47

I am team lead working in the IT Security team where I work. Our team has been having biweekly standup meetings to discuss status on projects / assigned work, and any blockers that is preventing work from been accomplished so I can help to remove the impediments. This has been working well with all team members being very cooperative and engaging in beneficial debate on how to accomplish certain tasks, or for using other team members as a sounding board to gather feedback on their ideas (evaluating new processes or security controls to be implemented, discussing vulnerability scanning results, prioritizing remediation strategy etc.), with the exception of two team members from a different, non-western culture.

On more than one occasion I have been misled by the status of a certain task with the end result of it being late. At the standup I simply asked what the status of these tasks were and whether there were impediments hindering timely completion. These team members responded that the tasks were OK, and they were fine, which I interpreted to mean the tasks were on track and no help was needed. I have stressed that I value transparent communication within the team and that I am a mentor that anyone can come to when they have a blocking issue affecting their work. To me, trust in the team, transparency and clarity of communication, and minimization of hierarchy (i.e: me being seen as a boss dictating from above) is the ideal way to build a strong team.

However, I have often found that the actual status of projects is not the same as what is presented at the standup meeting, with the reason being that team members say they did not present the true situation because they are afraid to be perceived as incapable or offending me. I was quite confused by such feedback as, to me, there is no shame in not knowing, and seeking assistance is natural. I asked a simple question on project status, so I expected the response to be the whole truth with no second-guessing, due to there being no reason to.

Our team is also quite collaborative with members openly discussing best ideas and providing critiques to other team members' work (think pair programming or code reviews as examples). These team members are very quiet and do not seem to want to participate. Even when there are objective issues encountered (E.g: following a bad security practice), they still did not speak up or provide suggestions.

Team members being afraid to raise issues or not being transparent in communications are a problem for the team, as leaving issues unsolved can lead to resentment.

  1. How can I encourage team members to be more understanding of my role as a mentor who is there to help them, and that is there no issue with coming to speak to me?

  2. How can I encourage the two team members above to feel more comfortable engaging in debate and providing critiques to their team members' ideas?

  • 9
    Could you be a bit more specific to the culture, I suspect I know which one, but it would be helpful. I am knowledgeable with a few different cultures around the world, and we may have people from the culture here that would be able to give better answers if they knew. – Old_Lamplighter Sep 24 '20 at 13:25
  • 1
    "whether there are impediments hindering timely completion" - What is "timely completion"? Is there an agreed deadline / timeline for the task (which isn't met) or does it just take longer than you expect it to take? If there are deadlines, do they give or contribute to setting them? Do you actually use those exact words or do you give a concrete date like "is this still on track to be completed by Friday"? Have you tried asking how long it will still take instead (which would make it easier for them to be honest without seeming like they're letting anyone down)? Or asking how far they are? – Bernhard Barker Sep 24 '20 at 14:51
  • 1
    You seem to be grouping multiple things (misleading about the status, not engaging in debate and understanding your role as mentor) into one question when the individual problems you have are probably best asked about separately. Although having them understand your role as mentor is probably something that happens indirectly as a result of how you interact with them day-to-day in many big and small ways rather than something that has one concrete answer. – Bernhard Barker Sep 24 '20 at 14:55
  • 3
    @Old_Lamplighter - S. Korea and Japan – Anthony Sep 24 '20 at 16:41
  • 5
    Is that biweekly as in every other week, or biweekly as in twice a week? – Polygorial Sep 25 '20 at 6:46
38

The mistake that many westerners make is forgetting that different cultures put different emphasis on different values, and this has been the bane of international business for a long time, and now as the world is getting smaller, individual teams are facing the same issues.

In Korean and Japanese culture, bringing up potentially embarrassing things publicly can be very awkward, there is a great amount of shame in feeling that you have failed, or lost face, or caused another to lose face. To point out another's errors is to cause that person to lose face. To point out one's own is publicly losing face. To disappoint the boss is to lose face. Worse, to point out the mistakes of the team could make the boss lose face.

The best way to address this with your team members who are not raising issues is to tell them that it is not only okay to do so, but that it is necessary. Ask them if it saying so in public that is the issue. Find out what the obstacle is, and take action to correct the problem. If you assure them that there is no shame and embarrassment in discussing these things, or better yet, that you want to make sure that the team itself will not be embarrassed, that may help you. This could be VERY effective if you put it this way. "Your feedback and input protects the team, and myself from embarrassment, you will be helping all of us by bringing things up sooner, when they may be addressed quickly, with help from the entire team." But in any event, you need to change your approach

If it means discussing things privately, do so. If it means acclimating them to the culture, do so. If it means following up with them individually, do so.

