Interpreters Are Not Mistake-Proof


The thing you can count on regarding mistakes is that they are going to happen. To everyone. At some point or other. Hopefully, the degree of harm resulting from the mistake is minor and limited in scope and impact.  But it is not helpful or realistic to hang a sign that says “no mistakes allowed here,” and think that that will keep mistakes from happening.

Just to be clear, this isn’t license to create an environment where it’s okay to make mistakes left, right, and center without any consequence or repercussion. That would, at the very least, be equally as detrimental as an environment that has zero tolerance for mistakes.

These zero tolerance types of environments, however, tend to breed suspicion, defensiveness, cover-ups, blame, etc. How could they not? It’s a stifling, back-stabbing, dog-eat-dog culture that impedes personal, professional, and organizational growth. Who needs that? Healthcare interpreter teams don’t, that’s for sure.

The thing is, mistakes can serve as great opportunities for positive growth. In fact, in the right context, errors-based learning approaches can be much more effective than, say, lecture-based learning. That’s something to think about.

As someone who focuses on learning and professional development in the workplace, I can tell you that some of the highest-performing individuals I’ve worked with are those who have been 1) aware of their mistakes, 2) open to receiving feedback about mistakes, 3) willing to make changes to avoid a recurrence of that mistake, and 4) intentional about actually making changes to prevent the mistake from occurring again. Some of the lowest-performing individuals are those who have done all the opposite of the aforementioned 1 through 4. Without exception, those individuals’ tenure has been short-lived.

Since we’re focusing on mistakes, it might be helpful to pin down what I’m actually talking about when referring to a mistake. There is, of course, a broad range of things that qualify as mistakes. For the sake of this discussion, mistakes are things a person does, or fails to do, that fall short of what is expected or appropriate for the given situation. The gravity of the mistake might be mitigated based on the individual’s intent, knowledge, and resulting outcome of having made the mistake.

These are important things to consider when creating an environment where it is okay to make mistakes – within reason. Some mistakes are deal breakers. A gross, intentional, and negligent behavior resulting in irreparable damage is a deal breaker.  In my assessment, an interpreter attempting to perform open-heart surgery on a patient would qualify as a deal breaker. An interpreter parking in a physician-only parking space when there are 300 other open spaces for the physicians and no available spaces for other staff members, would not be a deal breaker. I dare say the vast majority of mistakes are not deal breakers. Such as follows:

  • I should have managed my time better.
  • I should have communicated more clearly.
  • I should have been more alert to the context.
  • I should have prioritized differently.
  • I should have packed a lunch.
  • I should have skipped lunch.
  • I should have switched to simultaneous.
  • I should have switched to consecutive.
  • I should have guarded my pacing.
  • I should have adjusted my positioning.
  • I should have intervened.
  • I should have refrained from intervening.
  • I should have been more patient.
  • I should have been more empathetic.
  • I should have been more reserved.
  • I should have packed an extra pencil.
  • I should have worn layers.
  • I should have worn more comfortable shoes.
  • I forgot my ID badge.
  • I interpreted too quietly.
  • I interpreted too loudly.
  • I stumbled over a simple phrase.
  • My mind went blank mid-sentence.
  • I went to the wrong clinic location.
  • I should not have engaged in a heated discussion with my colleague, especially not in front of others.
  • I should not have vented in a common area.
  • I should have used a better coping skill than venting.
  • I should have used a different term that is more familiar to the listener.
  • I should have asked for clarification of meaning before interpreting.
  • I really should have cooled my temper before writing and then sending that venomous email.

(As you can see, I have no trouble coming up with a list of “mistakes.” I’ll let you guess why that is.)

Again, I emphasize, that these deal-breaker and no deal-breaker examples are just according to my assessment. Perhaps you, your manager, or your administration would disagree. Please keep that in mind.

Regardless of what the mistake is or how it is qualified, the key is to create an environment that balances realistic expectations with reasonable accountability when it comes to mistakes. Perhaps the National Standards of Practice for Healthcare Interpreters published by the National Council on Interpreting in Healthcare can serve as a starting point for dealing with mistakes in general, even though it focuses specifically on the act of interpreting.

Let’s take a closer look. In one of my favorite parts of the standards, it addresses accuracy and states:

"5. The interpreter corrects errors in interpretation. For example, an interpreter who has omitted an important word corrects the mistake as soon as possible." (click here and scroll to page 5 of the document)

First, the fact that this is included in the standards is an acknowledgment that even the best professionals make mistakes when interpreting. Second, it requires that interpreters have awareness of their own performance. Third, it gives interpreters the right and responsibility to correct the error.

Applying this framework to a broader scope of practice, the general framework could look something like this:

  1. Identify the mistake that you made (awareness)
  2. Admit that you make a mistake (acknowledgment)
  3. Fix the mistake (amends)
  4. Avoid repeating the mistake in the future (accountability)

Adopting this framework for your own practice or implementing it with your team might be a good starting point to creating an environment that allows and encourages people to learn from their own an each other’s mistakes. Give it some thought. Give it a try. See the positive impact it has on you or your team’s growth.

Posted on June 29, 2016 .