leadership for interpreters, supervising interpreters

Boss Moves

Love your interpreter, love your supervisor (we hope).
Love your interpreter, love your supervisor (we hope).

Hey, guys!  I’m on my way out of the hospital, and on my way out of the Language Services Supervisor position I’ve held for the last few years.  Over the years I’ve learned a lot, through leadership training and experience, and I’m sharing here a few points for your consideration if you find yourself in the tough position of being a new leader.  The especially tough part of it is that usually you’ve been promoted from an interpreter position to a supervisor position, but the learning curve is so rough at first, it sure doesn’t feel like a promotion.  These tips come from my experience supervising interpreters, but could probably be applied to many fields.

Spend time with the people you supervise or manage:  I’m kind of a loner.  I have a tendency to isolate myself.  When I was an interpreter, that didn’t matter much.  But it matters a lot when you’re supervising people.  For introverts like me, you have to make a conscious effort to get up from your desk and talk to people.  Build relationships with them.  It will be easier for you to give them feedback, and easier for them to approach you if they’re struggling with something.  For people who really thrive spending time with others, the challenge will be to maintain professional boundaries and not over-share.

Do the work everyone else is doing:  Not everyone agrees, but I think it’s important for the people you supervise to see that you’re not asking them to do anything you couldn’t or wouldn’t do.  This does not mean doing all the work yourself because you’re incapable of delegating or holding people accountable for what they’re supposed to be doing.  What it does mean is that if someone needs a break, or if you’re short-staffed, you can step in.  There are limits, of course. I can’t step in for our ASL or Burmese interpreters.  Sometimes you have to get creative.

Learn how to address complaints: Here’s the quick-and-dirty lesson: Don’t jump to conclusions, check your emotional reactions, and don’t assume that everyone is always up to no good.  Ask open-ended questions to the complainer.  If someone calls to complain that an interpreter was “rude”, well I can’t do anything with that.  I can’t just tell an interpreter, “Someone complained that you’re rude.”  Try some open-ended questions to get more information that you can then use to address the complaint.  Say something like, “Tell me more about that” and then stop talking.  Listen.  You’ll get all the information you need.  You won’t know what to do with a complaint until you have the whole scoop.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a call about a “rude” interpreter, and it turned out the interpreter appropriately refused to discharge or consent a patient.  Make sure to listen patiently to all sides of the story.  I can’t tell you how many times in the beginning I jumped to conclusions and ended up feeling silly.

Learn how to give feedback:  I find it easiest to start with “I need to give you some feedback.”  You can come up with whatever version of that works for you.  You might change your tone based on the kind of feedback it is (good or bad).  And then, “I noticed [you slammed that door, stepped in to help you coworker, kept your cool during a tough phone call, came to work without your uniform, etc], can we talk about it?”  Again, “Can we talk about that?” and “Can you tell me about it?” are great ways to get someone to tell you all about it.  Remember to give specific feedback.  “You’re doing great!” and “This is not OK” have their place, but feedback needs to be specific to be meaningful.

Look for patterns of behavior: If someone has an off day, I’m not going to write them up for that.  However, if someone has an issue with repeated bad behavior, it’s time to have a sit-down talk and make a plan in writing about how that behavior will change.  If you’re late once, fine.  If you’re late every Monday morning, we have to talk about that.  For the off day stuff, it still needs to be addressed.  I find that a simple, “I noticed X and it really surprised me, because that’s not like you” is a great opener to just acknowledge whatever happened.  This stuff isn’t always black and white, though.  If I’m fuzzy on what to do here, I call HR and ask for guidance.

Establish and maintain boundaries:  This can be especially tricky if, like me, you’re supervising people who were once your peers.  In general, make sure the boundaries are the same for everyone.  The biggest, most important thing I can tell you about this is to never, ever, ever, bad mouth an interpreter in front of other interpreters.  Even if you feel in the moment that they deserve it, and even if keeping your mouth shut seems to make you look bad.  Never, ever talk to other interpreters about private conversations you’ve had with their coworkers.  It’s damaging and I’m not sure how you would recover from it.  People have to know, even when they’ve messed up, that the conversation you have with them about it is going to be kept confidential.

Understand your limits: We all have them.  Pace yourself.  If you can avoid it, don’t schedule a bunch of difficult stuff in the same day.  Sometimes, you can’t avoid it and you just have to gut through it.  Take special care of yourself on those days.  Only you know what that means.

Of course, this is all the short version of the story!  Some days I’m better than others at following my own advice.  It has been a great experience, and I’m really going to miss the interpreters in my department when I leave.  They work really hard serving our community, they make me proud to be an interpreter, and they give me a break on my off days.

If anyone has anything to add, I invite you to share in the comments.  You can also read this other post with tips about transitioning from a peer to leader position that I wrote in 2013.

2 thoughts on “Boss Moves”

  1. Be transparent and inclusive. If orders come from above for a change (and some people balk mightily at changes) explain to the whole team that this is a new policy, we need to discuss together how we are collectively going to implement it. Who has an idea? Then listen.
    Don’t impose new rules with no discussion.

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