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I recently became the manager of a team of 9 in the cybersecurity division where I work. I have been with the company for close to 9 years and am well respected.

A particular team member is doing good work and cooperates well with other colleagues. She is an engineer, having worked in our team for close to 1 year. However, she is excessively deferential to me that it's hard getting information from her and I feel may be impairing the ownership in her work. Examples:

  • She had some concerns with the direction of one of our projects. Rather than directly state what those are, she said "it may be better to" followed by her suggestion.

  • Not willing to speak up in scrum meetings or PI planning sessions unless probed by me or another more senior team member.

  • When needing something from another team, always asks me first and copies me on emails for requests I feel she can handle herself perfectly.

How do let her know that being more proactive / assertive is expected of her?

Also, is it proper to ask her past experience or cultural habits (she is from different culture than me) to see the reasoning for her behavior?

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  • 7
    "Rather than directly state what those are, she said "it may be better to" followed by her suggestion." Do you ask her why she thinks her suggestion is better? Does she give her reasons when you do?
    – BSMP
    Sep 22 at 8:55
  • 5
    Especially re: point 3, consider that she might do so not due to some general insecurity/fear, but due to not knowing exactly what her responsibilities and authorities are. Maybe she thinks she should copy you because you want to know that that exchange is happening. As in the already good answers, just tell her clearly what you expect. Sep 22 at 14:31
  • It's possible she's been trained to do this by other people - many societies put classes of people into a place where they have to do this or be called names. Remember if I (your boss) tell you to be unpleasant, it'll have consequences beyond the [hopefully] more direct communication we will share.
    – user121330
    Sep 22 at 19:28
  • 58
    "Rather than directly state what those are, she said "it may be better to" followed by her suggestion." I'm struggling to see the issue with this one, it seems a very diplomatic way to raise an issue.
    – deep64blue
    Sep 22 at 21:24
  • 12
    I agree with other commenters that the first bullet point is not an issue, and is also how I would do things. Regarding the third bullet point, what is supposed to be the issue? Asking you first, or CC'ing you on e-mails? Maybe asking you might take up too much of your time, but CC'ing you seems harmless -- you can just ignore/not read the message. Anyway, both sound like a smart/political person who knows how to "cover their behind", e.g. by CC'ing you it makes clear to the other team that they will have to deal with you and your greater authority too if they don't comply with her request. Sep 22 at 21:30

10 Answers 10

48

How do let her know that being more proactive / assertive is expected of her?

You tell her.

I'm not meaning to be glib. The first step in a situation like this is often to reassure a team member that you respect their opinion and would welcome them speaking up more. You'll likely need to reinforce this at 1-1s for a while. Explicitly asking for her opinion at the end of relevant discussions can help too.

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  • I would frame it as a part of growing as an engineer. I expect new engineers to behave that way, but one of the things they need to do as they get promoted is to be more of a leader. What titles are available and what responsibility goes with them. That should be part of the 1-on-1 discussions. Personally, I've always asked what should I be doing that I'm not, and what should I be working on for my next level. Also, addressing the "Should I ask about culture", I would say no and leave that to them to bring up. You are who you are regardless.
    – Ben
    11 hours ago
26

First, you need to understand that some people are really shy and really try to be polite and find it hard acting otherwise. You can't change that by just telling them "be a different person", it doesn't work.

Tell them what you think, explain it. And then don't ask them to be a different person - tell them to be themselves, but make their suggestions in the strongest way possible, in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. Tell them that if they think it is much too rude, then it is just about right. Ask them not to just say things but to shout them.

These things can be practised and they need to be practised. Note also that it is uncomfortable and exhausting for the person, and that will get better with practice. Just make sure that you acknowledge how the person is.

PS. This has nothing to do with confidence. A timid elephant will make a lot of noise. One can be confident without making noise. And importantly one can be right without making noise.

PPS. Saying "It may be better to do XXX" is quite normal, I thought. I'd use this phrase exactly as it is in the situation where I think I know better, but I might be wrong.

