Need advice managing a smart but difficult engineer
March 9, 2011 9:54 PM   Subscribe

Please help! Need advice managing a smart but difficult engineer. It's stressing me out and not sure how to proceed.

I manage a small group of software engineers and everyone is great but there is one person who I've had constant issues with over the years. The main problem is that his tone and attitude is often combative and confrontational. There doesn't seem to be a mutual respect and I feel like it causes unnecessary stress and brings down morale in subtle ways. I've spoken with him about it a few times and each time he is apologetic but it keeps coming up. I'm not sure what to do next.

For example, most times when I come up to ask him a question he'll roll his eyes, or sigh or answer with "what?" as if to make me feel like I'm bothering him. During meetings, he'll typically be the last to walk in, stands the furthest away and acts very unengaged and annoyed. He's good at programming and solves difficult problems, but he'll put up a fight when asked to do things that aren't his forte or not as fun. I'm totally fine if people don't think certain things are a good idea for them work on, but with him it always feels like a confrontation more than a conversation. It's really starting to wear me out.

I work well with the rest of my team and I feel like I'm not an overbearing manager at all. Other team members seem to get along with him, but he does have the reputation of being the cranky and cynical guy in the group. He also seems very moody - one day he seems very unapproachable and the next he'll be friendly. He does have a good sense of humor and doesn't have problems socially but I would not characterize him as a helpful, communicative, team-oriented person. He's competent but not "professional".

How do I address these attitude problems in a concrete and appropriate way? I'm hesitant to keep having one-on-ones because they just seem so heavy and I can't simply say "you need to be nicer." His performance is good because he gets things done. And a lot of the reasons why he fights back are valid. It's just all about the body language, tone of voice and general grumpiness that are really not helpful. Are these valid things to say that he needs to change?
posted by zebraspots to Human Relations (49 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
As one of those "competent but not professional people," I would say, no - those aren't valid things to change. He's not management, he's engineering. He gets his work done, doesn't cause problems with his team, but has little patience for the extra expectations that comes from management. Will he ever get promoted to a supervisory or management role? Absolutely not. Will he continue to be a solid performer that consistently solves problems that others can't solve? Yes. So - give him his niche and stop trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. He's doing his job, and well, why does he have to shine at meeting too?
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:08 PM on March 9, 2011 [16 favorites]

I would not characterize him as a helpful, communicative, team-oriented person. He's competent

I disagree that he is competent. Software development is a team endeavor, and if he refuses to help his co-workers or makes them unpleasant for them he's hurting the team. (Not 100% sure if this is the case but it sounds like it). I have been the other guy on the team countless times and people like this absolutely kill morale. They're not only unpleasant, but I end up working harder and longer than I should have to because he either thinks he's too good for certain tasks, or he refuses to collaborate when it's called for.

I'm hesitant to keep having one-on-ones because they just seem so heavy
That's, unfortunately, part of being the boss. Your duty is to the rest of your team.

I can't simply say "you need to be nicer."
Yes you can. You can't make him smile all the time or come to BBQs on the weekend, but you certainly have the right and obligation to insist he conduct himself with common courtesy, and as a good team member.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:13 PM on March 9, 2011 [22 favorites]

I wonder if his behavior is this affecting your ability the manage the rest of your team. Are they influenced by his behavior? Are they annoyed by it? Is it effecting morale? Are they questioning your ability to lead? Any of these are reasons to discuss and require different behavior.

This isn't about him being 'nicer' - this is about him being civil. He can be casual, and not want to socialize and still be professional. It sounds like this is more of a problem. It's one thing if he's the last to walk in (fine), compared to being late (not acceptable). It isn't clear which one he is. It's disappointing that you have to explain to someone that eye rolling is not an acceptable behavior in the work place ('he's engineering' should not give you a pass, no more than 'he's super competent' should give him a pass.) but the general theme is that every environment needs to be a respectful workplace. Eye rolling is not part of that. Explaining when someone gets temper-tantrumish about things, that you recognize it's not their forte, and it's not fun, but it's part of the job, and that you know they'll do it well - and then end the conversation - is pretty much par for the course when managing employees like this.

Also, realizing that it probably is possible to find an employee who can do great work and professional. You can require your team to engage each other professionally. This is one of the reasons why employee evals were created, and removing people from a team is a skill every manager should learn.
posted by anitanita at 10:25 PM on March 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

Will his attitude wear down the team? Possibly. Could his attitude affect other team members to the point that they look for other work? Possibly.

For me, I don't think saying "He's good at his technical duties, so who cares if his soft skills need work?" is helpful. For one, this will affect his career until it is addressed. You can't go into interviews with a combative and confrontational attitude. If your role relies on teamwork, then being adaptable to the people around you is a valuable skill.

You can't suggest some communication training courses? I am an IT engineer, and I have to say I found going to one incredibly useful (despite my many poorly communicated mefi posts). I was rolling my eyes and cracking jokes before it, but came out a lot wiser about how to communicate in the workplace to a variety of audiences.
posted by Admira at 10:30 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I worked with a guy like that. Smart, apparently capable (it was hard to tell, because he'd openly slack whenever our manager wasn't around), completely derisive towards everyone less senior than he was (a bad trait in a peer-training-required environment), eye-rolling, checked-out-in-the-back-of-the-meeting, would occasionally just announce that he wasn't attending training because he did his job and shouldn't have to do things like that.