What is certain, however is that if you take the same action, you will get the same results.

  • 3
    I think there's some merit in "bull by the horns" here. Acclimating them to the culture is good! And maybe say that explicitly: "I realize that in X it's bad to admit you're not always successful, but I am telling you that just like you had to learn English to work in Y you will also have to learn that we praise people who ask for help when they need it. That is a big adjustment but it's very important that you learn it." – catfood Sep 24 '20 at 15:28
  • 8
    I have heard that some companies specifically hire Americans to deliver news that would otherwise be shameful, since Americans simply don't see the stigma involved. Information gets transmitted, and on one that cares loses face. – Mad Physicist Sep 24 '20 at 18:23
  • 17
    @MadPhysicist I've always said if you ever wanted a Brazilian team and a German team to show up at the same time, tell the Brazilians that the meeting starts at 10:15 and the Germans that it starts at 10:45, and everyone will be there t 10:30 – Old_Lamplighter Sep 24 '20 at 19:53
  • 9
    To expand on the third paragraph: admitting that you're stuck doesn't mean that you failed. Far from it. Instead, you're saying "I identified something that could cause the team/project to fail if not addressed". The real failure is in knowing about a problem and not reporting it. – bta Sep 24 '20 at 20:19
  • 2
    @AlexM it's about speaking ill of things publicly. – Old_Lamplighter Sep 25 '20 at 17:51
59

Try something new

Standups don't seem to be working for your team, why not run an experiment without them? Do your status reports by another method for a few weeks, and observe the results.

I'm a confident, loud, western-cultured person, with nearly 10 years in my role, and the only expert at my company in many fields, and even I will downplay a negative status report when a project is getting out of hand (for a few days at least) in a public forum with a group of peers. I'll suspect a project will be delayed for a while before I'll admit it in a stand-up - you don't want to admit your imperfections if there's still an outside chance you can save the day.

Try replacing your standup with a 1-on-1. Just as an experiment to see what happens. I think you'll find your staff are less reserved with their bad news when not observed by their peers.

Other options include:

  • Private email status reports
  • private IM chat status reports.
  • end of week private emailed status reports, start of week standup planning for the week.
  • Group chat IM standups

All of these are standup alternatives that are a bit easier for a shy worker to admit they're not doing as well as they thought. They may take a little bit more if your time but it is probably a good investment.

Anyways; After a few weeks, join 2 1-on-1's together. Two people sitting in adjacent cubicles, for example. Or do a 3-way group chat with 2 employees and ask for their status reports, shared only with you and each other. See how that experiment goes.

I have a suspicion that the result of the experiment is that they'll observe there are no bad consequences from being frank with you. You may prefer to keep 1-on-1 status updates, but if you return to stand-ups I'd expect they'd be more comfortable after they've observed consequence-free admissions of imperfection.

  • Downside: Time required. Goes worse with team size increasing. – Sourav Ghosh Sep 24 '20 at 7:47
  • 28
    The reason this answer is good is it's not about doing great stand-ups, it's about getting the best out of the team. – Gregory Currie Sep 24 '20 at 9:36
  • 4
    @SouravGhosh, OP indicated it's only 2 team members that have this problem. A 1-on-1 pre-meeting discussion or follow-up with these individuals is totally reasonable and will eventually transition them to opening up in group meetings. – teego1967 Sep 24 '20 at 17:53
  • @teego1967 and I thought the answers are not meant for one specific case only, rather than for anyone facing similar scenario. – Sourav Ghosh Sep 25 '20 at 6:13
  • "only two team members". Other team members may have issues or concerns that they are better able to cover up. Don't assume they don't. Have 1:1's with all. In my experience people start opening up at month 1-3 once they revealed a few "secrets" (fears etc) and seen you not share them with others and often shared secrets with them – Michael Durrant Sep 25 '20 at 13:35
12

Background

I feel similar to the two people you're describing. I'll give you an example of what they may be thinking.

I am a native-born American, raised in America; but I was slowly conditioned, over years, to a partially Japanese mindset. Then I moved to Japan for a little bit, worked a contract, and moved back. At this point, both cultures have really impacted my mindset.

The job I have now is the first where we have standard, daily standups among engineering teams, and as a software engineer, I have to attend these. Well, it's been months now, and I still have similar trouble with them.


Recommended Solution

One thing I would definitely try is:

  1. Develop a friendly rapport with each of these two engineers, if you haven't already.
  2. Use that rapport to talk to each of them one-on-one, outside of standup, very regularly.
  3. Keep both in the standup meeting, and let everything continue normally.

