Mitch almost lost one of his most high-performing team members, and he would have never known why.
As an American executive for a multinational company, Mitch leads a team with members based around the world. That team includes Ayaka, who is Japanese. Several months ago, Ayaka found herself in a dispute with a vendor. She was handling the situation appropriately, but at one point it needed to be escalated to Mitch. He asked Ayaka to forward the email chain she had with the vendor. He then quickly closed the books on the matter.
But Mitch didn’t give Ayaka a reason for why he wanted to see the email chain, and he never followed up on what happened after that. Without that information, Ayaka was left to assume the worst.
“I thought, he doesn’t trust me and feels like he needs to micromanage me,” she later told me.
During the next three months, Ayaka kept doing her job, but became emotionally disengaged, convinced that because her boss didn’t trust her, there was no future for her at the company. She even started looking for another job.
With Ayaka’s permission, I shared this with Mitch. He was shocked. He vaguely remembered asking her to share the email trail. “Everything was fine. We moved on,” he said.
But, Ayaka hadn’t moved on. Mitch’s cultural and communication blindspots let Ayaka’s fears build until it was almost too late. Let’s take a look at what those blindspots were, and learn how you can avoid making the same mistakes.
No context. Mitch didn’t let Ayaka know why he wanted to see the email chain. When people don’t have the full story, they write their own — and they almost always assume the worst. A simple sentence and short reassurance would have sufficed. “Ayaka, please forward the email chain. You’re handling everything appropriately, I would just like to have the full picture.” Don’t assume your team members have all the information you have, or that they automatically understand your intentions.
Valuing speed over connection. Leaders often prioritize speed and efficiency over quality and clarity. Before firing off a quick email, take a brief moment to think about how it might be perceived by the receiver, remembering that tone and subtlety can often be lost when we communicate by writing. If a sentence can be interpreted in too many ways, rewrite it so it’s less ambiguous. And if a topic is too sensitive for an email or text, pick up the phone or schedule a video call.
Lack of awareness of cultural dynamics. One of the first things Mitch said when I explained this situation was, “Why didn’t Ayaka come to me with this?” He was viewing Ayaka’s reaction through the lens of his own background, instead of understanding and empathizing with hers. In hierarchical cultures such as Japanese culture, it’s considered inappropriate to challenge your boss. You don’t reach out to your boss — your boss reaches out to you. Because of this, it never occurred to Ayaka to ask Mitch for a follow-up, or to seek reassurance that she had done things correctly.
When working with team members from a variety of cultural backgrounds, it’s the leader’s responsibility to understand their backgrounds, be sensitive and appreciative of the differences, and meet people where they are.
Rarely checking in. Because Ayaka is one of Mitch’s most dependable team members, he didn’t feel the need to connect with her beyond infrequent one-on-ones. “She’s so good that I don’t need to talk to her or check in on her,” he said.
This, however, left Ayaka feeling marginalized and unimportant. And while Mitch praised her work to his superiors, Ayaka wasn’t aware of it. She interpreted Mitch’s lack of contact as him believing she wasn’t worth investing in.
Even your highest-performing people need recognition, appreciation and feedback. This is especially important in remote settings, where feelings of isolation can be compounded.
Mitch soon started scheduling more frequent, regular one-on-ones with Ayaka. He made an effort to acknowledge her contributions, give her credit for her work, and thank her. He became more mindful and deliberate with his communication, stating the intentions behind his words with clarity.
If you have a team member who seems disconnected and disengaged, take inventory of your possible blindspots. Make sure you provide clear context behind your intentions, check in regularly, be sensitive to cultural differences, and always show appreciation and recognition for their contributions.