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    I agree that the statement she makes in the first bullet point is fine. I think the OP's issue is that they also want to hear the problems with the original plan; I left a comment asking for clarification.
    – BSMP
    Sep 22 at 15:29
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This might be a cultural difference.

In the book The Culture Map, Erin Meyer explains how in some Asian cultures

  • communicating through team leaders
  • waiting for senior members to ask for feedback in meetings

is actually the expectation. See:

Sarah sends e-mails to several Indian IT engineers only to understand later that she has offended and isolated their boss by not going through him

Link to full example

But Chen didn’t seem to have any input. After finishing my presentation of the first main cultural challenge, I paused briefly and looked to him for his examples, but he didn’t speak up. He didn’t open his mouth, move his body forward, or raise his hand. Apparently, he had no example to provide. [...]

To my growing dismay, Chen remained silent and nearly motionless as I went through the rest of my presentation. He nodded politely while I was speaking, but that was all; he used no other body language to indicate any reactions, positive or negative. [...]

I continued for three full hours. “Bo,” I exclaimed, “you had all of these great examples! Why didn’t you jump in and share them with us earlier?”

“Were you expecting me to jump in?” he asked, a look of genuine surprise on his face. He went on to describe the situation as he saw it. “In this room,” he said, turning to M. and Mme. Bernard, “Erin is the chairman of the meeting.” He continued:

As she is the senior person in the room, I wait for her to call on me [...]”

Link to full excerpt

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    Those two bullet points look like something that's expected in a lot of places, including Europe and America.
    – Stef
    Sep 23 at 8:01
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    I added a link to the examples and quoted longer parts. Not speaking up when specifically tasked (before the meeting) to provide examples during a three-hour presentation as part of a 2-person strong team is not normal in Europe/USA. Sep 23 at 8:27
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    In addition to these sorts of cultures, I'd say that cybersecurity in particular has a culture of valuing very direct feedback with little regard for established hierarchies. "Your security sucks and I hacked your server", etc.
    – Adam Burke
    Sep 23 at 9:45
  • From the last quotation, from the full text :"For me personally, it has become glaringly clear that my American tendency to fill up quiet space is not a good strategy. When Chinese are in the room, sometimes the best way to get them to contribute is to just shut up." Not only with Chinese, and that American tendency of the example you mention is the same tendence in everything, even in geopolitics!
    – EarlGrey
    Sep 23 at 14:39
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All the points you have mentioned are indicating some kind of fear factor at her end.

Any direct confrontation or questions would only end up increasing that. It may be a bit of slow process but somehow you need to help her having more confidence about your support to bring down that fear factor.

For cc'd emails you can always write to her in a friendly professional way that, "Hey, you don't have to copy me on such emails".

Just support her more to have her more confidence in you that you will not go against her and you will soon see the magic work.

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4

Is it proper to ask her past experience or cultural habits (she is from different culture than me) to see the reasoning for her behavior?

I wouldn't. It's better to just start with trying to get the behavior you want. You've already got answers suggesting to either guide her or directly ask for that.

If neither of those work (and you will need to ask directly for a change in behavior and see if that works before this next part if you don't start with that), then you can ask her why she's continuing to defer to you on items you'd like her to handle herself.

Guessing at what is causing the issue is unnecessary. Guessing at it being a cultural thing could potentially cause offense if it comes across as you making stereotypical assumptions. I can't say how high that risk actually is but why risk it at all when she could just explain it to you? It might be cultural but it might be anxiety, it might be learned behavior from a previous job, it might just be her misunderstanding how she should behave in this role.

3

I have experience in hiring over 100 people from 20 countries. Here's what I think.

  • She has a lack of confidence. Thus, she's trying to avoid being wrong and prefers to sit on the fence (from her scrum meeting behavior). You said she's been with your company for a year. That could be the reason. I wonder how many years of experience she has.
  • She feels a lack of authority. I often tell my staff who feel the same way this - "You have the right to get your job done." If anyone stands in your way, you should "stand up" and ask them to give way, assertively, including me.
  • It takes practice for her to change. So, please don't expect an overnight change (not like a code/software update). I think perhaps giving her more responsibilities will help her to improve on this matter.