If your guy is like that guy? Rest assured, the rest of his coworkers hate him and wonder if he's got compromising photos of you. Professionalism does count, even in the weirdest, sloppiest outfits out there-- it might not look like starchy suit-and-tie manners, but it means not being an overt dick to people and not constantly acting like you're above others.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:30 PM on March 9, 2011 [10 favorites]

Warning: Pet Peeve Rant

The people who are like that will pipe up that you should pander to this. Ignore them. In particular, people who argue "I get my job done, fuck you if I'm an asshole" are almost always corrosive, destructive to the team and more trouble than they are worth. They drag the whole project down. At best, people like this are looking for the minimum they can do while not getting fired and still feel comfortable shitting on you.

Unless it's a situation that this person has irreplaceable tribal knowledge or broadly accepted credibility that simply cannot be duplicated then you are under no, repeat, no obligation to subject yourself or your team to them. After 20 years doing this (in my world), there are less than 10 people who fit in this category. Really, there's probably 3 or 4.

The reality is that for almost all jobs, if you say "I'd get rid of him if I could find someone as qualified", there is someone who not only is as qualified, they can get along with other humans. This is particularly true for non-customer facing roles.

My life is always so much easier when I get rid of the prima donnas, and focus on people who are more interested in getting the job done.
posted by kjs3 at 10:36 PM on March 9, 2011 [27 favorites]

With regard to the eyerolling, I know that after someone has interrupted my train of thought for the sixth time and/or made me remove my headphones which I rely on to create concentration in my noisy, open office-space, I'm pretty much catapulted to eyeroll city.
So my question is, are you respecting the employee's work space? Are you skipping up to ask a question in person that could easily be posed in an email or quick-chat (which would allow the programmer to answer when at an appropriate break in tasks) because that's what works for you?
If you could work out a better communication protocol, it might go a ways toward getting him to be more civil. Just a thought; don't know if this plays into your situation at all.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 10:37 PM on March 9, 2011 [5 favorites]

I agree with drjimmy11, that this is a serious deficit for an engineer to have. It's not that rare, and he certainly still could be on the balance a productive employee, but it does hamper the effictiveness of the team overall.

Just saying "be nicer" isn't that constructive, but you can require that people who report you treat others with a certain level of courtesy and respect. Basically, he should act as though other people's time is as valuable as his own. That means showing up to meetings on time. That means treating appropriate questions as an opportunity to spend a little [of his] time to save lot of [the organization's] time. It means sometimes accepting assignments that challenge him (though it's okay of course to express concern about them, in a professional way).
posted by aubilenon at 10:41 PM on March 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

If it wouldn't be a huge breach of company decorum, I would solicit advice from his team members. These are the people who work more closely with him, and may have more insight into the origins of his attitude. Moreover, if he's openly disrespectful of you, maybe it's his peers on the team that can apply the pressure to him. I'm not saying have an "everybody but [this guy] meeting, but maybe mention it when you're meeting with other teammates individually.

Admira's mention of "soft skills" reminded me of a time I had a similar attitude problem (albeit I was a restaurant cook and not a software engineer) and my boss reminded me that soft skills are still skills, and they too are part of the job. It doesn't need to be stuffy corporate communication classes (which are likely to cause even more resentment), but when you get his inner nerd to think of the things you're upset about as lack of skills, it might be enough to make him understand.
posted by Jon_Evil at 10:42 PM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I can't simply say "you need to be nicer."
Yes you can. You can't make him smile all the time or come to BBQs on the weekend, but you certainly have the right and obligation to insist he conduct himself with common courtesy, and as a good team member.

drjimmy is right, but demanding that someone take other people's feelings into account is not going to produce genuine consideration. I would consider appealing to his pragmatism. I'm just brainstorming, but you could say things like:

"What is the point of working hard all day, but being so cranky with others? It almost cancels out your hard work."
"How do you see your career progressing? You're very smart, and I could see you leading a project one day (and you might not want to do that now, but you the day might come), and there are some key skills that I think we need to hone to get you there."
"I know you feel that a lot of the work is boring, but it needs to get done. If you can think of a better way to do things, you are welcome to communicate them, but otherwise what's the point of complaining about it? A lot of the things I have to do aren't interesting... It's great that you're passionate about interesting projects, but we all have to share the work that no one wants to do..."

These are just some thoughts... Good luck. Managing good employees is easy. I've always respected most the managers that are able to deal with the most difficult employees. :)
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 11:27 PM on March 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Dealing with an employee like this one is admittedly difficult for a manager. Let me try to shed some light on the situation.

He's smart, his performance is good, and he gets the job done? Then the best thing you can do is stay out of his way!

You come up to him to ask a question, he rolls his eyes and acts like you're interrupting him? You are! He was productively engaged in doing real work when you asked him a question that was relevant to you, but ridiculous to him. You're the problem in that interaction. Leave him alone! Let him work!

He's distant at meetings? Of course he is. Meetings are boring and real time wasters to a person like him who would rather be getting work done.

You have a problem with his attitude and personal style because you aren't familiar with it and it seems like improper behavior to you? You will make life easier all around if you stop trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Quit asking him to "be nicer". Accept him for who he is.

It's tempting to dream of changing him into an employee who is "more normal" to you. You can't. It's tempting to think you can "manage" him. You can't. Just get out of his way and let him work.

Oh, and show your appreciation for his performance.

A brilliant engineer like him is very valuable employee. He will step in and save your project when nobody else can. Ask yourself which you prefer, a less capable engineer who is "more normal" or an excellent performer like him?

There are plenty of engineers, scientists, and mathematicians out there who are brilliant and eccentric. Trying to "manage" them is a non-starter. They don't need "managing". They need good working conditions, projects to work on, and appreciation for their accomplishments. That's it. Any other attempts at "managing" are irrelevant.

