HR · Hiring

Best Practice for Managing Shy or More "To Themselves" Engineers

Alison Lewis CEO/Creative Director

June 10th, 2013

We have worked with number of talented contracted hardware engineers. Over the past few months, I've noticed some difficulties with having our current engineer be a real part of the team. He/She often prefers to be at home for calls instead of coming in or acts strangely in the office.  For example, we all worked too hard straight through lunch, I bought lunch for everyone and he refused. He did this 2-3 times with no explanation, even politely refused the drink we offered. I'd love to have my engineer be more comfortable with the team and collaborate a bit more. I understand he/she is a true and wonderful Nerd. 

Normally, I would be concerned this person didn't want to work with us or a personal issue is happening. But, this is not the case after discussion. This is a good, gentle soul who may be beyond my comprehension socially.  

It is important for us to have a team working together and comfortable with each other during intense moments of innovation and electronic to material integration. 

I am aware I am a boisterous personality, so I may need some help understanding. Anyone have some best practices for the more shy people out there? Really like this person and they like us too, just need some social fluency here. 

Candice Hughes, PhD, MBA

June 10th, 2013

Have you considered that he may have a food allergy? This could be one reason to refuse food/drink or not to want to be around others when eating. Some people are so allergic that smelling the food or being touched by someone with that food on their fingers can cause a reaction.

The other possibility is that he is strongly introverted. People who are introverted become mentally and physically exhausted being around others and need a break after some period. So if you have all been working intensely together for awhile, he may need some time alone to recuperate. It can be hard for extroverts to understand this because they get energized by being around others in contrast to introverts losing energy in the same situation.

Also, please keep in mind that being shy and being introverted are different things. People who are introverted are not afraid or scared of others, they simply get worn out being around others. Shy people are nervous or have anxiety being around others.

If this person is an introvert, the best thing you can do is give him space to recharge himself after any intense team-work.

Some people may also find it hard to engage in conversations that aren't in their areas of interest. So that could play a role as well. You will notice if his attention drifts on any subjects outside his expertise. That is tough to improve on, but I recommend keeping conversations short and to the point when outside his interest areas if that seems to be the problem.



Mark Muskardin UI Engineer at QBIS

June 10th, 2013

I think you need to accept people for who they are.  If this person is doing a good job, then great.  I'm an introvert myself and my energy gets drained by groups of loud "boisterous" people.  If there's someone especially loud on the team, I grow especially withdrawn.  There's simply no way to get work done in a loud environment.

Some people need quiet in order to think and work, especially when performing an intellectually intensive and complicated exercise such as programming. Engineers are on the hook for quickly developing code that is performant, bug-less, scalable, and readable.  This requires painstaking attention to detail.

I personally feel that open offices are not conducive to coder productivity, and the entire office layout should be rethought. 

It quickly becomes obvious if teams respect different personality types, or if they're looking for "brogrammers" to be assimilated by the Borg. I say...make a point of respecting differences in preferred working styles and you'll make everyone on the team feel a lot more comfortable.

Blake West Software Engineer at Hint Health

June 10th, 2013

I work with someone who has a similar, highly introverted personality. It's very different from mine. Initially, I tried to invite him out to stuff, and he went. It's fine, but it's not how he "re-charges". 
Everybody "fills up their tank" in different ways. For some of us, social gatherings are what does it, but for others, such gatherings are more of a cost than a benefit. They'll naturally feel like they have to "perform". It takes it out of them. 
Maybe he's the type of person who'd rather chill with one person (not 6), and have a pepsi (not a beer) after work to chat about books, or video games, or whatever. And maybe that isn't you. 

The point is, maybe ya'll just aren't compatible as "friends", and that can be totally OK. The guy who works with me is still totally dedicated to the product and the team, and that comes through with his actions. 

If having that convivial friend atmosphere is critical to your work, then maybe you need a different kind of engineer. But if he's proving himself dedicated to the work, and he doesn't seem to be a detriment to the office morale or anything, then maybe it's just not that big a deal. 

If his anti-social behavior is actually weirding everyone out, then maybe that's a problem that could be affecting everyone else's productivity. But if he's just being shy then maybe it doesn't matter. 

OK and for someone else's take.. I highly recommend this funny little PDF on dealing with introverts:


June 10th, 2013

I have a proposal for you that might resolve this. As they say, you can't truly understand a person unless you put yourself in their shoes. So my suggestion is why don't you try that, swap roles for a day or two and see what being an engineer is all about. You will get to learn a bit of that "nerdy" stuff and gain a new perspective ;)

Raymond Colletti

June 10th, 2013

I think it comes down to this question:
Does this persons habit of __________ outweigh their contributions and/or conflict too mightily with company culture or your value of collaboration?

If they're awesome I'd let it go and use positive reinforcement when possible to encourage involvement. This is probably less true on smaller teams where that collaborative dynamic is key, but again, it comes back to what they deliver.

Probably well-read around here, but my favorite writing on nerds (I consider myself one):

Douglas Tarr Entrepreneur and Software Architect

June 10th, 2013

I have to admit, i recoiled when you referred to them as a capital N Nerd.  A 1-dimensional perception like that probably comes out in your interactions.  That could be part of the problem.  Perhaps they don't feel like you are treating them with respect?

Some people like doing their own thing during lunch.   They might not like what you bought or have different dietary preferences.  They might not really want to socialize with you.  They might resent having to work through lunch.

It sounds like you've had a few conversations with them.  How did those go?  What did you learn?  

Alison Lewis CEO/Creative Director

June 17th, 2013

Ivan, are you an engineer?

Peter Kaminski CTO & Co-founder at Pingpad

June 10th, 2013

Hi Alison!  It's really cool that you're trying to figure things out.

This is a lot like me, especially in my young engineer days: "My understanding is this person is really really shy, has a difficult time with compliments, doesn't want to socially interact much. YET, somehow chats it up and is totally eloquent and thoughtful and we have long conversations one to one."

As an entrepreneur, I've learned how to be eloquent with bigger groups, too, but it took time and practice.  And in a big social group, I still look for a chance to go on a long walk for a deep talk with one person instead of hanging out with everybody all at once.

Something that really resonated for me and the way I interact with the world is Elaine Aron's description of "Highly Sensitive Persons" <>.  Your engineer might be an HSP and not even know it; read through some of that website and see what you think, and then maybe ask them to take a look too.

Two other helpful writeups I know of:

Good luck!

Ofir Almagor picsell, Dreamit Ventures

June 10th, 2013

You need to ask yourself if he's an important part in this moving organization. If he's a good engineer and gets things done well, consider this:  It would be nice if all members of the team play and most importantly know how to play the social part. Some don't. I'm not labeling but some are not built like that. Different OS I guess. Be thoughtful when deciding the fate of an employee. If he refuses the lunch, maybe he struggles with the social part of small talk that goes with the invitation. I don't have an answer to what to do with this person. You know your team. I can just offer that maybe the label "team player" should be narrowed down to his required skill set as a start. Maybe a quiet one on one lunch would be an easier start for him. It's worth the try. I hope it was somewhat helpful.  - Sent from Mailbox for iPhone Ofir Almagor 917-740-9080

Ivan PopGruev .... . .-.. .-.. ---

June 17th, 2013

Best practices for managing people? It does not work, especially in open societies and highly intellectual environments.  One can manage a project's scope, schedule, and budget (but not people).  If people sense that they are being managed, they will feel micro-managed and will rebel. People can be stimulated, directed, and energized to pick up the ball and run with it. Lead people and manage projects..