A Perspective Probably Similar to Theirs

In my mostly Western, but now partly Japanese mind, the idea of a standup where everybody "collaborates", "openly discusses issues", etc. may just be incompatible with certain parts of the world. This doesn't exclude all of Asia, as for example, many Indians seem very comfortable in this setting. Some countries though, such as Japan, can be quite reserved and regimented, to the point that a standup is probably fairly antithetical to the business world norm.

The thing to remember is that, when you're sharing information openly, every single person you share it to can potentially use it against you. Yes, I completely understand the Silicon Valley mindset about the positives here. Yes, I realize many companies have used it to their advantage. But people are people, and they are not perfect. And any person in the (potentially virtual) room during a standup has the potential to use your information against you or against someone else.

I don't care how strong a given team is; no one is perfect. And if information does not look perfect on the surface, any flaw can potentially cause problems. Even if it is not misused, at least not intentionally, it can still be misinterpreted, lead to a loss of face, or anything else. This is simply a grim reality of this world.

Now, that said, some cultures, such as the Japanese culture, take this into consideration and are far more prone to exercising caution in everything they outwardly reveal. In fact, this is one thing that divides Japan from some other Asian cultures. Some individual people will be more cautious, other individuals less cautious. But culturally speaking, the typical dial is certainly turned up.

And...They're right. I mean, how many times have you had other people turn things against you, develop worsening attitudes toward you, and so on? How many toxic bosses have you had to work for? If no bosses, then how many toxic coworkers? Neighbors? Family members? And even among your closest friends and family, have any of them ever let you down?

The thing is though, your points are merited as well. In fact, neither approach is a silver bullet to success in this world, and both are valid strategies. Each approach comes with pros and cons. But take it from me: Once the other perspective is engrained into you, it is very difficult to leave it completely behind. Turn the dial down on it? Yes. Remove it altogether? Not likely.


The Reports You're Getting

As for the potential misreporting of things: Without me seeing it myself, it's possible they're just using words like "great", "fine", "good", and "okay". These are subjective words with subjective meanings. That means that, depending on the situation, there can be a lot of leeway in using these words while still being perfectly honest. Because, again, such phrases are subjective.

Similar things can happen with estimations. If they think something's going to be a day late, and you ask them about it, they may then tell you it's estimated to be on time. And in this case, they may just be thinking in the back of their minds, Well, maybe I'm just not working long/hard enough. Maybe I'm just not trying hard enough. ...If I just pull it together, then yes, I really can get this submitted on time. And if such an effort fails in the end, well, they were only really giving you an estimate.

In either case, without me seeing it personally, they may very well have not been attempting to mislead you or be dishonest.


Reiteration of the Recommended Solution

So how can you "fix" this? How can you convince the two individuals to be more open and have more trust that there aren't going to be negative consequences? ...There's probably not a good, general-purpose solution that doesn't take a lot more time than you have available.

How then do you deal with this otherwise? By keeping everything going just as it is now, except that you also build a rapport with each of the two engineers, and you use that rapport to communicate with each one individually. Rather than working against the grain, your best bet is to go in the same direction as the grain, so that you can truly build a bridge.

Don't pull them out of standup or do anything else like that. That will almost certainly make the two engineers feel horrible and will probably burn every bridge for quite some time, if not for good. Keep them in standup and act, even towards them, like everything's perfectly normal and fine.

However, do not keep pushing them to build a bridge to you; instead, build a bridge with them. Understand that they likely feel the need to protect themselves within a group, no matter what you say. So to get candid responses from them, provide the setting through a rapport and through casual, continual, but completely off-to-the-side communication.

And by building this bridge with them, you will ideally maintain a team with a more diverse perspective, whose horizons will include more than just the Western mindset. And having a mixture of both Eastern and Western perspectives, this team will ultimately be stronger for it and able to tackle a larger set of issues in the end.

  • 1
    +1. This does explain some interactions I've had with some fellow students at uni (in multiple contexts, not only those covered by the question). Although I did have a feeling that it might be somehow like you describe, seeing it spelled out in this detail (especially of the individual inner context) really helps to understand more. – orithena Sep 25 '20 at 11:11
10

Blockers

First of all, make sure everyone knows the definition of blocker is “you’re not going to deliver the thing you’re supposed to deliver on time.” I’ve noticed some people have a much more narrow definition where if they are not specifically impeded by a request to another person, or are not stuck on one technical detail, that they won’t report a blocker. But “I’m behind and need help from others on the team to make the date” is a legitimate blocker.