How do I know? I've worked with them!
posted by exphysicist345 at 11:35 PM on March 9, 2011 [15 favorites]

All of the things you've pointed out - the grumpiness, body language, tone, the behavior in meetings (stands furthest away? so what, he's there isn't he?) - are all things that you're allowing to get to you. As a manager part of your job to ensure that the behavior of others doesn't get to you. It isn't to beat everyone into submission (or even to make everyone behave as you feel they should just because you feel they should).

I think you'll find that a lot of his behavior - including the lack of respect - is coming from him because he's picking up on your feelings of animosity towards his personality. To him, he's trying to do the best job he can do and yet he probably knows you don't 'approve' of his personality. He resents that, because, man, he's just trying to do his job!

So perhaps if you chill a bit with the disapproval towards his behavior, you might find that he relaxes a bit and some of these problems will go away.
posted by mleigh at 12:43 AM on March 10, 2011

And explain why you need him to do certain things. Problems like this tend to also arise when someone says "do blah" and there's no context provided. Don't assume things are self-evident. If you need him to do things that aren't his forte or that aren't as fun, explain why.

Actually, always explain why - people like to know the why just as much as the what, otherwise they tend to think you're bugging them and/or trying to undermine them.
posted by mleigh at 12:49 AM on March 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

Tell him that his lack of professionalism is going to hurt/hurting his career. People like this are often unaware.

Explain that a putting anything other than a friendly, competent, helpful vibe out there will stop managers from giving him projects that involve contact with the leadership, which will affect his visibility, and this his prospects for promotion, his salary reviews etc etc. Be clear that this attitude is costing him money, and the prospect of advancement or transfer within the business.

Highlight that a non-responsive or dismissive attitude to other team members or broader staff in the organisation will not only affect how much help he gets, but also who wants to work with him, and who will nominate him for high-value work, how long it will take him to achieve things etc.

Tell him that you want him to be aware of his practices around his peers, and to shape them in a way that will bring new respect and visibility to him, and your whole team. Then, give him a small stretch project with the explicit aims of collaboration and a team-based project environment. Request that they bring this attitude into any setting with your own team.

Of course, this only works for someone who gives a shit about their career, or their ego. But these people often have a lot of pride. Be really clear how this will affect their jobs in ways they may not have thought, not just promotion, but salary etc. Things like, do you want to see X person promoted ahead of you because they have worked better with the business, despite not having your skills?

Good luck, it's never easy. And ignore anyone who says eye-rolling, arrant cynicism and teenage behaviour is simply the price to pay for a gifted IT worker; it's absolute rubbish. Respect is the most important thing you need to wear at work, and there is no excuse for abandoning it in a professional setting.
posted by smoke at 2:10 AM on March 10, 2011 [13 favorites]

Also, this is not the only approach, but I'm trying to answer your question, which was how to deal/overcome this as opposed to how to reconcile yourself to it.
posted by smoke at 2:14 AM on March 10, 2011

Is there a way to limit his interaction with others?

He is acting like a child, and i don't envy you having to manage him. If he is making people miserable (that includes you) then he is not doing his job. He is only doing the part of his job he likes which just kind of makes him an asshole.

He may blame you for interrupting but doesn't know how to use his big kid words to ask you to email first, making him do stuff he doesn't want to do but doesn't make suggestions as to who should do them. He might just be a little slow on communication maturity.

The only way to break bad behavior is to confront it directly when you experience it. In a totally sincere, non-passive aggressive way say "Hey, Rolling your eyes makes me think you are really frustrated. I know you don't mean to be rude, do you want to talk about how you'd prefer this to go?" Or "Hey, I hear that you don't like this assignment, and I'm not so keen on it either. Can you think of a solution that'll get us out of it without hoisting it onto another team member?" Or "You sound really angry that I've interrupted you. I know you don't mean to be so short with me, but I'm afraid i need this answered right away to get back to Susan. Would you prefer to get questions via IM?"

If you've talked to him before and he realizes this is a problem, yet there is still no change? Yeah i don't think he is going to stop acting like a fourth grader until there are consequences. They don't need to be overly punitive:

"hey, we've talked about this in the past and we don't seem to making any headway. I am at a loss. It is really important to have a harmonious team and what I'm getting from your behavior is that you are just not happy. This continuing is going to cause you to miss out on a lot of things."

(Also on preview the consequences that smoke is talking about= exactly.)

but if he can't get his shit together then get rid of him. No one gets to be a jerk because "that's just part of their personality"
posted by Blisterlips at 2:47 AM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

This whole thing about "IT guys are just like that" is just allowing for bad behavior. In this economy? There are a ton of competent AND professional IT guys that want work.
posted by Blisterlips at 2:50 AM on March 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think you just need to deal with it. People are different and sometime difficult. He has a good sense of humour - the other devs probably respect that and he plays up to it. He gets the work done? Also, he probably has a very dry sense of humour that you possibly don't get. Sometimes the best management is to leave people alone.
posted by the noob at 3:23 AM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

[Disclaimers: (1) I don't "believe in" the truth of the psychological model I reference below. But sometimes the shoe fits. (2) I am reading an awful lot into the description of the problem. ]

[Assumption: The individual's demeanor is not reserved for you in particular due to some undisclosed interpersonal history you have with him.

As a manager, the best first thing you can do is understand the members of your team, because that is the key to keeping the team dynamic tuned and effective. Clearly you are a bit flummoxed by this individual. Many managers find themselves at a loss when certain team members don't adhere to commonly accepted social norms. After all, doing so, or at least understanding the importance of doing so, is a no-brainer for most everyone if for no other reason than job security. Then you get a curveball like this fellow, who not only doesn't adhere, but seems to actively agitate against it. This is a great challenge for you. I repeat: the very best first thing you can do is understand.

