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I have a good employee who likes to share his knowledge - he is the top expert on the team and on many occasions also knows better than me.

However, his tone (or himself) is often very condescending and makes a lot of noise.

He often speaks more than what he was asked for, including excessive details on basics or even unnecessary details, that everyone across the office can hear. I sometimes feel reluctant to ask him just because of this!

For example, I would ask him something like:

"Hey, could you explain to me again how you set up this report spreadsheet?"

He will answer:

"Well, look, I did the best thing one can do, what else? You see, you only need to do copy and paste the data from this other file, but make sure you do paste values. Come on, we've seen it already how to do it. Oh, also remember that when you paste values, you will loose all the formulas and colors? I mean, we know that, so it's all pretty simple. And then I just use the sort button on column F. Come on, don't you remember the Sort button? It's this one right here!"

All I wanted to really know was where he took the data from and on which column he sorted it on. He could go on for minutes and minutes to say something that literlly requires less than 10 seconds. And he talks so loud and uninterruptably that I don't know what to say to make him stop.

I don't know whether this example depicts clearly what I mean, but I am not the only one in the company who has this problem with him. Everyone just listens because - aside from the infinite list of details - he also says useful things.

I a bit afraid that, due to his noisy public exposure, it may decrease team morale and also look bad from the outside that he acts like a bossy teacher and makes it sound like everyone else in the team (me included) are incompetent.

I don't know whether he is aware of this, so it is difficult to figure out what to tell him, or how to respond to him. I don't know whether it will sound immature to respond all the time something like:"Oh, that part I knew already."

My question is: how can I respond in a way that will safeguard team morale and also not look bad outside the team?

Is it fine to just stay silent, look away and ignore, or would I need to tell him?

EDIT BY ORIGINAL POSTER:

I think my example was taken too literally. Of course I didn't use the exact same words in real life, and neither did he. The point is that whatever anyone in the team or sometimes even outside asks, he seems to assume they are less competent and need a full lecture. AND he adds those little comments like "Come on, we have seen this before.", "Of course this is the right way", etc. - in some cases they are indeed very obvious (too obvious!, like what copy and paste does!), but in others they aren't. I believe it's those little comments that come across as patronizing. How the questions are phrased are dictated by common sense. We all ask each other these questions yet only he answers that way.

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Consider explicitly setting a maximum time. "Can you in 15 seconds explain to me how you set up this report spreadsheet?" –  Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Feb 21 at 9:59
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I have a saying, "The louder someone talks, the less they know what they're talking about." –  itcouldevenbeaboat Feb 21 at 16:01
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"We have seen this before" indicates that the expert has already explained this problem to this person before; the team can fix that without changing the expert. Broad questions get broad answers, interrupt the answer and ask a narrower question; the expert can't read minds, so they have to trust the asker to ask a question closely related to the information they want. Interrupting mid-answer when you realise they aren't on the right track is probably fine; they may stop observing your body language while they focus on answering the question (whether this is the right decision or not). –  Matt Feb 22 at 2:14
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Matt, thanks for the advice, but I want to emphasize that I feel again that my example was a bit inappropriate. You don't need to read minds. It takes a child's common sense to understand what exactly a person means when someone asks them "Do you know what weather will it be tomorrow?". Nobody with common sense will answer that question with a 5-minute speech about forecast systems, about how everyone should bring umbrellas but also sunglasses, and other stuff which could simply be answered with "It's supposed to be warm tomorrow." I think this example is more appropriate. You see what i mean? –  AndreaTonika Feb 22 at 2:20
    
From my observations, almost all programmers behave this way. –  Walrus the Cat Mar 20 at 19:13
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10 Answers

You manage this employee so it's your responsibility to have a conversation and explain the problem to this employee. This needs to be a private conversation when you're not upset so that the conversation remains professional and you two can work together to figure out how to solve the problem.

Based on your example, it may benefit you to ask a more specific question and to coach the employee to ask some questions before answering. In your example, you asked a very generic question, how a spreadsheet was set up. You got a very generic answer that tried to cover the complete process. You actually wanted an answer to a very specific question, where the data came from. Had you asked a very specific question, you might have been given a specific (and shorter) answer. Had the employee paused to ask some followups about exactly what you wanted, he might have realized you wanted a more specific answer.

