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Finding Peace Between Culturally-Diverse Teams

Cross-functional collaboration
Conflict solving
Diversity

2 June, 2021

Anupam Singhal, Director of Data Science at Workday, inadvertently became the cultural mediator between two teams separated by political strife.

Problem

In a previous role, I took over a large team, half in the US and half in India. The team struggled with a lot of churn and were just generally not in a good place. The US and India had a lot of political issues that resulted in a loss of trust between teammates over cultural borders.

My main architect told me that I was his sixth manager in a year. I had stepped into a situation with a lot of turmoil. Everybody was totally burnt out, but they felt that they could not leave because of the pandemic. My main goal was to bring civility and trust into the team. I did a number of things to promote that.

Actions taken

We had just started doing joint Scrum meetings. I broke things up into three groups to give each team some focus. For each group, I started to create examples of excellency. Both of the teams thought that the others were being assigned more desirable work, while they themselves were tasked with all of the grunt work, however.

I promoted one employee from India in order to provide a direct source of mentorship on that side. I also brought in a strong people manager in for them. On the US side, I was mentoring one member of the team to assume this same type of people-managing role, as well. On the US side, we had a number of people who were technically competent. I started having meetings with the technical leads on both teams in order to establish trust there. That takes time. It doesn’t just happen in a single moment.

In the past, many of my top reports have spent time training people, only to find that those people were let go or have left of their own volition. There was a lot of time wasted in these efforts. I decided that we should create new training material, both videos and text, to capture the technical stage of where the product was at.

For every new person who joined, I set up a two-week onboarding session. Once they were trained, they would be the ones giving the training the next time. This helped get both of my teams on the same page and focused. They took a shared ownership of the fires to be put out. They were able to arrange a more equitable on-call schedule. This sense of unity eventually was able to mend the rift between them.

Lessons learned

  • It all starts with trust. Building trust is really front and center when building a cohesive team. I made sure that I met with every single team member every quarter in order to gain their feedback personally.
  • Product management is all about working with what you have. I shielded my team from everything that was happening at the top, the frequent re-orgs being one example. Their job was to deliver.
  • Compromise is essential. The responsibilities must be shared fairly. We even took turns when it came to which timezone would have to meet at an inconvenient time.

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