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.