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  1. Consider the questions you ask
  2. Minimize the questions
  3. Discuss the issue privately if it continues

Ask a stupid question...

You say, "All I wanted to really know was where he took the data from and on which column he sorted it on." yet you asked:

"Hey, could you explain to me again how you set up this report spreadsheet?"

People respond to the questions they are asked, and if you ask them to explain more than what you need, it shouldn't be a shock when they provide it. If the issue is getting too many tangential details, then focus on asking questions that are likely to get the information you want:

"Hey, could you remind me where to get the day for this report spreadsheet?"

"Thanks. Which column do I need to sort the data by?"

Minimize Questions

I have met very few people who like answering the same process-related questions day after day. If you are having trouble remembering how to use this reporting sheet he designed, why not either:

  1. Document the process for your team
  2. Ask the coworker to simplify the process

If you can minimize the number of times people have to ask this colleague about how to do things, you can minimize the friction that his answers cause with members of your team.

This coworker is a human being too, and if he is "the top expert on the team" do you think using him as on-demand tech support is making him happy?

Discuss the Issue Privately

If for whatever reason asking smarter questions, and minimizing the amount of questions doesn't solve the problem, then you need to have a private chat with him. He may not realize that the way he's speaking is coming off as condescending, or how other members on the team feel about his explanations.

  1. Compliment the good
  2. Explain the bad
  3. Give him a way to improve

In private, start-off by telling him about the good things he is doing:

Hey expert, I really wanted to thank you for taking the time to share your expertise with the team. We really appreciate that you are willing to share your knowledge to help us get our work done.

Gently explain what the issue is:

Sometimes it can be hard to ask you for advice because it feels like you respect us less for not knowing the answer.

Give him a way to solve it:

People tend to feel a lot better when asking for advice if you were to ask more questions to help us get through the problem instead of just telling us the answer.

The above is just an example, but in my experience when giving advice, especially on process stuff, people get impatient and explain what to do instead of why to do it or where the problem is stemming from. By teaching him to ask questions instead of starting to explain, he will become a better problem solver, and people may feel like he is listening to them instead of talking at them.

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While he's talking, put up your hands and say "sorry, let me stop you there". Then rephrase your question so it's clear to him that he's being silly: "I know how to copy and paste, of course; I just wanted to know where you got this specific data from?" You have to be professional, but there's no reason you can't be firm. He works for you.

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As a manager, you can lead and train people to make them better. One way to do that is to model the behavior you want; another is to correct people in the moment when they do something wrong. Some specific tips for this person:

  • ask very precise questions. Do not make him do the work of figuring out what level of detail you want. (He's clearly not good at it, and relying on him for it is costing everyone time and aggravation.) Don't ask "How is this set up?", ask "What column does this sort on again?"
  • acknowledge when you are asking for information to be repeated, and be clear that you are not suggesting a failure or deficiency of his. He may be defensive and feel that you're implying his system is complicated or difficult if it needs to be explained a lot. "I forgot what column this sorts on" makes it clear he didn't make a difficult spreadsheet, so he doesn't need to go on about how great and easy it is.
  • since you are the boss, be prepared to interrupt these monologues -- "yes, thankyou, I do know how to work Excel, you don't need to cover that" or -- "sorry, I should have been clearer, I only need to know where the numbers came from"
  • feel free to apologize for your own lack of clarity if he starts to answer a question you didn't ask, but still insist on only getting answers to your own shorter crisper questions.

Most people like giving speeches about how clever their approach is, how everyone should know this but few people do, and so on. Breaking this habit will not be quick. But you're the manager and that should count for something. Ask good questions. Step in quickly to redirect if the wrong question is being answered. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

I think it would be disastrous to have a meeting with this person where you tell him that he speeches too much and nobody likes it. Just figure out how to get short and useful answers from him. Then encourage the rest of the team to use the same technique. Be a leader.

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So... two thoughts - it largely depends on both your role and the context of the situation...

If you are his manager and this is a private moment...

If you are a manager and you don't have a certain amount of private time with your employees -- START! Get into the habit so that private one on one time does not equal negative time, but is merely something that managers and employees do.

