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For several years, I have been working as the technical lead of a team of 7 engineers responsible for one part of a large project in a company based in Germany. As a team lead, my tasks included assigning tasks and guiding my team members, doing technical development for more complex tasks myself, and - very importantly - closely working with our product manager (let's call him Adam) to brainstorm on requirements, design new features, and combine our knowledge when making decisions.

In all, I would describe collaboration in the project and in my team (including with Adam) as harmonic. These colleagues are among the nicest persons I could wish to work with.

I am now being promoted to become the new head of technical development for the entire project. To replace me in my team lead role, we have hired a senior engineer (let's call her Beth) in January. As far as I have seen during her first couple of tasks, she is highly skilled. She could solve some challenging tasks with remarkably little input or support and quite quickly. I also get along with her well on a personal level.

Now, what's the problem?

Soon after Beth started working on functionality defined by Adam, Adam called me to reach out for help. He said he had just walked over to ask Beth how a current task was coming along, and Beth had started yelling at him. According to Adam, Beth accused him of always building up more and more pressure and of failing to understand the technical difficulties created by the requirements. Adam added some other team members present in the room at the time exchanged astonished glances with him.

On the same day, Beth called me. She said Adam was building up so much pressure on her that she didn't feel physically safe going to talk to him alone anymore and would always ask a witness to come along from now on. She wondered whether it is due to her being a woman, and also due to Adam having no knowledge about the technical details of the product.

This has been continuing for a few rounds since. Adam keeps telling me he doesn't understand why Beth behaves the way she does, and he is losing hope he can productively work with her. He complains to me that Beth puts up nonsensical obstacles, like refusing to come over to his office (e.g. when he has sketched something on the whiteboard that can best be discussed in person, as I have frequently done with him). Or that she won't let him finish his sentences and always interrupts him. Beth, in turn, keeps telling me Adam doesn't understand the technical specifics, and he constantly puts pressure on her.

I have been present during some of the conversations, and I did not perceive any undue pressure (i.e. other than asking things like: "It would be good to have this feature in the release next month, is that still achievable?"). I did perceive a certain degree of Beth interrupting, but nothing that could not be overridden with ... let's call it "conversational authority".

Some more data points:

  • We work in the office on most days, and all team members and Adam are on the same floor, only a few doors apart from each other.
  • Officially, our language of communication is English, because some team members do not speak any German, though none are native English speakers. Adam speaks German, and his command of English is just about sufficient for technical conversation. Beth speaks no German, and while her English is very advanced, she has an audible accent from her native language.
  • 5 of the 7 engineers in the team are women, and none of them seems to have a problem having prolonged meetings with Adam to discuss current tasks. All of us work physically in the office on most days.
  • The other 7 engineers are either on a junior level or refuse to leave their niche of expertise. They are, unfortunately, not suitable to fill the team lead role.

Now, what can I do?

From my point of view, we need Beth. She fully has the skillset needed, and I do not have the time to provide the necessary guidance for my old team, as my new tasks are becoming more numerous. I must hand over my previous team to a successor now. Waiting for another senior engineer is not an option, as we have been looking for a senior engineer for almost five years (i.e. before actually replacing me as a team lead became an objective), and Beth has been the first one to apply and be a sufficiently good match for the requirements.

Both Adam and Beth appear to confide in me, so I have already been able to appease both of them a little bit, yet the basic problem remains - see above.

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    "She fully has the skillset needed": not to lead/manage a team, as you describe it... She may be the best technical asset you found so far, but it seems like she needs some help and training when it comes to get along with colleagues.
    – OldPadawan
    Mar 12, 2023 at 16:48
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    When you were present in the meetings and saw no pressure and only a little interrupting, what did they say to you after? Did they think the other person had modified their behaviour, or are they seeing something to you do not? Mar 12, 2023 at 18:02
  • @OldPadawan: I agree. I wouldn't quite put it that absolutely, for she has prior team lead experience according to her CV, and, more importantly, she has repeatedly willingly reached out to colleagues so far unknown to her. This is what most other new hires I have observed have a really hard time with, as they often prefer to contact exclusively the person assigned to initially guide them. This made me instinctively rate Beth as "above-average in terms of integrating herself into the team", but it's very true she may need help and training concerning the particular dynamic with Adam.
    – user139158
    Mar 12, 2023 at 21:53
  • @mattfreake: They reported no modification in behaviour; Beth in fact once wrote me after such a meeting that Adam was building up so much pressure again, and Adam mentioned that he thought now I had observed how he was having a hard time productively conversing with her.
    – user139158
    Mar 12, 2023 at 21:55
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    @Donald: You mean one more person on each "side" who is trusted by the respective "party"? Unfortunately not, especially since Beth is still quite new in the team, she has not established any close contacts yet. "One of them is telling the truth" - I don't consider it inconceivable both are telling what they believe to be the truth, and I also don't consider it inconceivable (I actually find it quite likely) that neither of them is right. "so act!" - well, the question what exactly I should do is precisely why I came to ask here.
    – user139158
    Mar 13, 2023 at 22:17

5 Answers 5

15

Sometimes there is a phenomenon that two people just don't understand each others language. For example, there is a certain harmless phrase quite often used in English, and the literal translation into German means "you are an idiot". It used to make my blood boil for quite some time even though I knew exactly that it didn't mean that in English.

