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I'm currently a team lead at an IT company, managing a team of 5 software engineers + a PM. Our main role is to maintain and upgrade a SaaS product used by internal and external employees.

We work using Scrum and develop new features requested by the PM, organized in user stories. These user stories sometimes involve a complex business logic, so there's a constant communication between the engineer, the engineer that reviews the code changes, and finally the PM, who tests and validates the completion of each task.

To maintain a smooth process, each team member needs to communicate clearly so everyone else understands their point. But, one of my most senior engineers has a clear lack of communication skills. I often have a very hard time understanding any question or comment they have regarding their tasks.

To further expand on the issue, when reading their comments/messages I can notice how the ideas are not clearly transmitted, and I often have to stitch the different "parts of the message" together to understand what they did. We often lose time doing a certain task a certain way because of those misunderstandings, so it's becoming an issue I need to address.

I want to communicate this issue to them, but I don't know how to approach it without reducing their motivation or sounding aggressive. Since English is not their first language, I thought of recommending an English course from the company's courses library, but I don't think it'll solve the issue. I speak their native language as well and I notice the same issue when communicating verbally.

So, here are my questions:

  1. How can I approach this topic on a 1-on-1 meeting with them?
  2. How can I help them to improve?

Edit 1: I noticed I was a bit vague in my original question. I added below an example of what I'm referring to. You can imagine the context being a comment regarding a task, to explain a technical roadblock an engineer has found, which will be read by the PM (a non-technical user):

Hello, I found an issue with this task, it's because found Y library that is not supporting, I search on google and found this link, but not possible. I think maybe it's possible to do it if we change the button on the left to a selector?? Can you check this.

I can't copy-paste exactly what I read from them, but it's something similar to the above. The main issues I see are:

  • Usage of technical language on a comment for a non-technical user.
  • It's unclear what exactly was the issue, even for an engineer.
  • Slight grammatical errors/non-professionalism? But this would be the smallest issue.
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  • You are being extremely vague about the communication issues, can you provide a concrete example?
    – Aida Paul
    Commented Mar 27 at 8:21
  • Are you the only one having this problem, or the rest of team also feels the same about the communications? Commented Mar 27 at 8:36
  • @AidaPaul I added an example to the original question, hope it clarifies a bit my situation. Commented Mar 27 at 8:39
  • @SouravGhosh The other team members have the exact same issue with this engineer, but they've never raised the issue to me. I do notice they're also having a hard time when working together with them. Commented Mar 27 at 8:40
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    "I think at this point they would have let HR or someone at the company know, after 4 years in the company" Please never make this assumption. For many, many reasons, people may be reticent to disclose a disability. Commented Mar 27 at 9:29

4 Answers 4

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First of all, ask them what they think about their communication skills and how do they feel about the reception their comments receive.

If they answer that they feel that people do not get what they mean or something along that line, it's already a good start.

At this point you can start by making visible what is the behavior you observe, as you did above in the question, bringing concrete examples, and what is the effect of that behavior that you perceive.

Now you can simply ask what can be done differently to achieve a different result, and guide them in realizing that their communication skills can be improved by providing examples.

Avoid going on a head on confrontation (You have poor communication skills, do this instead..) because it will surely put them on the defensive and shut any communication line.

Remember: criticize the behavior, not the person!

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  • This is a good way to start the talk about this but what are the proposed solutions? If both sides agree that communication skills should improve, that is a good basis but it doesn't solve anything yet.
    – quarague
    Commented Mar 30 at 17:47
  • A famous author said, "All writing is rewriting." If one hasn't re-read and edited, it is not a message, it's just babbling. Commented Mar 31 at 12:54
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I have had this problem with many of the developers who had English as their second language. Even after 10 years of working for me, I was still surprised by the structure of their written English.

I assume that you are doing reviews, code reviews and performance reviews. The latter is the better place to bring it up.

You need to start with positives and then ask if they have trouble with the English Language? Or say that you have noticed a few errors in their English. Only if they acknowledge it, can you try to remedy it.

But, I failed to improve it much, for my employees. Eventually, the CEO understood that the quality and commitment of their work overrode the deficiency in the English language.

If I was doing it now, I would suggest that they install Grammarly or something similar on their machine. It will improve their output right away. But it may also help them see the better way of structuring it, over time.

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  • I had a Chinese co-worker, word order seemed to be optional / random. I just digested everything I heard on the fly and made sense of what seemed complete gibberish. That was optimal in that particular situation. Commented Mar 31 at 12:58
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Thank you for the comments, they are very helpful and I'll bring the important part for the context, as comments can go away. And thank you for including the example.

It's a bit weird because I don't notice this issue outside of the office. If we're talking about non-work related topics outside of the office then they're good at communicating verbally.

I think you are correct in your initial guess that it is a language issue, but I don't think it's an issue with a specific language. It seems to be much more in line with a learning disability, my guess would be dyspraxia. They may very well never have been diagnosed with it, or even be aware that things like that exist, and have been struggling with it silently their whole lives, thinking that everyone does and "this is normal". The disjoint between verbal and writing is giving me a lot of confidence in that view.

To explain briefly, most learning disabilities are not about your general performance, but that one area of your performance is greatly lagging beyond the rest. For example you could have baseline in 60th percentile (aka all your areas, like verbal communication, spatial reasoning etc are within standard deviation of that percentile), and then written communication that tanks down to 15th percentile. The fact that written communications fall down so far below the baseline is part of how that diagnosis can be formed.

With that in mind what I would recommend is speaking with HR and ask if the company would be willing to pay for the employees professional assessment to be done, and then ongoing support work. Those assessment can be quite expensive (I think I paid 600 GBP for mine few years ago), as it's hour of work of a highly trained individual, but the insight helps to work to develop strategies around those weaknesses and improve accordingly. In years+ of service it's nothing, but for them individually, that's a lot, so I can't imagine that would be a hard sell.

When HR agrees, also work with HR how to offer this to the person best, remaining supportive and under no circumstance even suggest that this is a MUST. The key is that you want to help them in the best way possible, present opportunities, outline how after the assessment the company is willing to help in any way the psychologist doing the test will recommend, adjust the workload in the meanwhile and so on. But also don't fall the other way where it comes out condescending, hence why likely bring HR people onboard, they should be trained on how to handle it best.

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  • This is a good approach. The question is about written messages, and the comment says there is no issue with spoken communication. The two things are very different. Another difference is between work details and non-work topics. Commented Mar 31 at 13:21
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My junior had a similar problem. I suggested him to put his query through ChatGpt and then paste the output in the emails. I had seen significant improvements since.

Below, I have asked ChatGPT to rephrase the email and i think the output is much better than the original email.

enter image description here

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