Turning Around a Troubled Talent

· 3 min read
Turning Around a Troubled Talent

We’ve all encountered the “Jeff” in our careers — the talented engineer who creates as many problems as he solves. I recently came across an interesting Reddit post describing a developer named Jeff, who exhibited some unhealthy behaviors hindering his team. This story is familiar to any CTO.

The Perils of “Jeff”

Jeff sounds like a complex case. On one hand, he’s a talented engineer who cares deeply about the product he’s working on. People like Jeff pour their heart and soul into their work — it’s more than just a job.

Over the years, Jeff has willingly sacrificed nights, weekends, and vacations to hit deadlines for product launches. He takes each bug or outage personally, too. Whenever something goes wrong, Jeff blames himself and tries even harder to prevent it next time.

The company has benefited from Jeff’s tireless dedication tremendously. A passion like that is hard to find. I can easily understand why previous managers rewarded Jeff — they saw the value he consistently provided and wanted to hold onto him.

The downside is that Jeff doesn’t trust others quite as much as he trusts himself. Delegating important work makes him anxious because, in his mind, nobody will care as much as he does. Jeff ends up micro-managing so he can feel some control.

It’s not really about credit for Jeff, either. His identity is so tied up in being the expert that having his judgment questioned hurts deeply. When arguing starts, Jeff doubles down because it pains him to think he could be fallible.

At his core, Jeff fears letting people down. The company depends on him, so he carries that weight. He truly wants the product to succeed — even if it means burning himself out. He’s so focused on doing whatever it takes that he can’t zoom out and think long-term.

The Temptation to “Fire Jeff”

In the Reddit post, the author says he decided to let Jeff go. I can understand that. Dealing with unhealthy behaviors day after day takes a huge emotional toll. When multiple coaching attempts fail to make a difference, running out of empathy is logical.

But losing Jeff means losing a loyal teammate who’s been with the company for years. It also means losing irreplaceable expertise. By investing a little more energy into developing Jeff’s emotional skills, the payoff of keeping him around could be huge.

Coaching Jeff — A Management Opportunity

Rather than firing Jeff, his manager can invest time into coaching him to become a better mentor and leader. With patience and compassion, Jeff can likely overcome his harmful tendencies.

Jeff pours everything into his work — it’s his whole identity. He takes it so personally when things go wrong because he feels solely responsible for the product’s success. Jeff’s not intentionally trying to undermine teammates — he doesn’t trust anyone can care as deeply as he does.

Can you blame the guy? Jeff probably gets called in at midnight when servers crash and must pull all-nighters fixing bugs. He’s sacrificed weekends and holidays over the years without complaint. In his mind, the product’s survival depends on him alone.

Jeff’s perfectionism when reviewing the PRs and constant re-dos make people sometimes want to throw away their laptops. He doesn’t recognize that his criticism comes across as an attack on their skills. Jeff genuinely thinks he’s helping.

For some reason, he lacks people skills. It’s not fair to expect Jeff to pick up emotional intelligence without guidance magically. With empathy and training, he can learn to mentor rather than control. Maybe under that prickly exterior lies a coach waiting to emerge.

He’s not a lost cause. Jeff can stop driving teammates away with your support and start inspiring them to grow instead. It’ll require patience from both of you. But I believe in Jeff’s potential if he could be met where he’s at.

The Bottom Line

I won’t pretend working with Jeff is a walk in the park. But I’m pretty sure he has good intentions, and his biggest fear is letting the team down. Underneath that harsh exterior is a sensitive soul who desperately wants to do right by people. Does he have a wierd way of showing it sometimes? Absolutely. But deep inside, Jeff cares a lot more than he lets on.

Unfortunately, changing things won’t be easy or happen overnight. But you must help people who pulled the whole team for years and invested a lot of sweat and blood into the product.

In today’s world, we tend to make quick and destructive decisions. We buy a new car rather than fix and maintain the old one. We quit and look for another job once we hit some problems. We fire people instead of resolving the issues together. It makes a lot of sense to embrace the imperfections and fix things instead — something we can learn from the Japanese art of Kintsugi.

Originally posted on Medium.com