Now with one not a very good English speaker, and the other being not a native English speaker, something like that is quite possible. I suppose that when she shouted at him, she had heard a reason, while he was not aware of doing anything like that. That can be purely a matter of language.

A similar thing: If you talk about a problem, German's will give you advice. It shows they care, and there is absolutely zero expectation that you follow it. And in some cultures, being given advice is basically taken as being given an order - by someone who has no right to order you around. You can see how this will create conflict.

My advice to both of them: Assume that you don't understand exactly what is meant by the other person, assume the best intentions, assume that what the other person wanted to say and what you heard are not the same, don't get upset about anything, and don't show if you get annoyed. Unless you are really, really sure that there is bad intent. If you think something is annoying, tell them calmly, because people can learn.

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    out of curiosity: what is that phrase that translates as "you are an idiot"?
    – Benjamin
    Mar 13, 2023 at 6:35
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    Why don’t you do X? In German means “you are stupid for not doing X”. Plus it is taken as a question where someone demands an answer. In English it is a helpful suggestion.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 13, 2023 at 6:37
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    @gnasher729: not only German :) In a few others languages too. It could be helpful to include your example in your answer maybe.
    – OldPadawan
    Mar 13, 2023 at 8:32
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    Curiously if you put that in the past tense "why didn't you do X?" then it often gets a lot closer to the German meaning: you should have known to do X, explain to me why you didn't.
    – PhillS
    Mar 14, 2023 at 7:55
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I think of myself as speaking "good" English. But "good" English is sometimes not enough to get the finer points across.

I have worked with many non-native speakers. I am married to a native English speaker, whereas I am not. And there are differences in patterns that are not actually language, but how we use the language and what we expect of each other. You could call it "culture" and it would not be totally wrong.

As a German, I start most discussions with what I want. And I expect all others to chime in with what they want. And then, we sit down and find a good compromise between those positions. If you literally translate our sentences, it might come across as uncaring, aggressive even, but among us, this is professional courtesy. Don't beat around the bush, don't hide agendas, everyone puts their needs on the table and we just find the shortest, most efficient way to get to a solution. If a German is "polite" and uses lots of pleasantries, they either want to sell you something you don't need, or they don't like you and cannot tell you. Because if they liked you or you did indeed needed what they sold, pleasentries would be a superfluous waste.

Now, the problem is twofold: first, if someone here speaks "enough English" that mostly means they can get their point across. But they lack finesse and they lack the knowledge of pleasantries that might be expected. Because that is what you learn last about languages. It's always about communicating clearly, and only then about being polite about it. At least when you learn languages as a German, your experience in other countries may vary. So they always seem unfriendly on a pure language level.

And if someone is not used to the "German" way of solving a problem, that actually saying "no can do" to your boss is a valid option and will only start a civil discussion about alternatives, not trigger a shouting tirade from a patriarchic bully, that only enhances the problem.

So if I had to take a guess what happend, it would be this:

Adam came in and said

I want this done by Monday, can you do this?

What he might have said, if he were of another culture and had a better grasp of English would probably have been:

There is this meeting on Monday, and it would be absolutely amazing if I could show a little preview. But I know it would be way ahead of schedule, it was planned for two weeks, so if that's not feasable, that's perfectly fine, I'll manage.

But he didn't. What Beth understood his sentence to mean, with her prior experiences in other countries and her interpretation of what it means that there were no pleasentries involved at all probably was:

Do it by Monday, you lazy *****. [crack of a whip in the background]

But that is not what happened. That is not what he said or meant.

The solution to this is educating both. Because he will be a way better communicator if he improved his English, including pleasentries and maybe a look into other English speaking cultures and how they handle this. And she will have to learn that Germans just are this way. There are millions of us here and we will not all learn to speak English and then add the cultural differences. She will have am much easier life in Germany (or working with Germans) when she learns our culture of being to the point but efficient.


Sidenote to the non Germans here: Germans at work (or sports or fun activities) aren't "impolite" or "rude". Their conversation is just devoid of "politeness" because it's not needed. The same way that you show up to a good friends house (or any workplace where you do productive work without lying to people) in jeans and tshirt, not suit and tie. Suit and tie is certainly neater, but it's your friend, that level of politeness is not needed. Germans can be rude. And you will notice. And it will not be subtle. It will be a lot more than just non-existing pleasentries.

