There’s an art to translation. Just ask the former president who once referred to himself as a jelly doughnut while speaking in German, or the banking group HSBC, which spent $10 million rebranding itself after its “Assume nothing” slogan was translated in some languages around the world to “Do nothing.”

Executive Summary

Rather than seeking to create uniform messages and team building activities across all departments, large organizations should empower middle managers to identify where the values are resonating and how to replicate that success, write UVA Professor Lynn Isabella and Susan Kearney of The Institutes. Making personal connections with team members by understanding the individuals beyond their job profiles can help managers create successful team building experiences, they say. Specific to the insurance industry, they advocate tapping into the institutional knowledge of older workers to keep the aspects of corporate culture that insurers desire to retain in future years.

Although Kennedy was trying to express solidarity with democratic West Berlin in a 1963 speech, commentators in later years would suggest that his use of the phrase “Ich bin ein Berliner,” which was meant to be understood as “I am a Berliner,” actually translated to a declaration that he was a German pastry similar to a jelly doughnut.

How a message is translated and received means just as much as the message itself.

This is especially true when developing corporate values and forging an organizational culture. Insurance executives spend hours and hours crafting the exact wording that defines how they see their organization’s mission and purpose. While these messages may not literally be translated into other languages, they’re translated nonetheless. They are summed up, recapped and rehashed across the organization. Oftentimes, before long, top-down corporate culture ends up feeling like a game of telephone. What frontline employees hear is a far cry from what leadership meant to say.

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