How to handle tension caused by cultural differences

Martin Cocaro

Sr Engineering Manager at MuleSoft



"I was managing a team split between Buenos Aires and Dallas. The Buenos Aires team started to have a negative impression of an engineer in Dallas. He had been in the company for a long time, and knew the ins-and-outs of it, and had technical knowledge of pieces of code that were old and never re-written. He had spent a long time in very small teams and he'd not stayed up-to-date with the industry standards in terms of software development, so was behind with the times. On top of that, this engineer had a strong character. In every discussion, he would be very direct and even mean to the Argentinian engineers. After every meeting, I would get people complaining about the way he had treated other team members."

Actions taken

"We first spoke over the phone with the engineer about the way the team was viewing him. He had no idea that the team felt that way, and even though he could not change who he was, I explained the cultural differences between the countries to him, and the difference of expectations these cultural differences implied. More precisely speaking, some countries favor direct, straight to the point conversations in individual and group settings - e.g. North America - but Latin America people is not used to this type of settings, and people that are not used to it tend to take it personal, and often times get offended. Eventually this is what happened, people took those comments as offensive towards themselves when the US person was actually being direct, straight to the point showcasing things that were not done correctly (objectively or subjectively speaking). We had to discuss these differences several times for him to finally grasp the differences, but eventually, he changed the way he treated the team in Buenos Aires and we are now able to work as a single team together."

Lessons learned

"Remember that people from different countries have different cultures. These cultures may require you to set expectations for everyone in terms of how different cultures interact and how you expect the two cultures to behave with one another. I'd advise EM that have split teams, from different cultural settings that have not been exposed to the other cultures of the rest of the team members to set the expectations onset, speak to them individually and in group about the differences of each culture. I'd suggest having each person from the team to speak about their country, culture and differences. This can be a challenge for junior/young people who don't have this clear enough but if that's the case, researching on your own or navigating through your network to get radical feedback about each culture can help. The purpose of that is simply to warn people about it, that it is accepted and that each team member is used to expecting others to behave in a certain way that most of the times will not be what they are. Ideally, this would be done on a team off-site, in a city of the minority group."

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Martin Cocaro

Sr Engineering Manager at MuleSoft

CommunicationOrganizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentLeadership TrainingFeedback TechniquesCareer GrowthCareer ProgressionSkill DevelopmentDiversity and Inclusion InitiativesOvercoming Bias

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