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    "we sit down, everyone puts their needs on the table and we just find the shortest, most efficient way, good compromise between those positions to get to a solution": having been with a German GF, I couldn't agree more. And AFAIR, when you see how syndicates and government first sit down and negociate before any action/strike, it's often a "social peace" until an agreement is reached.
    – OldPadawan
    Mar 13, 2023 at 13:05
  • Although the question and this answer frame the differences in communications style in terms of "German-ness", it seems it could apply more broadly as I see similar distinctions between individuals who are all native English speakers (I'm in the US Great Lakes area).
    – Theodore
    Mar 13, 2023 at 14:48
  • I've met two couples from New York and from Michigan. They just had a different kind of speaking, mostly a matter of tempo, and both got totally annoyed with each other. To me it looked quite obvious why it happened.
    – gnasher729
    Mar 16, 2023 at 14:15
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The root cause could be some miscommunications between Beth and Adam as both are not native English speakers.

Here are my observations:

5 of the 7 engineers in the team are women, and none of them seems to have a problem having prolonged meetings with Adam to discuss current tasks.

This means Adam does not mistreat women who are his coworkers. Clearly, other women do NOT feel that he threatens them in any way.


I have been present during some of the conversations, and I did not perceive any undue pressure (i.e. other than asking things like: "It would be good to have this feature in the release next month, is that still achievable?").

This means Adam does not unreasonably force developers to follow his schedules and development plan in a dictatorship way. In other words, he is willing to listen to developers, and leaves lots of rooms for discussion.


Beth could solve some challenging tasks with remarkably little input or support and quite quickly. I also get along with her well on a personal level.

That is great. Beth is an excellent software developer, and has good professional work relationship with you. Certainly, you want to keep good developers in the team.


However, it seems that, somehow, Beth may have misunderstood Adam's way of talking to her about the work progress as a way "to pressure" her.

As the other answer points out, Beth and Adam are not native English speakers, which could be the cause for some miscommunications.

So, maybe, you can try the following 2 things at the same time.

  1. Talk to Beth:

    Maybe, you could explain to Beth that you have worked with Adam for a long time, and know that Adam does not pressure developers to follow his way/schedule. He is just interested talking to developer to keep track of the schedule and to make any adjustments to the development plan if necessary.

  2. Talk to Adam:

    Maybe, you could tell him for now, please give Beth some extra spaces as Beth is a smart developer who can finish a great job very quickly based on your personal experience of working with her. Then, after some time, she may understand that Adam does not intentionally pressure her, and then her work relationship with Adam may improve.


In addition, you also mention that you have a good work relationship with Beth. So, can you see any big differences between the way you discuss the work progress with Beth and the way Adam does with Beth ? If yes, then you can mention the differences to Adam to see if that helps to improve the situation.

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My assumption is that the team lead feels pressurized by the products owners questions and also quite insecure in her new role to say that we cannot deliver at the time you want. As a result she reacts. Maybe the product owner had some aggressive behavior also or looks down to women, which triggers the team lead. In any case it seems the team lead needs emotional security while participating in the production life cycle, which means:

  1. Explaining to her that she is mainly responsible for deciding the deadlines
  2. Explaining to her that there is no pressure in not meeting the products owners deadlines and that you trust her technical competency.

Also after discussing with the team lead the above matter, I would communicate very openly with both of them on this issue and if absolutely needed I would participate in their interactions for some time till the issue is overcomed.

What does not make sense to me is why she said she does not feel physically safe? I would also investigate this more thoroughly.

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This isn't your problem to solve. The issue is clearly with Beth having a personal issue with someone else. Leave them to find their balance. At this height in the hierarchy everyone should be acting professionally, if they're not they're a bad fit. So let them know that.

The rest is not your problem, it's theirs and the companies.

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    "But thats not your problem": seems like it is though. OP is promoted and is even more in charge now (become the new head of technical development for the entire project). They still report/complain to him. So any sparkles between those two could quickly (back)fire, don't you think?
    – OldPadawan
    Mar 13, 2023 at 4:40
  • @OldPadawan only because the OP is getting involved. I wouldn't be listening to complaints for long, just tell them to do their roles, then when pay review comes around it would be just another factor
    – Kilisi
    Mar 13, 2023 at 6:14
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    So you advice the OP to take the chance of messing the whole team up by just being passive and threatening with performance review and money? Seems weird...
    – OldPadawan
    Mar 13, 2023 at 6:18
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    "then when pay review comes around it would be just another factor" is how I perceived it, therefore, my question.
    – OldPadawan
    Mar 13, 2023 at 6:21
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    "This isn't your problem to solve." - I don't think that assessment is accurate: As long as Beth has not settled into her new role, for which working closely with Adam is a prerequisite, the other 7 people in the team and Beth and Adam will keep turning to me as the hub of information, support, and alignment in the tasks for the team And they have every right to do so, because as long as Beth has not settled into her new role, I have not finished my current (very explicitly assigned) task of handing over leadership of my old team to my successor.
    – user139158
    Mar 13, 2023 at 15:04

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