If you and he are having manager/employee private time - it's time for some direct feedback - "When you explain answers to reasonable questions, you come off as condescending, I doubt this is what you mean to do, so I wanted to give you the feedback so you could work on it." It's hard to do, but necessary.

You're call on whether this is a "coaching moment" - coaching here would be going through "what are some things he could change to do keep true to himself but be less annoying" is a valid approach. But also pointing out that he does a lot of blather about his personal judgements about the easiness of the question and that he really doesn't take the time to figure out what the real goal of the question is.

This is only workable if there are more than 1 options for changing behavior. If every time he's asked a question, he answers with something that is just NOT OK, then this isn't "coaching" this is "don't do that" time.

NOTE: This is really only appropriate if you are the manager. If you are not his supervisor... proceed to step 2...

Manager or peer - in public

It's not OK to take direct feedback of someone doing something wrong and voice it in public, unless you are talking about a hazard that everyone should know loud and clear to avoid. Big enough, and dangerous enough and it's fine to just yell it out - "BY NO MEANS SHOULD YOU EVER TOUCH THAT BIG RED BUTTON!!!"

But it is OK to gently and directly point out the problem. "You didn't answer the question I asked. What I want to know is - where is the report? I don't need every step of finding it, I need the path to the directory." In many cases, a seemingly condescending person may just be trying too hard. Or that they simply missed the nature of the question.

Another trick I've used is if the answer was actually in there somewhere I say "Thanks, what I really needed was the answer '...super fast answer...' - thanks! I'm familiar with the rest and I've got it covered!"

Or on a second or third round when the person has explained the same thing numerous times, I'll preface with "I'm familiar with the process for ..., what I need is this specific information". If at this point we get to the saga of condescension, even in public, I'll break in after a sentence and say "Yes, I know how to do this, what I'm asking is..." to make it clear that neither he nor I have time for this.

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To be fair, you can't just walk up to someone with an ad hoc question and expect them to have a concise and well thought out summary all the time.

I don't know whether he is aware of this

Pick a separate time to have a 1:1 and mention how his condescending tone is perceived. He doesn't have to agree or like it, but needs to make a change or suffer the consequences. He may be the expert, but if everyone is reluctant to ask questions, he's diminishing his usefulness to the company. It's uncomfortable to be around him-not good.

The change isn't going to work over-night. He may need some prompting. Maybe you can slightly raise your hand or mention "you're doing it again".

A lot of this may just be nervous energy. Take the time to schedule a regular meeting to get feedback from him. If people limit how often they interact with him, his behavior may be an attempt to purge and get it out while he can because this is his only chance.

Many technical people do feel the need to elaborate. They are passionate about what they do and see the importance of the details and don't see how you could have any understanding without them. Try using email more often and remind him to keep it brief.

You have a knowledgeable resource at your disposal and would be a shame to lose it because of a need for a little attitude adjustment. Everyone could get a little thicker skin and deal with it and speak up when people do things to offend or make you feel uncomfortable. How many other problems are people in this company afraid to confront?

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I think this is a good answer, but I just want to place my bet here on the record: When OP sits down and talks to problem employee, problem employee will talk loudly over OP in a condescending manner. OP, please let us know if I have won. –  itcouldevenbeaboat Feb 21 at 16:02
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Yes, and not just with OP, also with anyone. You know, random tiny questions for information, asked across the desk. Imagine asking a colleague for something very very small like:"What will the weather be today?" and they start a 5 minute monologue about the different weather forecast systems, and also about how everyone is less than smart for not having brought umbrellas... The whole point of this question is that often the questions are so simple they don't require so much detail and common sense is enough to understand that. –  AndreaTonika Feb 22 at 2:03
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@AndreaTonika Do you work with Sheldon Cooper? –  vascowhite Feb 22 at 2:42
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@AndreaTonika - It would be great if it only took "common sense" to identify social norms. Too often people just smile and nod in approval during these lengthy answers and then go talk about the person behind their back (or post a question on SE) instead of confronting something that is unacceptable. And do we really know if this person cares about being liked or accepted over showing how smart they are? Maybe not, but they need to know the consequences. –  JeffO Feb 24 at 15:24
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As the manager, you are not required to know everything - especially how to do the job of each of your employees. Because that's not what a manager does. For example, don't even think that the CTO of -- let's say, Goldman Sachs -- can do the job of each employee in Goldman Sachs' IT -- it's just not possible.

