Managing a Report With Communication Issues

Pratibha Shambhangoudar

Engineering leader at Target



I was managing a stellar engineer who required some coaching with communication skills. They were leaning toward being an introvert and were a good person at heart. But the tone of their voice sounded a bit blunt to other team members.

When I shared that with my manager, they told me of their experience, which was in tune with what other team members felt. I was greenlighted to address the problem and help them improve their communication skills.

Actions taken

First and foremost, I tried to understand where this person was coming from regardless of their communication style. The way I approached it was through a coaching model. The coaching model I had in mind wasn’t focused all that much on giving or taking advice but on asking questions and guiding a person towards a series of Aha moments and finally, self-transformation. My previous manager practiced that approach and it helped me understand how useful it could be for an individual’s growth. However, I remember how I was perplexed back then, “Why is my manager only asking me questions all the time?” I didn’t want my report to feel the same and I decided to take one step at a time. I approached the whole process with a curious mind and genuine interest to learn more about them.

Sometimes this approach is referred to as reverse mentoring. A manager doesn’t have to deliver feedback, but rather instigate an open exchange of thoughts coupled with a willingness to show their vulnerabilities. Gradually my approach started to yield results. One of the first telling signs was that they became more responsive to my pings and more eager to engage in communication, which I -- with all right -- interpreted as developing a more trusting relationship. To strengthen that bond, I also adapted to their style of communication that was rather straightforward.

Once they understood that I was interested in their opinion, they started to feel more valued. Valuing someone doesn’t mean merely giving accolades, and I was certainly more inclined to give ‘passive accolades.’ Of course, things didn’t always go smoothly. For example, they would be very fastidious about pull requests. I tried to explain that they should focus on something more important than being stuck with something as mundane as nit-picking on something trivial . But, I always tried to have them reflect on their behavior and make their own conclusions.

Three months later, our communication looked like nothing before. They became quite responsive, and we managed to connect on a personal level too. I could still recall my first attempt to have a “Getting to Know You” session, which they declined. Of course, those sessions are not mandatory, but from someone who refused to attend such a benevolent event without notice, they turned into someone who started to value our relationship.

Let me illustrate this unusual change of behavior with an example. A few months ago, one of their teammates got sick, but my report still kept pushing, “Hey, here is a pull request!” I immediately stepped in and explained that their teammate got sick and that we should be a bit more mindful about it. When three months later I got sick, they saw my OOO responder and rushed to reply, “I hope you will get better soon!” I was surprised to see that change in behavior because they would never mention anything that was not strictly work-related before.

Lessons learned

  • If you want someone to engage in your mentorship efforts, you have to be open, vulnerable, able to put yourself in their shoes, and willing to understand them before giving any advice.
  • You don’t have to give the advice to make the most of mentoring. I am a big believer in reverse mentoring that enforces two-way learning and encourages interaction and mutual learning.

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Pratibha Shambhangoudar

Engineering leader at Target

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