The guy you're talking about sounds a lot like an INTP who has heavily favored his strengths and consequently has not developed his weaker areas. If so, he may be great at his primary role but the importance of social protocols which others take for granted may seem uselessly burdensome to him. They'd almost certainly seem arbitrary and non-intuitive in the extreme, and as a result he may not see value in acquiring that skill set. However, you are his manager, so hopefully soft skills are your forte.

Supposing he does match the INTP profile....

Whatever you do, avoid treating him like a misbehaving puppy. Instead, treat him like what he is: a valued asset with a pronounced blind spot. Rest assured, there's practically zero chance that an adult INTP is unaware of his social deficiencies. Therefore, unless you've earned his respect, shining a spotlight on that fact is likely to be counterproductive at best. Since his normal social posture sounds a bit defensive to begin with, anything that makes him feel singled out for his lack of social skills would probably provoke resentment. Keep in mind that if learning to navigate the social landscape effectively were a problem he could solve on his own, he would almost certainly have done so long ago. Underneath his demeanor he would probably love to "fit in". These situations are often rife with irony, in that the individual in question is already accepted by his peers, except for when his prickliness creates awkward social situations for others - but because of his social blindness he cannot perceive this fact. It's quite possible that, for your fellow, being "the smart guy" is the only way he knows for sure that he's a valued team member.

If you can demonstrate to this guy (as opposed to just telling him) that, while his strengths are valued, improving his social deficiencies would greatly contribute to the morale of the team, and therefore to the success of the projects he is involved with, he may conceive (or revive) the need to brush up on his social skills. The key thing here is to focus on the positive. Make sure you approach what is wrong by illustrating how things could be much better. If you get that far, then you've successfully finessed him into a position of respecting your (ostensible, for he will still be skeptical) skill set, however grudgingly. At that point, you've almost won -- but you can still lose very easily. Once you've won his respect, it's imperative that you remain his advocate. This isn't that hard to do, as long as you understand who he is.

One difficult obstacle may be the fact that, by now, you likely have a burdened history with the guy. However, I submit that this may actually be an asset if you approach it wisely. In this case, wisdom would consist of recognizing, accepting, and keeping in mind that his lack of social skill with respect to the team is mirrored by your own lack with respect to him. If you can find a way to broach the problem that clearly conveys your own inadequacy to solve it on your own, that will probably resonate with him. My guess is that that is the common ground on which you both must stand if you truly wish to solve the problem, rather than simply constructing a more satisfactory coping mechanism, because in this way you are both inextricably linked to the common goal of reaching a heightened social awareness. He becomes a better person for people to work with, and you become a better person to work with people.

Now, re-read this answer, and imagine that I was talking about you, not him.

Finally, accept that I might be completely full of shit.
posted by perspicio at 4:25 AM on March 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

If it were me and I was in an "at will" State, I would replace him. You're not going to fix his personality by managing it. He does not have talent such that he is not replaceable. He is a net negative to the team. Start interviewing new candidates. Take your time to find the right replacement.

The only person whose personality and attitude I would make exceptions for is a left handed heat throwing closer. This guy is a talented long reliever who will end up going from team to team having a reasonable career but all the folks in his hometown will be wondering why he didn't become the hall of famer he was touted to be.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:45 AM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think it's really interesting how divided the answers are here between "fire him, he's bringing down your team with his lack of soft skills" and "that's who he is and he does his work well so accept his work style."

I'm inclined to go with the latter, and believe you need to frame your issue as one of personality diversity. Engineer-Guy isn't rolling his eyes at you, annoyed by meetings, and defensive because he's a jerk. He's learned to do those things because he is unable to convey his workplace needs to you, and those things get the idea across, even if they're less than appealing. As his boss, your own soft skills are necessary to recognize the difference in work styles that increase his productivity and morale on the job.

Here's what it sounds like he needs in order to be productive:
-A quiet uninterrupted workspace. (As opposed to a once-hourly or more entrance by coworkers or the boss.)
-Requests for status updates on projects and new projects via email instead of by coming by. (As opposed to the courtesy you assume you are affording him by talking face-to-face.)
-A pass to skip meetings that do not directly affect him, and a copy of meeting notes. (As opposed to a model of inclusion where everyone gets invited to meetings.)

As an introvert myself, I find a lot of the things you describe as typical at your workplace to be exhausting. In my own workplace, where I am an "IT Guy," I've had to sit down with my boss and say, "I cannot juggle the needs of 12 people who come up to me all day to ask me questions, I need things in email form so I can prioritize, and I need some quiet hours where I can work with headphones as a do-not-disturb sign." He had no idea that not everyone worked like him, as he is a high-energy extrovert that appreciates constant feedback and updates.

You can get this guy in your corner by focusing on his strengths, ending the inclusionary tactics your idea of teamwork engenders, and letting him do his work quietly. You can be upfront by telling him that he is the exception to your workplace rules and you are bending them for him, but that he is obligated to adjust his attitude, which is perceived as contempt. As an introvert, I'd find that a fair compromise. If he continues the bad behavior after you've taken away the triggers, you have good reason to replace him. Until then, this should be framed as a work style difference, not an attitude problem.
posted by juniperesque at 5:04 AM on March 10, 2011 [13 favorites]

This guy is not going to change. Either deal with him the way he is or fire him, but fighting with him constantly is going to make you both miserable.

he'll put up a fight when asked to do things that aren't his forte or not as fun. I'm totally fine if people don't think certain things are a good idea for them work on, but with him it always feels like a confrontation more than a conversation.

This, to me, is the only real problem you've mentioned. Stop arguing with him about it. Tell him what you expect him to do, and if he doesn't do it, start the process of moving him out of the company -- verbal and written warnings, etc... Don't open the floor to debate every time you ask him to do something unpleasant.
posted by empath at 5:52 AM on March 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

also, seconding the recommendations to stop trying to get him to be social. People like this may change over a long period of time, but they won't change just because they're asked to. Let him be surly, cynical and introverted. Some people are just like that.
posted by empath at 5:54 AM on March 10, 2011

I am struck by the dichotomy of the "he's toxic" and "he's just doing his thing" answers. This might wind up being a fantastic case study in management. I wonder how many of the people who think he's toxic are themselves managers, versus those who are engineers, etc. There are plenty of people who will brand someone an asshole because they're not playing the same game, without realizing that doing so makes an asshole of themselves. (And this can apply to both you and him).

Your first job in this context is to figure out whether he's got legitimate grievances that are making him act in a way you don't like, or if he actually sucks. If the former, use the one half of the above answers, if the latter, the other.
posted by Jon_Evil at 6:41 AM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would agree with empath's pointing out the real problem. There are always grunt work tasks in the engineering world, and the minute you think you're too good to do any of them is the minute I don't want you on my team any more.
posted by k5.user at 6:55 AM on March 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Also: I'm moved to give less credence to the "he's toxic, get rid of him" answers because most of them include a line like "ignore the other people who say that it's part of his personality/his behavior is childish and inexcusable." This seems really narrow minded and bull-headed. Nobody on the other side is saying that, instead they talk about differences in personality style and the realities of differing job descriptions.

Now, I'm a hippie-dippy leftist who believes in relativism (up to a certain point), those of you who are adamant in your belief that everyone should behave like you might disagree with me.
posted by Jon_Evil at 6:59 AM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

At a recent presentation, the trainer talked about the "Platinum Rule" defined as "Treat people the way they want to be treated." There are some books and sites that explain it. It seems like a useful way to look at the people you manage.
posted by theora55 at 7:12 AM on March 10, 2011

When you're coming up to him, is he in The Zone?

If you are not familiar with The Zone, become so. This is where programmers are incredibly productive. If you haven't been in it, it is hard to describe, but when I'm there, I enter a state of no-time. Hours simply vanish and I am cranking out lines of solid, understandable code. Difficult facets of the problem at hand resolve themselves. Long-standing things I have failed to grok snap into place with an audible click. I am frictionlessly sliding through a tube where the magic just happens for me. Potential difficulties a year or two in advance, which nobody has considered, are swatted aside and crushed without saccade of my glance away from the laser-like focus which has happened to me. I am Conan, slicing my way through anonymous mooks and I do not so much as notice their anguished gaze as I stomp through their entrails on the way toward my prize, which is SOLVING THE PROBLEM. What I do now is worth more than if I had been sneezing out a solid gold coin once an hour.

... and then someone taps me on the shoulder to tell me it is time for a meeting. The waveform where I was everywhere at once collapses and I'm back to being just me. Dumb. Lumbering through code, only to locate a spot where a colon ought to be. Commenting my code, writing up a document. Boring. Necessary but unglorious janitorial work when I could be getting stuff done. I will look back at what I have written to see that, in some narrow fashion, what I have written is actually smarter than I am — my programs will go on making decisions and catching corner cases of which I would not ordinarily think.

The Zone is hard to enter and cannot be conjured up with a pair of headphones, Ladytron, and a latte. It is remarkably fragile, though some are more resilient than others. You can see it in steady typing with furious bursts, blasts of scribbled-upon legal pads, and a spaced-out expression that says Programmer Is Not In Right Now. And it is difficult for someone who has just lost that sparkle of magic to hold back and not resent being taken away from those most productive, precious hours. I get to be a warm body in a meeting room where I get to make no decisions, just doodle, when I almost had it, that shimmering incorporeal concept was almost in my grasp. Yeah, I know my time card is due today — have a thing on my calendar, but even in turning away and explaining this I have lost the momentum and the laminar flow and I probably will not get it back today or maybe even tomorrow.

Alternatively, he could just be a grumpy, maladjusted person. But ... just make sure he's not in The Zone when you are breaking up his time.
posted by adipocere at 7:14 AM on March 10, 2011 [16 favorites]

(hit post too soon) In most companies, it's hard to just fire somebody. You have to build a case. It's a pain, and the process can make the team kind of unstable, but it's fair to give an employee the opportunity to resolve the problem. So document the behavior that is a problem. This is hard to do when the problem is crappy attitude, but it's more successful to manage behavior than attitude. You may feel silly telling a staffer that they have to attend meetings on time and sit with the group, but it matters. There's a lot of good advice upthread. Ideally, with a competent employee who has attitude troubles, when you address the attitude problem, the person will either change or leave. But if you've worked with the person to identify and resolve problem behaviors, either way it will feel like the right thing. Good luck.
posted by theora55 at 7:18 AM on March 10, 2011

Here's the real question - is interacting with him a problem with the rest of the team? Or a you problem?

If it's a team-wide problem, then he's toxic. As my manager said to my very-toxic coworker, "If you continue to alienate people until nobody wants to work with you, then I don't have a project for you. And if there are no projects for you, then you don't have a job."

However, if it's a management-interaction problem, that's where a lot of the other advice in this thread comes into play.
posted by bookdragoness at 7:33 AM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Often, for a techy type like this guy, respect is not something that is automatically given to anyone, even their boss.

Respect is based on demonstrated compentency and if he thinks you aren't, or even just doesn't know for sure if you are competent then he won't grant proper respect.

I'm not saying this is appropriate, because it certainly isn't, but that is how it is with some folks.

Not sure if that's exactly the case here, but it's worth considering.
posted by utsutsu at 7:36 AM on March 10, 2011

I'm an engineer. I have worked with people like this and occasionally been one. I agree that you need to figure out if this is really just you, or if it is affecting other people in the team.

The problem with negative people like this is not so much working with the boss, but working with peers and junior members of the team. If he is so negative that people are afraid to come to him with questions, or share their work with him for fear of being torn to pieces, that is bad for the team culture even if some members of the team might not mind it. If, on the other hand, he's just cranky about attending meetings and being interrupted, well, that's not exactly the worst thing I've ever seen given that he's actually productive. But either way, this is a career-limiting set of behaviors and you should make that clear to him.
posted by ch1x0r at 7:46 AM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think it's excellent to accommodate introverts and independent workers, and I wish more companies did so. But that doesn't mean you need to tolerate surliness. Do you have an HR department, and if so are they aware of this? If you think you may need to let him go down the line, you might want to start now, because it is a long process.

At one of my jobs where we had team problems, we had a group meeting with all of the members to discuss general team-interaction guidelines, and then individual, confidential meetings about how we felt about the current team situation and if there were any conflicts the manager should know about, etc. It was heavy-handed, but something like that might be a good way to suss out whether this guy's attitude is affecting other members of the team. (And, in my case, when the person causing the issues left the company, it markedly improved the team dynamics.)

Dude's not going to singlehandedly destroy your team, especially considering he's already been there for years, but he's probably making the team less pleasant and less productive. He's not toxic like arsenic, more like poison ivy. Figure out how much this affects the team and go from there. If you can't accommodate both him and the rest of the team, your first obligation is to the team.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:48 AM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I work with this guy. He's smart, talented, *can* be good at his job when he actually bothers to apply himself and knows more about the network and the org than anyone else in the office.
I also hate working with him. His attitude is not worth the tradeoff. He's intimidating, rude, completely dismissive, and all of that is affecting my work. I find myself not going to him with issues or questions, either appealing to one of the (very few) other members of my team or trying to figure it out myself - which is not always ideal in a time-sensitive environment.
Furthermore, other members of the department can't stand working with him as well, which means when they need something they come to me or one of the two others in my group instead of going to him, which also affects my workflow.

I work in IT. I have worked in IT for more than a decade. I know how IT guys can be. I have worked with some of the most socially awkward guys you will ever run across. That is not the same as working with the guy who openly doesn't give a shit and thinks he knows more than anyone but won't bother to bestow his knowledge on the peons.
He is affecting the group. Ask the other members. I finally opened up to my boss about it a couple of months ago and it did help. Seriously, this guy is costing you. Please, on the behalf of his coworkers, do something about it.
posted by 8dot3 at 7:53 AM on March 10, 2011 [6 favorites]

Are you also a software engineer by skill and/or training? Or are you a professional manager (someone without the skill of those they are managing)? I can see how that can translate into having a hard time respecting a manager, if the manager is just some MBA-type brought in to "manage" projects without having any understanding of how to make the product or what it takes.

It's just all about the body language, tone of voice and general grumpiness that are really not helpful. Are these valid things to say that he needs to change?

No, I personally don't think it's valid. You are telling him to change his personality (his personality is the same with his team members) because you want him to be less grumpy? I'm not sure if you're a man or a woman, zebraspots, but if someone told me (a woman) to act more cheerful, smile more, etc., well, it would be offensive. A manager should be able to manage talented employees regardless of their personalities and get them to work and produce whatever it is they are supposed to be producing. Realistically, it is really hard to change a personality.

Are you really and actually afraid of not being liked by one person you manage? You seem to want him to like you, to act in a way that reaffirms that he likes you in every interaction. His crankiness is his own and he's the same with everyone. It's not like it's being directed at you.
posted by anniecat at 7:58 AM on March 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

It may be useful to address individual behaviors with him.
'Please don't roll your eyes at me when I am talking to you. It feels very dismissive to me, and I need to talk to you about xxx. When I come over to talk to you about work, I need for you to listen and talk with me about it, not roll your eyes at me." Then deal with heavy sighing, tardiness to meetings, etc.

You can't force someone to be nice. You can, however, knock out their unpleasant behaviors one by one.

Don't let it turn into a game of whack-a-mole though. Eradicate a behavior, but make sure a new one doesn't pop up in its place.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:02 AM on March 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is he trying to get better? When you have those one-on-ones with him, does he sound like it's something he knows he needs to work on but maybe isn't aware of the times he's doing it?

If so, is there a codeword you could use in your not one-on-one times that lets him know he's doing it without drawing a lot of attention to it? So, he rolls his eyes and says "what?" in a crabby tone, you could take a sip of your coffee and say "this needs more creamer" and that be a signal to him that what he just said was an instance of what you want to change.

When he's late to meetings, say "Looks like so and so is bringing the coffee next time!"

I know that when I'm ears deep in code and get interrupted, I don't always remember that people need niceties around greetings - "Hello", "How are you?", "Thanks" - and so I can sometimes come across as really bitchy. But I don't always realize it and people tend to be too nice to call me out on it - especially in a business setting. So, review time comes around MONTHS LATER and I have no frame of reference to know when I'm being rude.

That is, of course, only if he truly wants to change his behavior. As others have said above, he might not care. But it sounds like if it is something he wants to improve, it might be to everyone's advantage if you work with him.
posted by jillithd at 8:38 AM on March 10, 2011

I've been in similar situations. The one thing your post didn't make clear was, for me, the most important factor in helping you: is his behavior negatively affecting the rest of your team? Because that's the factor that determines for me what your solution will be...

First - no one changes. Sure, maybe in small ways, but you can't change the basic makeup of the guy's personality, or his preferred mode of engaging with the world. Take that as a given, or you're wasting your time. At my company, we call it "teaching the pig to sing," from a saying whose provenance I don't know: "Never try to teach a pig to sing: it wastes your time and annoys the pig."

Now, if he's an-asshole-but-he-gets-important-shit-done and everyone on your team either respects his abilities or ignores him, then you really don't have much of a problem. His behavior bothers you, but nobody else cares. Limit your interactions with him to a pre-set one-on-one, maybe once a week, to deliver assignments and get status. Ignore him in your larger team meetings; everybody else is. Don't interrupt him during the day, send him an email instead, or just wait until your one-on-one. You need to accept the fact that all he is to you is the product of his work - you're not his parent or his therapist, let him do his thing and keep him out of your sight.

On the other hand, if your team members actively dislike or resent him, or his attitudes and behavior are disruptive or counter-productive in other ways (or his work output is suboptimal, which doesn't seem to be the case) - start your company's HR process for getting rid of him. As others have mentioned, in this economy there are plenty of bright, talented candidates with better interpersonal skills waiting to take his place. The long term mental health and morale of your team is more important than any single contributor, no matter who the fuck they think they are.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 8:54 AM on March 10, 2011

This is not a new issue, not by a long shot. Your above-average-intelligence engineer seems to operate with a different system of social norms? That's because his values are just different than yours. The more you talk to him about being nicer to advance his career, the more respect he's going to lose for you, and the less effective you'll be at managing him.

He's different; don't try to turn him into everyone else. Learn about his values, and speak to him in terms he will find resonant. He's a logic-based individual who sees the world through the lens of meritocracy, and making others happy is not his top priority.

IBM learned this lesson a long time ago, and they put together two articles, one for you and one for your hacker.

The Hacker FAQ spells out his perspective and values, and ways you should and shouldn't respond.

It addresses topics like:
"My hacker doesn't fit in well with our corporate society."
"My hacker won't call me by my title, and doesn't seem to respect me at all."
"My hacker did something bad, and I want to punish him."

And for your hacker, there's The Manager FAQ, to explain your "weird" behavior to him.

It addresses topics like:
"Is it useful for me to have a manager?"
"How should I deal with my manager's management?"
"My work is done, but my manager wants me to look busy. [Why?]"

If you respond to his values system, as some here have suggested, with punitive measures rather than understanding his motivations and finding reasonable compromise with him, this will end badly for you.

If you get rid of your hacker for not playing well with others, you're likely lowering your team's overall productivity significantly and favoring corporate culture above work product. Not sure that's in line with your management goals.

As a manager who's married to a hacker, I've found a lot to like about the inherent fairness, consistency, and priorities in the hacker value system. As people I've also found they're actually quite responsive to issues when working within a mutually respectful relationship, and toward a goal they can support.

Good luck.
posted by nadise at 9:23 AM on March 10, 2011 [19 favorites]

Doesn't matter how competent he is, if he can't act professionally it's time to take action.
I mean he doesn't need to make friends or be friendly with other, but needs to behave professionally.
posted by WizKid at 9:46 AM on March 10, 2011

I work with an engineer (mechanical) who has a reputation for being difficult. I am in a department that the engineers tend to look down on in general, and this engineer in particular likes to really get on us for our "mistakes", sometimes with more aggression than is necessary. I have found that approaching the guy with a team attitude ("It's you and me against the stupidity!") and making sure I tell him his solutions/way of doing something has merit before I shoot it down seems to really help. Or if I do need to fix something, I do it quickly and cheerfully and thank him for bringing it up. The other people in my department don't like dealing with him and are amazed that he will go out of his way to say hello to me in the halls.

Engineers just like to feel smart. They like to solve problems. They want their way of seeing something validated, even just in theory if it's not possible to make it a reality. The whole part of the problem or part of the solution thing. See if there's small things you can do to make sure he sees you as part of the solution.
posted by griselda at 9:51 AM on March 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

And it is difficult for someone who has just lost that sparkle of magic to hold back and not resent being taken away from those most productive, precious hours. I get to be a warm body in a meeting room where I get to make no decisions, just doodle, when I almost had it, that shimmering incorporeal concept was almost in my grasp. Yeah, I know my time card is due today — have a thing on my calendar, but even in turning away and explaining this I have lost the momentum and the laminar flow and I probably will not get it back today or maybe even tomorrow.


I am the only one in my department who works with the actual data. Everyone else looks at what I create, and they're happy to do so. They hate the databases, the raw data, the formulas and programming and fiddling. But that is the part I love, because that is where the evolution of meaning occurs. It's all just numbers until I touch it, and then it means something, because I draw pictures for people.

But it takes a lot of work to get things to the point where they draw pictures for people. It also takes time. It takes concentration. And I can't focus the way I need to if people come by my desk all day talking about irrelevant things.

I try to be polite about it, but it really is massively annoying.

Is there any possibility that this is what is happening? And does he really need to attend these meetings, or are they like some of the meetings I have to attend, where people spend the whole time yapping and nothing gets done and the entire meeting I sit there thinking 'I have approximately 23423423 things I could be doing that directly impact the bottom line and instead I'm sitting here listening to people yap about their vacation.'
posted by winna at 10:02 AM on March 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

This is a great question. As a software engineer I've definitely been in a few situations in a team with some guy like this. And usually it's "that one guy."

