PAC Conseil

The words that can paralyse your transformation programme

If you have French and English colleagues and team mates then you need to read this.

To be able to change people need to understand the change

Firstly, no transformation programme can achieve its objectives if people don’t understand what’s going on. Secondly, no project can deliver on time, to scope or budget if teammates and colleagues misunderstand and misinterpret the communication between each other. In conclusion, projects and programmes require comprehension, and the key to good comprehension is effective communication.

Yet everyday, in any transformation programme there are thousands of emails, instant messages, documents flooding onto our screens. There are conference calls via phone and video, brief chats around the coffee machine and important face to face meetings with senior stakeholders. If you work in a multi-lingual environment (where not everyone shares the same mother tongue) then in each of these interactions there are words that that can cause misunderstanding, misdirection and sometimes conflict.

These “micro-misunderstandings” occur hundreds or thousands of times across your organisation. They are like grains of sand in the gearbox of your car wearing away at the smooth functioning of the tightly knitted gears. Things get loose, wear away and simply stop working. Transformation programmes struggle when communication and comprehension of the purpose, goals and approach are poorly understood.

The challenge is multiplied significantly in trans-national change / transformation where not everyone speaks the same language(s) to the same level of proficiency.

Have your transformation programme efforts struggled in the face of poor change management? 

Where our internal dictionaries are different change communication and transformation collaboration are stifled, stilted and fractured.

One example – Assume

In my humble opinion (and from a programme management perspective) assume is the winner by far. It is the undisputed world heavyweight champion of misunderstandings at a task, project and programme level. I have personal experience of this and if there is one quick win you could do for your french and english colleagues it would be to point out the vast difference in meaning this word has in French and English. Why? Because there are two definitions for this word in english:

Assume – /əˈsjuːm/

  1. To suppose to be the case, without proof. – “topics which assume detailed knowledge of local events” – Similar: presume, suppose, take for granted, take as read, take it as given, ween
  2. Take or begin to have (power or responsibility). – “he assumed full responsibility for all organizational work”

In english the common use is the first definition. In French it is very very firmly the second definition. Can you see where this might cause problems on projects, task management and reporting?

It’s the difference between someone thinking that someone has taken the responsibility to do something, and the other person just thinking it might be done.

The challenge is that there are hundreds of words in both english and french that look and sound the same but the difference in meaning between the two languages is profound. Students of French and English know them as faux amis (false friends). Being aware of this concept doesn’t always protect us from misunderstanding. The need for speed in terms of comprehension, communication and action can sometimes throw us off course. Assist, attend, eventually, delay, pass, sensitive and so on. These are all words that can cause confusion and misunderstanding between colleagues.

PAC Conseil is a consultancy that specialises in delivering transformational success for anglo/french companies. We are consultants who are acutely aware of these profound differences in culture, communication style and language. So what to do?

Our top tips

  1. As a leader ensure everyone is sensitised (sensibilise) to the subtle and profound differences that exist between these words – a notation here or there when editing documents, a quick word in meetings for clarification; these all help. Where you see the possibility of misunderstanding point it out.
  2. Look out for ambiguous words in your own communications; keep things simple. Be super attentive and careful when you are using them. Repeat a phrase using different words if needs be
  3. Keep emails and other written communications short and to the point. Remove anything that doesn’t support the point you are trying to make.
  4. Never be afraid to ask for clarification if something is not clear or you think you may have misunderstood
  5. For key documents – such as acceptance documentation, broadcast communications – have versions that have been properly translated into the mother language of the intended audience
  6. Training and sensitisation sessions can be really useful. A one hour show and tell on the various pitfalls and traps.
  7. Even produce desktop or screen based reminders that people can have for quick and easy reference
  8. And in the case of misunderstanding or conflict? Go back to the documentation to double check that any conflict of confusion is genuine rather than caused by a simple misinterpretation of a word

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