You job as manager is to guide direction to your employees as a group and to provide support -- for example, additional resources -- to those of your subordinates who need them. As a manager, you need not know more about software engineering than the top software engineer of your organization or know more about systems engineering than the top systems engineer in your organization.

But you need to make sure that everyone is pulling in the same direction and that those who need support get support. And you need to have enough professional judgment and good sense not to let the domain experts pull the wool over your eyes. What I am saying is that you know less than your employee about certain topics, and that's all right. You hired that employee because he is an expert, and this means he knows more than you about certain topics. The fact that he knows more than you do about these topics does not make you a fool or an ignoramus. In fact, it makes you into a smart person because you know what you don't know, and you have good business sense to do something about it.

I suggest that you and your other employees put your foot down firmly, on his neck if necessary. "Cut the editorializing, I don't need it" Or, "Spare me the running commentary" And all of you say it with enough irritation that he knows that you are all irritated with his act. Don't feel guilty, he is the one who started it not you, so if his feelings are hurt, that's just too bad. You have the right to ask for knowledge from the expert you hired. He has no right to humiliate you or anyone else while he is providing you with the knowledge that you need and that you paid for through the salary that you are paying him.

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I don't think it's a stupid question you asked in your example at all. A real professional would ask a follow up question to clarify the depth and direction of the answer to give.

Yes, you can sit down with this person and explain what they need to change, but in reality this person is an adult and this is the way they speak. If after you talk to them once they aren't opened to changing and/or you need no change, you should remove this employee. Because it's bad for moral to have someone speak in a condescending manner to anyone there. You are the boss and he speaks to you this way, just imagine how he speaks to others they must think he's a jerk.

The economy isn't great, there is a lot of good talent that's out of work and I see no reason to exert much effort in correcting this employee and having to tolerate this.

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Do you know what economy OP works in? Do you know what talent you're suggesting to replace, and what the local labor pool for such talents is like? No? Then how can you know that firing is the best option? –  meriton Feb 24 at 1:07
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I would not take him off and talk to him privately as others have suggested, because that's always the beginning of the end. And you sound like you want to keep him.

Ask your question; if he veers off, quickly steer him back, if he gets wordy quickly steer him back. Once you have the information you want, thank him and walk away.

Put him in a position where if he does not stay on topic or if he gets wordy, then he himself begins to feels insubordinate or uncomfortable. In your conversations let him know he shouldn't waste your time; not by telling him that, but by making him answer the question, and then you walk away. Assert your leadership.

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Hello user, I think this is the beginnings of a good answer. It sounds like great advice. This post could be greatly improved by focusing on explaining more why this is the correct answer. Perhaps you have an experience you can share to validate this answer, or a reference you can cite to [back up your answer](meta.workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/255/faq-proposal-back-it-up-a‌​nd-dont-repeat-others)? Do this, and your post will be less likely to be removed. Hope this helps! –  jmort253 Feb 24 at 14:26
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EDIT:
"The talk" will not help. The suggestion below is a way to approach if employee is too valuable to lose. But if not, I would still suggest not to have a private talk, but openly confront him right on the spot with direct responses or humor, like:
—Hey X, there is no reason to be condescending when you share the knowledge...
—Come on X, get off the high horse before you talk to peasants...


Here's how I approach a need of asking a question of highly qualified person regardless of the setting and his demeanor.

1. Research before asking. Finding answers yourself saves time, makes you feel better, and you remember solutions longer.
2. Ask over email. When you writing your question you're forced to be as clear as possible and preferably succinct. So you will get a better answer.
3. Ask over instant messenger. If it's more urgent use IM, but make sure your question is clear and anticipated answer is short.
4. Ask in person. Think hard about your question and formulate it in your head. Mention what you've done to answer it yourself and what you already know.
5. Save the answer. You don't want to ask the same question again when you forget it.

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Hi z-boss, this doesn't really answer the question. The question is about how to deal with someone who is being condescending to you. Please take another look at the question, then I'd suggest editing to focus on those points. See How to Answer for guidance. –  jmort253 Feb 24 at 14:23
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