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I manage a team of engineers. For the most part everyone is self-motivated and doesn't need much management. There is one engineer in particular, though, that is very difficult to work with. He has very strong ideas about how things should be done, yet is terrible about understanding the needs of the business or other departments. He feels insecure about his job yet doesn't do much to change his work style. We're pretty sure he produces poor documentation with the intent of improving his job security.

He also talks a lot. I don't mind people talking with each other, but to a point where it doesn't take away from your work. When he talks with me, I'm happy to hear what's going on for him but then when I start to give signals that I need to get back to work, he's very slow to get it. And in particular, he seems to talk with one other sympathetic engineer a lot. The other engineer otherwise works pretty hard but I've seen their conversations go on for 20-30 minutes at a time.

I think he feels the need to talk because of insecurities about his job and about his personal life, but this is a workplace and while he's here I need him to focus. What can I do about this?

  • @Joe I've talked about the other things I mentioned with him one-on-one but not this. He is pretty paranoid about any change in the company and anything remotely "big brother" so I've been hesitant to appear like I'm counting the minutes he spends in this other engineer's cubicle. He already requires so much attention compared to everyone else that I hate to get even more involved. I should add that he's been at this company for 10+ years and I'm relatively new, especially as a manager. – Dave Dec 12 '15 at 0:09
  • How do you measure your employees' performance? Are he and the other engineer meeting their goals? If not, the solution is easy, point out that their extended non-work related yak-fests are part of the problem. If they are meeting goals, then do they need more work? More ambitious objectives? – DLS3141 Feb 24 '16 at 17:21
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It doesn't sound like you're managing your employees too well. I don't mean to sound rude, but you're their manager, not their friend. Listening to his life problems is not what you're there to do, and you should inform him of this ASAP.

Short term solution

If he's taking up your time with trivial conversations then instead of dropping hints simply say:

I'm sorry Joe, but I have some things I need to finish. (and turn away)

Similarly, if you see this person taking up other people's time step in:

Hey guys, I can see that you're talking about something really interesting, but it's eating up a lot of company time. You should continue your conversation over lunch/after work, ok?

If this person's attitude continues then have a chat with them in private:

Joe, I understand that you enjoy talking with your fellow developers, but I'm afraid that this is a work environment. We have to keep our interactions professional, and get out jobs done. If you want to discuss personal issues please do so outside of work.

Similarly, tell your team to stop indulging him!

This won't be gaining you any friends, but it will solve your immediate problem.

Long term solution

For a more long term solution you may consider helping your employee actually become a better developer. A lot of managers seem to ignore that part of their role is also helping their employees grow.

You can set up a meeting with him and perform a code review. Explain to him that you need better quality documentation, and pick a few methods to work on together so that he understands what the expectations are.

This way, if he fails to improve at least you know there's really no hope for him and you can fire him with a clear conscience.

  • No offense taken. I'm a new manager in my career and my company (which makes electronics, not software btw) is a pretty odd one with a lot of cultural quirks like a very loose management structure with poorly defined roles. I'm trying to make improvements where I can but this particular employee has been a thorn in a lot of peoples' sides. I'm leaning towards talking to him in private, which would avoid any potential embarrassment and allow us to handle other issues which would inevitably come up. It would also dovetail into your suggested long-term solution. – Dave Dec 12 '15 at 0:17
  • @Dave - glad my answer was useful to you. – AndreiROM Dec 12 '15 at 1:30
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    ANd I caution you from projecting a reason why he does the things that you don't like. You don't actually know why he talks like that. Why is irrelevant (unless he has come to you with a personal issue that is affecting work like a death in the family or a cancer diagnosis), what matters from the manager perspective is what behavior you want needs to be clearly articulated by you and then the employee needs to be corrected when he strays from that expectation. – HLGEM Feb 24 '16 at 15:55
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    Everything except your first paragraph is spot on. Your judgmental opinion of how people asking for help here perform in their job function is not helpful and does not belong in answers, and definitely not as the opening paragraph. I beg you to start just answering the questions instead of starting off opining about the situation. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Feb 25 '16 at 16:00
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When the subtle cues don't work, you need to be more direct.

It’s probably best to address these issues separately.

Business strategy: Assuming you have clearly communicated the vision of your company and how your team fits into the big picture, you may need to take this person aside and explain exactly what is off base about the specific ideas being articulated. Being specific is key to turning it into a good teachable moment. It’s important to make sure the person understands you are taking the time to explain because you value them as an employee and want them to succeed.

Time spent chatting: Best to just be very direct with this conversation. “I enjoy catching up with you from time to time on personal stuff, but it’s starting to get in the way of work. We have a lot to do here, and we need to stay on task as much as possible to ensure we are meeting our obligations and hitting our deadlines. Let’s try to limit the longer conversations with colleagues to lunch time, breaks and after work.”

Documentation: If you don’t have formal standards you can still provide examples of what you consider to be “good” documentation, and explain clearly WHY they are good. Similarly, if this person is not producing what you want, go through some samples of his work with him and explain in detail what is specifically that is lacking. Then explain your expectations for improvements.

Don’t worry and fret about this for too long – best to just get it done and move on. You’ll feel better knowing you have made your best effort to communicate your expectations as manager, and if improvements are not forthcoming, it’s 100% on the employee.

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Please don't forget to talk about this with other team members.

By doing this you achieve two things:

  1. Get a more balanced view of the situation.
  2. By listening to the employees you will show them that you value their opinion.
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Give them more work to do. I have had many of these types. When they start up a story give them a spreadsheet to do, some menial task that needs to be done by your group. Do it right in the middle of them talking, just ask them to your office and assign it.

If the Pavlov's dog response doesn't kick in then you get all these tasks done. If your employee mentions that they are overworked, simply say, "I hear you guys talking a lot so I figured you were all caught up."

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  • Has anyone bothered to do a Psychometric evaluation as to whether the employee is an INTJ(or at least a socio profile)? Intellectual, creative discussions are what enthuse billion dollar ideas in Startups.

  • And to establish whether he has Asperger's/HFA ? If that is the case, then they are protected under law in certain states, so I implore you to tread carefully and realize that if the content of their conversation is productive, they could win if you lodged a dispute. You need to understand that in some workplace cultures with high dynamics and 7 day - 10 hours a day workplaces, this sort of continual intellectual discussion is seen as normal. Many in the high-tech sector perform exponentially better if they have this productive freedom with their peers.

Managers are ideally there to achieve the company's goals, not to strangle creativity and loyalty from eccentric employees. I say this as someone who started a part time company with other employees.

  • You don't need to establish if the person has any autism-related issues; if they do, the manager should be aware of them already. They only legally count if they're previously disclosed. – Erik Oct 4 '17 at 8:58
  • If disclosure occurs during Arbitration to the commission/council in question, that influences the decision. Best practices methodologies indicate that employers should at all times be aware of (pre-emptively/proactively) the sociodynamics and any psycho-socio indicators of employees, prior to disclosure, simply for the sake of optimization of work ethic. It only take 15 mins to assume/verify behavioural characteristics against a guideline, I know children that do basic evals for fun lol, its really easy. Why do the bare minimum? Lets be better managers than that. Lets have passion. – Demian Berisford-Maynard Oct 4 '17 at 9:23
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    Are you saying "use a 15 minute layman assessment and then decide if someone might have autism and adjust your behavior based on that"? – Erik Oct 4 '17 at 9:25

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