Good luck!

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2
  • So you're a recruiter and now you think you're a psychologist?
    – CodeCaster
    Sep 23 at 12:36
  • I had one young female Asian colleague who tended to be very quiet. If you thought she had no confidence you couldn’t be possibly any wronger. If you thought she was in fear of anything, totally off the mark. She just talked liked to talk very quietly, and most people learned to listen.
    – gnasher729
    yesterday
2

There might be a gender issue (or past or more industry-wide gender issues) at play here.

You are using the pronoun "she" to refer to this person, which leads me to assume she is a woman (you might be using it to make the situation less identifiable, in that case ignore this answer). Furthermore, you have a username typically associated with men (again, if that's not the case, ignore this answer).

There are many challenges that women face in society, and specifically in the software industry, that us men are typically not aware of. We like to think our industry is super inclusive because we know for sure that a man sexually assaulting a woman is not tolerable in the software world (hopefully this is the case in your company). But there are plenty more issues, less visible perhaps but that still affect women. One of them is their peers respecting them less or not perceiving them as with the same level of knowledge or authority just because they are women.

Behaviors you've mentioned, a potential explanation, and some very imperfect actions that you might want to talk through with her before implementing:

- She had some concerns with the direction of one of our projects. Rather than directly state what those are, she said "it may be better to" followed by her suggestion.

It sounds like you respect her technical opinion, and would very much like to hear her thoughts. However, you can't assume that just because you acknowledge her technical expertise every other man will do so. She probably encountered multiple situations in the past where her concerns were disregarded and her expertise ignored, simply because she's a woman.

On one hand, you can empower her. If you refer to her for technical expertise, you are establishing to her male colleagues that her technical expertise is valuable. Imperfect because she deserves her opinion to be valuable because she's technically good, not because a man says so.

On the other hand, you can work with your company (HR I guess) to figure out how to control this behavior. Imperfect because they typically don't have a big motivation to fix this.

- Not willing to speak up in scrum meetings or PI planning sessions unless probed by me or another more senior team member.

Same as above, there's a high chance she was ignored in the past when she spoke up.

Don't put her in a position where she has to speak up every time. Offer other, alternative ways for her to voice her opinion. Imperfect because she shouldn't need to be protected from others.

- When needing something from another team, always asks me first and copies me on emails for requests I feel she can handle herself perfectly.

If she's asking, she's probably been talked to in the past for being too assertive, or is afraid of being perceived as too assertive, since this tends to hurt male egos. Or perhaps she's trying to borrow your authority (as a man or more likely as a manager).

You could tell her that she doesn't need your permission, but if she ever feels she needs to borrow your managerial authority (be sure to make this about you being her manager) she's entirely free to cc you into any email, and talk to you whenever she needs. Protect her and empower her, as any good manager should do for any report. Imperfect because she shouldn't need more than her male colleagues.

Honestly, men discussing women's issues like we had any authority on the subject is actually part of the problem. But I'm writing this answer because it's probably something you need to hear, and I'd rather you hear it from a man than don't hear it at all.

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  • Both assumptions are correct. I am a man and she is a woman
    – Anthony
    Sep 23 at 16:33
1

Blueriver already wrote an extremely thoughtful response that I second (I cannot vote though since I'm a rookie). I wanted to share this link under his response as a comment, but the system is not allowing (again, rookie). So here's it is separately. A picture version of what Blueriver wrote: https://www.instagram.com/p/CRthJ9rJOhY/?utm_medium=share_sheet

As to my two cents: I don't know about a good solution to the problem. It is more than a single team situation, but more societal, and even more serious in technology world (just a side though, women in technology in other countries do not necessarily face the same challenges as in the US, if you are in the US). If you want your team member to feel more comfortable though, you cannot just say it in words. You have to show in your actions. You need to make her feel that it is safe and that might be hard. You can speak with her and ask her if she has any ideas about how you can convince her that you value her opinions and that it is OK to share them. I am not sure if this is the case but if she is the only women in your team and cannot get support from another woman in your team (that is one of the tactics women use, to support each other like repeating what one said after she is done, and elevate their voices so they can be heard), your support is essential. At my workplace, for example, even though there is lip service to gender equality, I can see through actions that only what men think really matters and women are only valued as long as they go along with the men's ideas. Those of us who have their opinions (not many of us do, as thinking our own thoughts is effectively beaten out of our system) are not heard. And, what's worse, the people who are doing this don't even notice they are doing it. It's in the system.

