I’ve been managing an engineering team in a small company for six years. Over this time the team has matured, along with the product, and our practices have become more and more formal. In the early years there was a strong push to disregard long-term concerns for short-term gains, a practice I supported with eyes wide open. 

Approximately nine months ago, the engineering team met with the CEO and other management decided to commit to three changes that would reduce the impact of these long-term concerns. Yesterday I was told by our CEO to stop doing two of these three things and I’d like some advice regarding how to respond (which I need to do Monday :) ).
The first item our CEO has asked is that we stop pair programming, which is the practice of having two developers working on code at the same time. The concept is that working together will improve application knowledge and reduce bugs. This is a request I have less of a problem with. From my listening to manager’s tools I think my role is to inform the CEO of the pros and cons of such a change. I also think that the process we have in place will provide feedback as to the effectiveness of the change. Am I responding appropriately?
The second item I just can’t wrap my head around and I could really use some advice. Nine months ago, when the team approached the CEO, one of the conditions was that they just couldn’t work with another person on our team. This person is a friend of all of the C level executives, including myself, but I recognize his inappropriate interactions, lack of professionalism and that he genuinely isn’t happy working with others. It was decided that he leave the company, but in the last minute another C level exec chose to have this person report to him. On a team, this engineer is unprofessional, poisonous, and insubordinate. To-date he has been productive because the CEO sits in his office and works over his shoulder. Now I’ve been told that he must be a contributing member of the engineering team again. I’m pretty sure this will result in one or two of our engineers leaving the company.
My options seem to be: 1. suck it up and do as is requested. 2. set some conditions for him joining the team, such as a) him reporting to me b) him shouldering some of the more difficult work that he refuses to do c) him follow the process we’ve agreed upon as a team etc. 3. out right refuse to allow him back on the team (fortunately I can leave the company without my personal life suffering).
It strikes me that the team I’ve worked so hard to build is being asked to make changes I myself would never stick around for. 
Thank you very much for your help and resources!

sbarnhart's picture
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The first issue good be tracked over time. I implemented a peer review process on my team for quality control purposes but had the added benefit of general increase in efficiency since the team learned from each other. Staff were not working parallel as you described but a reviewer was assigned toward the end of the project to conduct a document scan for errors and consistency. I found this process improved working relationships and fostered more of a team ownership to projects. Perhaps you could step back slightly with something similar.

the culture fit issue is tough depending on how long the behaviour has been allowed to persist. It definitely needs to be addressed face to face if option a will be your approach. I would start with a few informal discussions on specific behaviours that are impacting productivity of others. It is possible there are hidden issues or the person simply isn't aware how their behaviour is hurting others. It's not clear to me if the person does good work and simply doesn't wish to follow set procedures or if they are an under performer which is bringing down everyone. If they are an under performer it could be an ability issue which may be addressed through training but this would need to be pointed out to the person. Difficult conversations will be necessary and I would start out informally to determine issues and then move to a formal process do documenting expectations for behaviour change. There is no need to suck it up as a manager provided this person is a direct report. If he is a peer then it's more difficult which will require a discussion with your boss as the issue will not magically go away.


flexiblefine's picture

Yes, it does sound like you're in a fix. I think you'd be right to outline the pros and cons of both actions to your CEO -- yes, make clear that you think you will lose people from your team if Person X is reassigned into the team. (Whether you let your CEO know you might leave is up to you.)

What has happened to make the CEO want to undo changes that were agreed to nine months ago? There's probably more to the story here.

Assuming you're doing one-on-ones with your directs, it may also be time to prepare for your own version of the Corky story (part 1, part 2, part 3). You may have a long road of preparing documentation to show all this engineer's C-suite friends how he's not helping.

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mrreliable's picture

I don't know if this is the same kind of situation, but it might be. I once had a direct that was quite capable, but without constant monitoring, she would spin off into oblivion and get so far off track it took an act of Congress for her to regain her focus. The glycerin added to the nitro was the fact she took all feedback as a personal attack, and would respond personally to any attempt at guidance. I tried a number of different approaches, but she took each approach as an invitation to enter into ridiculous mind games. A day after one long, and seemingly productive, heart-to-heart discussion that appeared to bring in fresh air, she became very aggressive, accusing me of all sorts of nasty things, and relaying those nasty things to anyone else who would listen. I could have fired her, but I didn't because I was angry. I went to other execs and simply said I wasn't going to work with her any more.

Over the next two years, three other executives attempted to work with her, all gave valiant efforts, and all had similar results to mine. We eventually terminated her employment. If things aren't working well with an employee, I try to look in the mirror first for a solution. However, I honestly believe in some cases, there's just nothing you can do.

Seems to me sending this person back to the team fits the definition of insanity - doing the same thing and expecting different results.

I'm also wondering from your description if your CEO is pushing back a bit feeling as if the employees are gaining too much directional control over operations. I've been in situations where I felt I'd given employees too much empowerment and the tail was wagging the dog. One recent situation was rearranging workspaces to accomodate some new employees. Nobody likes change, and the current employees got together and insisted on a plan that was approved by their group. In upper management we disagreed on whether we should just tell them where they were working and be done with it. I lamented the tail wagging the dog. In the end we compromised, but I do think there needs to be some control on the scope of empowerment.