing as a science, data has also become a key aspect of a marketer’s vocabulary. Electronic and internet-based marketing methods in particular revolve around the collection of raw data, the introduction of various algorithms to make the best use of that data, and reporting and analysis that provides insights based on data after it’s been collected. What’s more, data-based reporting like this is highly valued by those at the C-Suite level, since it provides a measuring stick for their own priority, which is results.
5) Producers/Creators Speak the Language of Content
If traveling on a cruise ship was about nothing more than the captain pointing it in a certain direction and the engineers making sure it didn’t break down in the middle of the ocean, then it would be a rather dull trip for the passengers. First and foremost, a cruise should be an enjoyable experience. For that, somebody needs to be responsible for supplying essentials like cabins, food, and entertainment.
In corporate terms, depending on the nature of the company, this role translates to production, service delivery, and content creation. Many modern companies are active in more than one of these areas, and each covers a wide range of possibilities. Production could conceivably be anything from a developer to a programmer to an assembly line worker. Service delivery providers could be a repairman, a flight attendant, or an online customer support rep. Content creators could be writers, designers, or even data analysts.
The bottom line is that these are the people responsible for giving a company it’s substance–whatever it is that Sales will sell, that Marketing will market, for which the C-Suite will provide oversight, and for which Operations will provide the means to produce and create and sell and market.
In an ideal world, producers and creators shouldn’t need to spend time worrying about things like revenue streams and public perception. Most of their energy should be spent bringing value and expertise to whatever product, service, or content they’re responsible for. That is their main priority, and it’s also often their passion. Of course, they need to be aware of how what they do fits into the bigger picture and may even need to support other departments in some way as part of their job. But pull them too far away from their primary role and you risk killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.
How Can We Break Down Language Barriers?
Having acknowledged these five distinct languages, what’s the next step? In business as in life, it’s unrealistic to expect everybody to become fluent in all languages. And it’s unlikely that somebody will invent a Universal Business Translator any time soon. So what steps can be taken to mitigate communication breakdowns and ensure that all departments are able to work toward common goals?
Here are a few suggestions:
1) Check Your Bias at the Door
Since personal and professional bias is at the root of determining which business language somebody speaks, it would stand to reason that eliminating this (as much as possible) is a good place to start. If you wouldn’t travel to another country expecting everybody there to speak your language, then you shouldn’t enter any meeting that includes people outside of your department expecting the same. Be aware of your biases. Own them and name them and be able to put them away as needed. Yes, revenue or content or details may be important to you, but is it important to everybody else in the room?
2) Listen Proactively, Not Reactively
Once you’ve checked your biases, it becomes easier to practice something called proactive listening. The core premise of proactive listening is that you mindfully and intentionally listen to what somebody is saying in order to best understand their meaning and intention. This sits in sharp contrast to reactive listening, which is when you selectively hear only the parts of what somebody is saying that are important to you, usually with a goal of finding the right opening to counter with your point of view. The former option will open your eyes to new information and perspective, while the latter will more likely than not result in you walking away from a meeting having gained no common ground at all.
3) Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions
Once somebody you’ve been listening to proactively has finished speaking, the next best thing you can do to improve communication is ask questions. Assuming they’re speaking a different business language than you, odds are at least some of what they’ve said has gotten past you. So take the time to ask the other person to translate any jargon and clarify any assumptions or details before you walk away from the conversation. There’s no shame in admitting when you don’t understand something, and you’ll have nobody to blame but yourself if you leave important elements misunderstood. Also, displaying curiosity about someone else’s priorities can go a long way toward creating a productive working relationship.
Many Languages is a Good Problem to Have
Generally speaking, diversity of experience, skill, and personality type is a huge strength for any business, large or small, because it increases the range and scope of what can be accomplished. But along with that diversity comes the risk that people with different backgrounds and priorities will have a hard time communicating effectively. Acknowledging this, and taking steps to correct for it, can go a long way toward ensuring that you and your coworkers move forward effectively as a team, no matter which language you speak.