Another thing that has been immensely helpful to me in the past are reading articles or attending workshops about how to be more assertive at work, for women specifically. Before those, I did not even realize why I was being ignored, sabotaged, or not given credit at work. If you have a women engineer affinity group at work, you can suggest this employee to join that group. Society of Women Engineers also has online recorded/synchronous webinars on similar topics.

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0

Many good answers here. Instead of rehashing that, I'll give some examples of what I've done before.

During scrum: "Can you add that to the Wiki? Everyone please feel free to edit the wiki if you find an inaccuracy or you need to have new information to add"

Answering a question: "I don't know the answer to that but you can talk to John. He knows all about that so in the future just ask him."

Helping with an issue: "Hmm, that's strange. What have you tried?" or "There might be something about that on the wiki. If you don't find anything there, try googling the error message. That's what I would do."

During scrum planning: "Can you take this issue? This is your 3rd or 4th issue dealing with X, soon you'll be our resident expert!"

Try giving them praises, particularly if they got stuck on an issue or had to rework a ticket. Often time the imposter syndrome can strike in moments like that and it's important to let support your junior staff.

I would say something like: "That ticket was tricky! We had to re-work it couple of times but we got it at the end. Good job!"

The idea is to build up their confidence and encourage them to take ownership of the project, to empower them to make decisions.

Keep doing that and over a few months I bet you'll start noticing your team member starting to open up. Just remember, it's a process, it takes time.

That's the approach I would take. I don't think talking to her directly will help much, even if she says she'll do it, it takes time to break the old habits.

0

First, I'd convey that she is allowed to be more assertive. For instance when she says "it may be better to ..." without giving her reasons, I'd say something like "That's interesting. What makes you think that?" in friendly, interested tone of voice and matching body language.

If doing this a few times doesn't do the trick, some people debugging may be needed. To do that, I'd have a one on one meeting with the person, and ask something like:

I noticed that you are rather hesistant to give input in meetings. For instance, .... I find this a pity, because your input often turns out to be very valuable, and there have been a few cases where I got the impression that trouble could have been avoided if we had listened to you earlier. Is there something in particular that is preventing you from speaking up and voicing your concerns?

and then listen for her reasons. Perhaps she wasn't aware of your preference. Perhaps there is a strong cultural taboo in the way. Perhaps her prior boss ridiculed her every time she spoke up. Perhaps she misinterpreted the way you communicated your preferences, or was hassled by others for speaking up. You have no way to know what the problem is if you don't ask her.

During this entire discussion, your focus should be on communicating your preference (I wouldn't be more assertive in this stage), and understanding the impediment. Whatever reason she gives is good to hear, because it allows you to better lead your team.

Then, once you have understood the impediment, the two of you should come up with a plan to fix it. Perhaps she can just flip a switch and be more assertive, perhaps she needs some help from you to do so, perhaps the entire thing was your fault, and you need to learn to create a better safe space for giving input (I stress the importance of a safe space because intimitation is a possible cause for the behavior you describe. If so, taking her to task (or being perceived to do so) could make matters worse)

In summary, first convey your preference in the moment. If that doesn't help, have a meeting where you state your preference directly, find out what the impediment is, figure out a plan to solve it, and then track progress on that plan in future meetings. Be understanding that change may take time, and offer help if needed, but communicate your preference and work towards improvement. And take extra care that the entire process is not anxiety inducing by offering encouracement and genuine positive feedback.

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