CXO

When is a developer a lost cause?

Before you fire a troublesome developer, make sure there's really a problem and that it can't be solved. Builder.com members share their views on problematic coworkers.


The March 2002 article by Builder.com contributor Jeff Davis, “Solving the problem of prima donna developers,” discussed several options for working out the issue of excessive arrogance in a team member. When soft skills aren’t there and behavior becomes disruptive to others, two options remain: mentoring and firing.

How do you decide when you’ve spent enough time and effort on the problems an individual creates? When do you take more permanent measures? Builder.com members were not shy in responding with advice. Below, I’ve organized some of the more pertinent comments into a checklist of considerations to take before labeling a developer a lost cause.

Have you evaluated worth?
There’s never an excuse for antisocial behavior in a work environment, but you should gauge any disciplinary decisions on the individual’s contribution to the team. Unfortunately, those with the most adversarial personalities tend to be the most talented, A-level developers. Their arrogance can be contagious among peers, too.

While it may be fairer to wield your axe unequivocally when it comes to professional dysfunction, it's your responsibility as a manager to protect your product and your team.

Builder.com member The Chad reminds us, “You need some A players to take the initiative, unless you are into micromanaging your team.”

But member T.Bone warns, “A-level PDs (Prima Donnas) can kill a team much faster than a B or C.”

To reconcile these two viewpoints, member Wayne M. points out that you can’t put too much weight on top-level developers, and “if you want a highly productive team…you need to get everyone involved at or slightly above his level of expertise.”

In order to evaluate the true worth of a problem developer to your company, you must consider not only his or her job skills, but people skills as well.

Builder.com member SilverBack makes it clear why this is important in his comment “You can flog the best code in the world, but if you don't have the people skills to determine what your customer needs, you're not worth very much to me as a developer.”

Have you tried to correct the problem?
When you hire an employee, you make a considerable investment. The costs of employee turnover are high, both to your budget and your team. Anyone you hire should receive the benefit of your managerial skills before termination is even considered. Often the problem isn’t a malicious individual, it’s the environment they work in.

Again, Builder.com members jumped into the discussion with zeal, putting the responsibility on managers to correct potential trouble spots and offering advice on how to attempt to defuse issues that may be causing problems for individuals that result in undesirable behavior:
  • Xchek writes, “Make sure work is distributed fairly and everyone is pulling their weight.”
  • Member emromero offers a humanistic approach: “Why not evaluate first ourselves as human beings; then evaluate how WE manage the team; then you can work on any kind of specific problem someone has.”
  • Henry J. believes “management means supporting and nurturing the team, not developing a reactive fight-back mentality. It also means listening and accepting advice.”
  • From the developer’s point of view, jgates asks managers to “learn something about what your employees are doing. …Try to understand the consequences of your decisions and the (often uninformed) requests the other team members make.”

If you’ve determined the problem isn’t with the environment, you can take measures to reform an employee or defuse their attitude.

Here’s excellent advice from darpaicq: “As a manager, let them know that this behavior is socially unacceptable. Lead them in the right direction.”

Even unsociable people can contribute to a company, says sql.goddess: “If there is a place in the organization and/or team for this person, and the person really does have good technical skills, then I think the prima donna can contribute a great deal.”

Ultimately, PM in MO summarized the reality of technical management: “It is possible to create a good product, and have programmers of all levels who can work together successfully, when they have the right direction from their manager and from each other.”

Are they hurting the team?
Another major consideration is how a disruptive individual’s actions affect the rest of the team. Does the troublesome developer provide solidarity among the team? Is he or she disruptive? How would getting rid of a problem employee affect your team?

One 10k Builder.com member, Java Guru, points out, “The one you fire may be the one expressing concerns that are felt by the whole team. It could make a morale problem worse.”

Conversely, dude2001 offers, “sometimes working with the talented but obnoxious person costs more morale in the long run.”

The key is to determine why the problem employee is an issue. As SilverBack says, “Put me down for the super programmer who also happens to value the contributions of his fellow team members. I'll go out of my way and make special efforts to retain him/her.”

Are you cutting the "tall poppy?"
Sometimes an individual is perceived as a problem merely because they stand out from the rest. It’s important to distinguish between the “squeaky wheel” and the truly uncooperative employee. Before taking action against a member of your team, step back from your personal opinion and determine if the employee’s attitude has a real effect on performance. Builder.com members have a range of views on team members’ attitudes:
  • Member rdennison makes the distinction: “I DO agree that I don't want developers that cause trouble, but I completely disagree that questioning my decisions is causing trouble.”
  • Another member, The Archangel, notes that managers must “understand diversity in people” and that excessive egos and aggressive behavior might be the result of “total self-confidence in what they do, and the perfectionism that maybe they strive for that they don't see in others, so they do jump over people’s heads to get something done.”
  • Managers value their time and might think there’s an issue if an individual repeatedly winds up in their office. But, as member ianmoss points out, “If a particular person is taking up too much of your time, it’s probably because the problem hasn't been solved.”
  • Member Paul C. points out that resolution of these issues depends on the manager. “Patient mentoring, coaching, and positive confrontation always resulted in a strong team with less turnover.”

Cut them loose
Once you’ve taken an objective look at an employee’s behavior and why it might be a threat to your team—and you’ve attempted to correct the problem—you may have to remove the destructive element.

Firing an employee is considered the hardest part of a manager’s job, but under certain circumstances you may be left with no choice. As SilverBack stated, “Try to deal with your prima donna on an adult-to-adult basis, but never hesitate to take him/her to the woodshed. You simply cannot allow your prima donna to hijack your project.”

Other factors
What other measures have you taken to mend an attitude that you thought was a lost cause? Have you had any experiences with uncorrectable behavior problems in team members? Join the discussion below, or drop us an e-mail.

 

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