Finding Common Ground With Those of Different Backgrounds

Rafal Leszczynski

Engineering Manager at Sourcegraph



I’m from Eastern Europe. I come from a long line of grumpy people who are always seeing risks and problems.

I was working with one engineer from a different cultural background. The way that they perceived different things from a cultural perspective was having an impact on their performance with the rest of the team. Communication became difficult for them sometimes, but I wasn’t really sure why at the time. One area in particular that they struggled in was asking for help when needed.

Actions taken

I took some time to observe the way that this person operated. They would take over tasks and responsibilities, work on them for a while, and then get into the situation where they’re hitting the wall. They wouldn’t know what to do and didn’t know how to communicate this with the team before it was already too late.

In meetings, I make an effort to create an environment where people feel safe coming to me when they are afraid that a project may take longer than expected. I initiated a conversation with this person; they were very shy. I tried to set an example of asking direct questions: “What do you think about this?”. I wanted to demonstrate that asking questions like this in an open meeting will likely result in a lot of great feedback.

I wanted to get to the root cause of what was happening with them. Did they lack the support that they needed? Were there factors outside of work affecting their performance? How could I help them to work through any obstacles?

I stumbled across a book on intercultural communication that bridged a lot of gaps in my understanding of both their culture and my own. Decision-making, seniority, conflict resolution, and all of these other different aspects of communication were suddenly put into context. I passed what I had learned on to my team and we started to have this conversation about what we felt was not working.

New expectations were set and we got to a point where they were opening up about their fear of failure. They felt that asking for help was a signal to others of their failure. I reassured them that we were working as a team and that we shared all of our successes and all of our failures. They were a bit stressed, but they made a plan and rose to the occasion, becoming one of our top performers.

Lessons learned

  • Before being able to have these types of conversations, you first need to establish these relationships. Never make assumptions. Always consider outside factors that this person may be dealing with. Be very clear about your expectations. Really try to understand where the person is coming from.
  • The ability to communicate effectively allowed this person to finally start taking ownership over their work and their contributions.
  • I encouraged this person’s teammates to share positive feedback with this person directly. This allowed them to feel the effects of their improvement more tangibly.

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Rafal Leszczynski

Engineering Manager at Sourcegraph

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyPerformance ReviewsFeedback TechniquesCareer GrowthOvercoming BiasIndividual Contributor RolesTeam & Project ManagementDiversity & Inclusion

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