Secondly, if they are afraid of upsetting you with blockers, you just make it clear that you are way more upset by dates being missed with no warning. Make sure and don’t harsh on people when they report blockers, but if they get to the end of a sprint and have silently tanked, then you do harsh on them a little. Carrot and stick.

Design Reviews

With this, you (and/or their manager, who you need to enlist in this) need to reiterate in one-on-ones that part of what you expect out of your team is to engage and provide feedback. And that part of how they will be judged on collaboration at performance review time is if they’ve done so. They can ask in the form of a question if that makes them more comfortable (frankly that’s better anyway). “Excuse me, how does that feature work given the security policy that says none of that...?”

Now, sometimes when there’s a language barrier people need more time - it’s hard for them to digest a design being presented in a non-native language and then immediately form coherent thoughts in that language. Make sure designs are available to read ahead of time. Be patient in the reviews to allow people to form their thoughts. Take offline feedback (tell them to cc the team though). Give positive feedback, ask open-ended questions of them.

Case Study

I ran a US team that was assigned two members from Malaysia as part of an expansion of operations. We had the same problem initially, they’d be quiet. But with continuous coaching and expectation-setting, they bloomed and developed into co-equal members of the team who would ask questions and give their thoughts. You just have to make sure it feels safe to do so and clarify that it’s part of how you do - and advance in - the job.

2

Show, don't tell.

In my view, instead of suggesting the expected approach anymore (as it has failed to achieve its goal), have a project/program tracker meeting (monthly once, maybe) and highlight the achievements and missed schedules. Then, once the stats are up, appreciate those who were able to complete the assigned work, and try to find the root cause of the delayed action items.

Then, you can provide examples on how others also faced hurdles / roadblocks and by discussing those impediments in the standup call how they were able to get help and ultimately finish the work on time.

Basically you need to format the status meeting / standup in a way where people are not only comfortable but also compelled to raise the issues they are facing - in order to get help and get the work done. You need to make it clear that not asking for help and finally missing the deadline is worse than providing a status update on a blocker item. The former will not be appreciated, while the latter is welcome and seen in a positive light.

2

The top current answer already mentions doing a 1-on-1 with them instead of a stand-up with the whole team. I also think that is a good way for people from a less open culture to open up more.

I think another way to get more information out of them is to ask questions which are more open and cannot be answered by a simple yes or no. So for example not "Do you have any problems?" or "Does everything go well?". But more questions like "What do you plan to do today?" or "How are you going to approach this issue?"

-1

The key is to establish a no-blame culture. You can just tell people that that's the way it is now, but you also have to follow through e.g. no recriminations at performance review time. It may also help to highlight some of your own issues at these meetings, presented as "this is what I did wrong, learn from my mistakes and look I'm accepting of things going wrong". Be light hearted about it and ask for help or ideas, and then reward those who offer assistance.

They key is to have everyone focused on getting things done, and if that means more resources or some help are required then they need to say so and should be rewarded for their efforts to keep things on track. Even when it's just a purely personal thing, they need more time to learn something or their personal life got in the way the fact that they were up front about it is a good thing.

Be positive, never blame and after a while people will feel less afraid and more willing to ask for help because they know they will get it and be rewarded.

  • 3
    It sounds like there is already a non blame culture in the team, but people from other nationalities dont feel they are comfortable with that – vikingsteve Sep 24 '20 at 17:52
-2

I think these people have messed up quite badly and there may have to be consequences for them. But I think some criticism must also come your way. If you're doing stand ups, I guess you're doing some kind of Agile development. It doesn't really matter anyway. The point is that coding is a collaborative effort and developers shouldn't be able to hide away and do their own thing for long period of times without people being aware of what they're doing. In stand-ups, for example, participants should not be allowed to just say 'everything is fine': They need to describe what they did the previous day and what they plan to do today, and any blockers they may have. Of course, they can lie, but it's a bit more difficult in this case if they have to talk descriptively. Other things you can do is to keep stories (or units of work) fairly small so a developer can only work on them for a short time - a day or two maybe - before there is a formal review of their work. You can also try paired programming and swapping people on and off stories so that no task is owned by any one person. You can also just talk to people regularly. These people were hiding away, but were you also doing the same?

-2

Put them on Performance Improvement Plans.

It sounds like their teamwork skills in certain areas are deficient, possibly as a result of their culture, and as a result, there has been a negative impact on the team.

As a result, I would suggest putting them on a formal Performance Improvement Plan that lists the areas they need to improve in, along with the dates they need to do so by and the consequences for failure if they don’t do so.

I know you said that you try to create a very level hierarchy in the team, but ultimately, you’re their boss, not their friend. If they aren’t performing, and aren’t willing to work on improving their performance, they may need to be removed from the team.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .