Managing the unmanageable
6 December, 2017
One of the previous companies I worked at, there was a very smart UI engineer. I became the manager of his team when their manager left the company. I had heard some feedback about him before, where people had reported that he was smart and a top performer, but was also difficult to work with, and that he often would put down other team members. When I first took over the team, I held one-on-ones with all my team members to get 360-degree feedback, and to hear about any challenges they were having. All of the other team members mentioned the engineer as being difficult to work with, despite how intelligent he was. Because of this, I decided to also speak to people outside of the group to get their feedback about working with him. They also reported that he was rude and badly behaved, so I knew I needed to take action.
I met with the engineer to discuss the problems, and got straight to the point, outlining the problems people felt he was creating for them. He was taken aback, as he hadn't realized that he was causing a problem. He then became defensive, saying that the others weren't smart enough to understand what he was saying, and that the codebase was pathetic because of the work the others had done. I told him I understood his concerns but that I also wanted him to take a different approach towards his colleagues. I suggested he write down ideas in meetings, and then towards the end of the meeting, he could summarize his feedback in a way they'd understand as opposed to taking over the meeting by constantly interrupting others. This helped, as it allowed other team members to talk, and he was forced to think about what he was going to say before he said it. I also took some of his feedback about the codebase into consideration, and so I did a code review, which highlighted underperformers that hadn't been noticed previously due to the engineer's attitude. I managed those people out and then raised the bar for the quality of our coding and hired some new, smart engineers. After this, his attitude really improved. I involved the engineer in the hiring process, so he felt ownership of the candidates we had hired, and consequently, he avoided bad-mouthing them.
By explaining to the engineer that he needed to be less arrogant and more humble, giving him strategies to do so, giving him more responsibility and hiring some smart engineers, I was able to turn around the performance of this engineer, and improve the codebase for our company. While some of his complaints had been legitimate, it was important for him to have learned how to give constructive criticism.
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