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I find myself in the curious case of trying to partially de-motivate someone, some background:

I am the team lead of a ~30 person team ranging from interns and new college grads to senior folks with 30+ years under their belts. My team is technically focused and responsible for the implementation of several different projects we work on, and are often all or mostly in our lab at the same time, working on some various sets of physical servers and specialized processor boards.

I have one person on my team who is definitely mid-career, I think we hired him with about 20 years experience in the field, and he has been a great addition, including bringing one or two more new folks with him. He has been on my team for about a year and a half. In that time, he has taken on a project that branches out past what we typically do, and has had some struggles communicating with our customer and the team overall, but has started to really hit his stride.

Over the past two months or so, the rubber has really started to hit the road and this team member has been getting into "crunch time" working off-hours and coordinating insane meetings. I recently found out he has been averaging 18 hour days for the last month or so. I know no one asked him to do this because he is his own project lead - he has three or four other engineers that have been supporting off-shifts, but not going crazy over 40 hours per week.

The thing is, this project is really not very important. No one from "higher up" is asking for due dates, he is just arbitrarily setting them himself based on what he (in his words) "believes we should be doing". When I prodded him that he doesn't need to work these crazy hours and ask others to support weird shift times, he responded he "likes doing it" and basically expects others to follow along.

I'm not one to turn my nose up at a motivated engineer, but there are two issues here:

  • Some of our work requires customer witness, so his requests for customer witnesses from 1800 - 0400 for weeks on end is starting to burn some good will
  • 18 months is actually a relatively short amount of time, and he doesn't really have a full foundational understanding of "what we do here" this leads to endless frustration on everyone's part, to the point he has sent a quite strongly worded email to our mutual manager's own manager

I did raise both these concerns to him directly, and then later our mutual manager, neither have abated his habits. He is burning himself and others out for little to no reason, and struggling to understand and communicate roadblocks he is running into. It bears mentioning he volunteered for his role as project lead and was accepted against my and our manager's recommendation, so this was not entirely surprising, but has escalated to the point I am starting to become concerned.

TL;DR: I have a mid-career engineer who is working himself and others to the bone at the request of no one but himself. How do I convey that his project is not worth the extreme work conditions he is taking on and asking of others, without entirely deflating him?

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  • Who assigned him to this project and who is the project manager? – sf02 Apr 7 at 14:23
  • @sf02 We (team leadership of 5) assigned him to this project as an engineer about a year ago, he became that project manager ~2-3 months ago when the previous project manager left – agentroadkill Apr 7 at 14:25
  • @Kilisi I’m not fully in the know, but I know he has a daughter and has taken a new job and moved home in the last year. I suppose it’s possible he’s having an ugly divorce? – agentroadkill Apr 7 at 14:44
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    @agentroadkill, I don't think that's what they were asking. You said you and your own manager were against him taking on this role. So the question is, who overruled your decisions? Because in my mind at least, this situation is their responsibility, not yours. And as far I can tell, you've done all you could do. – Stephan Branczyk Apr 7 at 20:34
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    @Evorlor I believe that the OP is trying to convey to his team member that the project is not important. Hence in that sense the headline and TL;DR are not contradictory. – Peter M 2 days ago
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It sounds like you've been trying to offer gentle advice and getting rebuffed. Assuming you have authority over this engineer, you could move on to giving firmer instruction now, working on improving his decision making in parallel.

  • Tell him that he is not to request customer witness outside normal working hours.
  • Tell him to review project milestones with you. Ask him to justify milestones that seem too aggressive. If he can't persuade you that they are achievable, ask him to look again. If he can't provide a better date, define the date yourself.
  • Review the need for the rest of the project team to provide out of hours support. If this is not required, state this both lead and project team.

At the same time, it'd be worth working on his understanding of the business. I'm sceptical about 18 months being insufficient time for someone with 20 years domain experience to understand a business. Could you schedule regular 1-1 sessions to work on this? It sounds like you have someone who wants to devote a lot of energy to his work. If you can help channel his enthusiasm, you'll have a great asset to your team.

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  • I upvoted this answer, but ONLY if you are in a position of authority over him. If you are not, this is a good answer for the person who is. – thursdaysgeek 2 days ago
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This isn't your problem to fix, it's your mutual manager's. You should obviously let your manager know what you have observed about this individual, and concerns you have to his and his team's health, but there isn't anything you personally could or should do at this point.

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  • I endorse this answer, it's outside the role – Kilisi 2 days ago
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First of all, you should engage with your HR team and work with this situation with them, because there are legal factors at play here. (But I'll get to those at the end).

The thing is, this project is really not very important. No one from "higher up" is asking for due dates, he is just arbitrarily setting them himself based on what he (in his words) "believes we should be doing".

Well, that's your problem isn't it? In the absence of specifics, the employee is filling the gaps.

When I prodded him that he doesn't need to work these crazy hours

Actually, I don't think you don't really know that. You're using the implication that nobody has asked for due dates to mean that there is no due date? Or there will never be a due date? Someone who is driven won't use vagueness as an excuse to take their foot off the gas.

You have an obligation to ensure that the employee doesn't get burnt out, to to determinant of themselves, other employees, and the business as a whole. So your steps:

  • Set actual time-frames for the project, and time-frames for key deliverables
  • Work with the employee to develop a plan that is achievable in those timeframes
  • Avoid using vague, contestable concepts such as "importance"
  • Take control of the acquisition of customer witnesses, and make requests go through you
  • Ensure that any overtime has to go through you (to protect the team members)
  • Require timesheeting of the employee, and ban "unhealthy" amounts of overtime
  • Be prepared to move them off the project if they refuse to comply
  • Be prepared to take disciplinary action against the employee should they refuse to comply

You have an ethical obligation to the employee to ensure their health and safety, but you also have a legal obligation. Because you are now aware of the extreme amount of overtime that most people would consider to have a negative impact on the mental health of the average person, there is now a legal obligation on you to do something about it.

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    I think you missed the part where the author is the team lead, not the employee's manager. – ColleenV Apr 7 at 18:03

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