New Assignment in a Foreign Country Going Poorly? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am the director of an experimental data analytics group for a global software company. I am an engineer and am good at starting things. I drew the short straw on a job that at first felt like an opportunity but now feels like a terrible mistake.

To lead this group, I had to move to the US from Europe. From the beginning, it has been a disaster. My wife and I moved into our new home just as things were shutting down because of Covid. She speaks very little English but was game to give it a try—at first.

My new team is made up of Americans. The difference in culture between this team and teams I have worked with in Asia and in Europe is pronounced. I am constantly taken aback by behavior that others seem to find acceptable. For example, all anyone talks about is how hard they work—and yet, we have precious few results to show for it.

I have already been given feedback that I am perceived as rigid and uncollaborative. This is a first for me, as I have always been able to get along well with others.

To add to my angst, my wife gave birth to our first child 3 months ago and is a mess. She, too, is confounded by Americans, and does not have the support of her mother and sister who would have been here if not for Covid. She gave up a great job so that we could move to the US for my big opportunity and is now regretting it. What’s more, she is constantly mad at me because I have had no time to bond with our baby.

I feel like I am being attacked on all fronts. I don’t even know where to begin.

Under Siege

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Dear Under Siege,

Indeed, you seem to be. This sounds like quite a difficult situation, the result of a lot of big decisions that have led to a big adventure—one for which you are not prepared and are receiving no support.

First, let’s remember that this is, in fact, an adventure, and as such will require you to grow and learn a lot of new skills.

Let’s start with the situation at home.

You and your wife have a newborn, but no close friends or family around. She doesn’t speak the language, so she feels isolated. She is freaking out about what, to her, may feel like a permanent loss of freedom. She is also mourning her former life where she felt competent, having exchanged it for a new life where she feels incompetent. (Okay, I am just guessing about those last two—but they are educated guesses based on personal experience.) To top it all off, she feels like she has lost you. This is bad.

What to do about it? Two words: GET HELP. Call in the cavalry. Now is not the time to power through. Covid be damned, get her mother or sister over to the US pronto. If necessary, have them quarantine in a hotel for two weeks, get tested, and then move in. Too dramatic? Do you have other ideas? Something has to be done for the new mom. She is truly at risk, and everything is at stake here.

These early baby days are hard for everyone. But for a woman who is accustomed to crushing it in a big job to face the tedium, isolation, and learning curve involved with new motherhood is a staggering change. Probably nothing in her life so far has prepared her for it.

And she needs you. Yes, it would be great if you could bond with the baby—but you really need to be there for your wife. Have the hard conversation—ask her what she thinks she needs, and then commit to it. Unless you are willing to sacrifice your marriage for this job rotation, this is required.

You and your wife could use this time as an opportunity to do something difficult together and have it bring you closer, strengthening the marriage. I am a huge fan of Dr. John Gottman’s work on marriage—you might consider signing up for his course The Art and Science of Love. My husband and I took it as a two-day, in-person course, but it is offered online now.  As an engineer, you would appreciate that everything is based on research. The course consists of tools to help partners communicate more effectively and ultimately get back to the good stuff that brought you together in the first place. I have recommended it to many people and no one has ever said it was a waste of time. I can feel you rolling your eyes at me, because this is the last thing in the world you have time for right now. BUT—just stop and think about what is most important to you.

If you feel like you can get back on an even keel without help, fine. Do it. But if you find you aren’t able to get there on your own, now you know where to start.

Now. The job.

Again, two words: GET HELP! Where is your boss? Is there anyone you can talk to about your situation? Someone who may have some perspective, historical knowledge—anything? Just because you have never needed anyone’s help in the past doesn’t mean you don’t need it now. It sounds like you got off on the wrong foot with your team and there may be some underlying issues you aren’t aware of. Now is the time to reach out to anyone who can help you look at the whole picture and create a plan.

I am not surprised that Americans are different from people you have worked with in the past. The good news is that they are still people. There is some repair work to be done with your team—for whatever reason, you never got an opportunity to build trust with them. For this, you will need to go back to square one and literally start over. I recommend Randy Conley’s work on Trust. Start with this article: 50 Practical Ways to Build Psychological Safety in Your Team and go from there.

Right now, you must suspend your judgment about what is and isn’t acceptable—this just isn’t useful to you. Sit down with your team members. Tell them you are not happy with the way things are going and you want to start fresh and get it right with them. You want to work together to build a working structure that will serve all of you. Take a big step back, assume you made a wrong turn without knowing it, and go for a re-start. Ask questions, listen, and listen. And listen. Don’t argue or make your case. Just seek to understand and learn how to get to their best and how to unlock their greatness.

You feel under siege because you are under siege. You went for big life changes in the middle of a pandemic and you can’t just bail. So, stop. Breathe. Identify what possibly radical ways you can gain support, guidance, or help. Then go ask for it, and use it.

I hope this is the hardest thing you and your wife will ever have to deal with, but, as a member of a two-career marriage with four kids, I suspect it won’t be. Next time, though, you will know to prepare properly for big leaps and you will know who to ask and how to ask for help.

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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