At this point I think it's critical that you try to talk to other members of the team, or even other people in the company that has worked with him. Ask them if they have any difficulty or any problems with his attitude. If members of his team or people that need to interact with him find his behavior dismissive, then it's time to do something about it. If it happens to be "just you," then I'd find a way to deal with it. If it was really that bad other people would definitely notice this.

When I've had to be in the same team as "that guy," it definitely brings morale down. It makes the manager seem like he or she is bending over backwards to a guy that everyone else is frustrated with. It can potentially demean every other team member to see that disrespect is being tolerated. And it disrespects the team members individually. It can be so frustrating to work with "that guy" because he is so snarky, knows it all, and insists to have things done his way. Which of course in turn causes problems because now people will be intimidated to ask him for help or come to him to work out a problem together. It WILL in the end, ultimately cost the company money in time and resources used to work with him, or potentially bad decisions he muscled through just to appease his rude behavior.

And is his "brilliance" really paying off? Is he writing great and robust code that can be used or passed down to others? He gets the job done, but if he's done, is his stuff undocumented or esoteric enough that it would take a significant effort to pick up where he left off? This is also key. I find a trait with "that guy" is that while he can write crazy code to do crazy things quickly, usually it's only understood by him. Unless these are projects that only require one programmer, it can be very detrimental if it's within a project being worked on by a team of programmers together.

However, if the majority of the people that work with him don't see much of a problem and it does not cause any real problems with his introvert type behavior, then you as a team member of the company needs to figure out a way to deal with it personally.
posted by xtine at 10:13 AM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are plenty of engineers, scientists, and mathematicians out there who are brilliant and eccentric
Yes, and easy to work with. In this economy--why put up with a cranky grump? I sure wouldn't. Zebraspots--if you're female and he's pulling this stuff, he might need a gender relations tune-up.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:21 AM on March 10, 2011

"he is unable to convey his workplace needs to you"

I think this is key. He is dissatisfied by X and is being grumpy, rolling his eyes or drifting off during meetings because of it. Something is bothering him and many people here have speculated about what that is but only he knows for sure. It is not professional or mature to do these things whenever you are bothered; you should either deal with it or speak up about the bother. However, I find myself doing these things at work when I have spoken up about it in the past, was assured something would be done to fix it and then nothing was ever done about it. Maybe he has spoken up in the past to no avail and is no longer willing to bring up problems.

So, instead of telling him to be nicer, ask him what the problem is. If he has legitimate issues, work with him to fix them. If he refuses to play ball, cut him loose. I think the worst part of having an unprofessional teammate is seeing management ignore it instead of trying to help them understand how the unprofessionalism is hurting them and the team. Don't just tell them to stop being a jerk and goofing off, show them how to stop if they are willing to learn.
posted by soelo at 10:31 AM on March 10, 2011

It's funny reading all the replies, because everyone supporting the difficult engineer are essentially admitting the engineer is a narcissist (selfish, better/more important than everyone else.)

(And in my experience, most engineers like that have been as xtine suggest, they write abstruse code that is very hard to maintain, and they call any maintainer who can't figure it out "stupid" etc.)
posted by k5.user at 10:49 AM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

OK I know the zone, I work in it sometimes ... and one day, when I work for myself I will let my magic sparkle any time I want.

But until that day comes, I work for other people who are paying me money to do what they want me to do. Sometimes that involves working on things I enjoy (solving issues), other times it doesn't (meetings).

Look all this has to be managed. If your meetings are boring useless round tables where people waffle on endlessly to entertain themselves with no outcomes, purpose or drive, yes that needs to change. But if its just one guy who disengages from the team talking about how to move forward because he's trying to keep his magic sparkle alive, then I think its his problem.

Its a two way street, you have to manage to keep these people as productive as possible. Fewer interruptions, purposeful meetings with clear outcomes, people can leave if their input is no longer required etc. But also he has to manage, he knows when meetings are coming up, you get to know the flow of getting in and out of the zone.
posted by Admira at 1:12 PM on March 10, 2011 [3 favorites]

I feel several of the answers are reading things into your question that you didn't explicitly say...for example, people are assuming he is late to meetings. Is he late, or is he just always the last one there? People are assuming that he's universally disliked...but you say he seems to get along with his team members?

I don't think people saying "deal with it" are necessarily excusing narcissism. The only thing that stood out to me as a problem is he'll put up a fight when asked to do things that aren't his forte or not as fun. The rest of that sounds like a different interaction style than you'd prefer. I, too, do not start out from a position of mutual respect. I start out from mutual civility, then give people respect as they earn it. If he's honestly rude to you, especially in front of your team, that's one thing, but you seem upset that he's not more pleasant whenever you interrupt him. There are many types of people that hate being interrupted, particularly by questions that could have been asked by email, and we don't all think we're "better than everyone." I would expect others to be just as annoyed if I barged into their office to ask a trifling question while they were busy.

If he's actually, truly, a difficult person for the team to work with or he is outright disrespectful, then I think you need to have a one on one meeting with him, complete with write-up in his file. He should also not get to fight against assignments just because they aren't "fun." But make sure to distinguish between someone who makes a toxic work environment and someone whose work habits and personality differ from your own. This includes judging someone too harshly on the "tone" in which they say something, if the content is valid. There is no reason at all to judge someone for being "moody" or not always happy at work, if it's not affecting others. I can't really tell from your question if this is the classic toxic team member, or if you're the classic hands-on, happy, extroverted manager that does not grok quiet, sarcastic introverts.
posted by wending my way at 4:38 PM on March 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

This just in: A New York Times article about management at Google. From the article:

For much of its 13-year history, particularly the early years, Google has taken a pretty simple approach to management: Leave people alone. Let the engineers do their stuff.
posted by exphysicist345 at 4:03 PM on March 13, 2011

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