Breaking the Ice: Navigating Cultural Differences and Building Relationships
10 April, 2019
I had an engineer who immigrated to the United States with an H-1B visa. He was a new engineer who hadn't gone to college or university in the U.S. before joining the company and, consequently, didn't understand United States culture. Thus, he experienced a bit of culture shock. I sensed this from him because I, too, had gone through the same process myself several years back. Everything in the U.S. is different from what you have experienced before and it can be an emotionally intensive adaptation. You are alone in a new country and because of the cultural differences it can be difficult to formulate relationships. This was the case with the new engineer and it, ultimately, was affecting his performance, and more so, his happiness.
I began by first remembering my own experiences. Then I talked to him about them. I told him that I had been in a similar situation before and that I understood how intense and difficult it could be. It feels like no one understands what you are going through. You've moved to another country with no friends or family around and, subsequently, you have lost your social life. You are basically starting over from zero. I was empathetic to his situation and spoke authentically about my experiences hoping that he would open up and talk to me about his problems. Hopeful that I gained his trust, I asked him how I could possibly help.
We made a plan that got him socializing more. The first step was having him make friends with his teammates, building a relationship with them. We began with things that he was comfortable with. For example, we did simple outings with the team like going for a walk and having standups or sprint reviews in the park. We did this so everyone on the team felt more free to talk to each other, and specifically this new engineer with everyone else. The next step included working on his English and communication skills. His English wasn't the best and so we started a separate stream of work to help improve his English. The third and final step was giving him social-oriented stretch codes. These stretch codes were not work stretch codes, they were not related to any project, but they were used to get him through that initial phase of "breaking the ice". The goal was to get him to independently, by himself, go out with someone from the team or reach out to another engineer on a different team and get to know them.
I would receive insight into his progress through our one-on-ones. I asked if he completed his stretch codes and then he would give me feedback on the results. I made sure to ask how he felt during the encounters and whether he found them effective. If it wasn't effective then we would revise the plan and try another tactic. But actually being aware of the situation and developing a plan to help him through this transition by having a process for building relationships made it easier for him. As a result, he became more comfortable with the team, rouse up to become a top performing engineer, is now leading multiple projects, and is close to a promotion. Better still, he is happier than he was before.
The biggest lesson I learned is that different people go through different emotional phases that can affect their work. In the office, we are only exposed to work related problems but there is so much more that is happening behind the scenes. As leaders, we must try to help with these outside problems as best we can. The result will be happier and more productive team.
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