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Lost in Translation

making business teams work“Matt, the project was due five minutes ago,” my harping boss nags.

“I am putting the finishing touches on it. It will be in your inbox momentarily,” I respond. I scan the PowerPoint presentation one last time and reluctantly click submit. The PowerPoint presentation is high-quality. With my exacting standards, I expect the highest quality.

My supervisor, a late 30ish woman, grumbles. She speaks the universal language of sighs, grunts, and slumping posture. I visualize her impatiently refreshing her inbox every three seconds.

Welcome to the working world, where body language, facial expressions, and nonverbal cues dominate. The $64 million dollar question: How can we mold our instinctual reactions — the sigh, the twitch, the nervous giggle — for healthy, mutually beneficial relationships?

I am a proud ENFP. Alphabet soup? Maybe. But these letters are a four-letter password into my personality. Naturally curious, people and ideas fascinate me. Superficial conversations bore; I want to know what makes you tick. Tell me about your latest backpacking adventure in Patagonia or why the United States will repeal the death penalty and you will have a captive audience hanging on every last word. Not you? You are an introvert, crave the stability of a regular job, and venerate rules and systems. That’s OK — until our working worlds collide.

Our supervisor, who was last heard sighing, paired us for a company project. During work evaluations, she expressed concern at your rigid adherence to employment guidelines. “You and Matt will work together; I think it would be good for both of you. With his intellectual energy and your administrative knowledge, maybe we will unearth a new angle for this project. Play nice — both of you,” she announces before letting out a familiar sigh.

Rulebound Rick and I exchange incredulous glances. Did she really just pair the odd couple for the company’s prized assignment? Yes, and in today’s collaborative office environment, communication, cooperation, and soft skills are more critical than technical acumen. According to Pay Scale, a human capital organization, “Hard skills may get your foot in the door, soft skills will keep you there.”

Rick and I must adapt our communication styles, for the company’s economic performance and our professional advancement. Having worked in the cutthroat legal environment, the most successful attorneys combine technical know-how and the ability to persuade clients, colleagues, and work associates. In business, soft skills — humor, empathy, optimism, the ability to collaborate and negotiate, adaptability — legitimize your financial endeavor.

Rick and I intuitively grasp this. But on a pragmatic level, how can Rulebound Rick, Sighing Susan, and I reach the company’s performance objectives without inflicting gross bodily harm on one another? Here are some strategies:

  • Know your strengths. 
    I am a dynamic speaker known for engaging, interactive presentations. Quick-witted and bursting with ideas, l am a frequent contributor during all-staff meetings. Rulebound Rick is a detail-oriented perfectionist. Brimming with technical expertise, he revels in the scientific discovery process. So divide and conquer with your overlapping skill-sets.
  • Have everyone take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test. 
    Rulebound Rick, Sighing Susan, and I have reached an impasse. Office pleasantries were discarded long ago. The results of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator will uncover each partner’s preferred communication style and work environment.

    A hands-on application: Given a work hypothetical, each group member channels his inner Hollywood start(let) and adopts his colleague’s methodology. Masquerading as Rulebound Rick, I devise a linear plan to replicate our study’s findings. The purpose: to gain an appreciation and understanding of your colleagues’ thinking patterns.

  • Help increase your company’s productivity and strengthen workplace relationships.
    Soft skills, emotional intelligence, and employer-employee relations are important in today’s workplace. Personal and professional factors shape our perception of colleagues’ performance, potential, and likability. Rulebound Rick is a seasoned administrator; he was a decorated military vet before transitioning into civilian life. Sighing Susan is a respected bureaucrat; she reluctantly accepted her current leadership position. I am a public interest lawyer/writer invested in relationships and causes.

    To communicate more effectively, ask your colleagues if they would consent to a non-intrusive video for a week. Assuming everyone agrees, hire a well-trained consultant to analyze verbal and nonverbal communication. In the hypothetical video, Rulebound Rick glances downward and averts eye contact when communicating with Sighing Susan. According to Rulebound Rick, his deferential body language signals respect and compliance. Sighing Susan interprets Rick’s nonverbal language differently, characterizing it as passive and weak.

    You lean in, narrowing your gaze and pursing your lips. Taking powerful steps, you begin to gesticulate. A vein protrudes as you approach. “How are you?!” you exclaim. Your long-lost work colleague retreats. “Everything okay?” Body language subverts, and supersedes, your warm greeting. A picture of your quick, uneven introduction says a thousand words.

    To improve your body language, imagine that you are in a picture: firm posture, raised chin, subtle head nod at the photographer. Don’t risk a blurred photo and message. A replacement Polaroid costs less than your career.

Business team photo available from Shutterstock

Lost in Translation

Matthew Loeb

Matthew Loeb, a Seattle-based attorney, is a mental health advocate. You can contact him at

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APA Reference
Loeb, M. (2018). Lost in Translation. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 20 Apr 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.