How to Manage Difficult but Talented Employees

How to Manage Difficult but Talented Employees

by Luba S. Sydor

Even if you have a dream team, being an effective manager has its challenges. When you oversee difficult employees, the challenges grow exponentially. In this expert Q&A, Ms. Luba S. Sydor, founder of Person 2 Person, LLC, shares her years of experience managing difficult yet talented employees.

Q: What can you do to navigate the waters with these talented yet difficult employees?

The reality of this topic is that difficult employees suck the life—and time—out of managers. Every workplace has them. They are drama queens, never come to work on time, they invade your personal space, and they eat their favorite hot lunches at their desks. They never refill the coffee pot, they shout on the phone during personal calls, and they complain about every little organizational change. Difficult employees provide an additional set of problems for any manager.

Many employees who are very difficult, however, can also be exceptional contributors. I call them “high maintenance.” Notice I included “talented” in the title since an employee who’s just plain difficult without being talented should probably be managed out of an organization.

High-maintenance employees are often perceived as demanding, uncooperative, and arrogant. Yet they can be a company´s most creative, driven, innovative, and best-performing workers. Sometimes the same keen intelligence that makes them talented also makes them challenging. Think Steve Jobs and Bill Gates would have been easy to manage? Think again…

Here are some suggestions to help navigate the discussion:

Make them aware. A manager must make sure the employee is aware of the problems they are causing in the workplace. It is easy for an employee to be completely blind to his or her distracting behavior. Management should arrange to meet with the employee to explain how the behavior is affecting his coworkers and the office environment. Awareness is the first and most important step in dealing with an employee who has a difficult personality.

Gain understanding. The employee needs to show a willingness to change his demeanor and personality. If an employee complains all the time, he must admit to excessive complaining and make an effort to complain less in the future. The manager will need to provide additional support in order to motivate the employee to change.

Be thoughtful about assignments. To the extent possible (and naturally this isn’t always controllable), provide some especially substantive, challenging assignments that will fully utilize and stretch their considerable skills. “We give our best people the worst assignments,” was a how a former colleague of mine used to jokingly put it. Such assignments can also engage them and bring out their best.

Be direct and give ample feedback. Don’t dance around problems – articulate the issues as precisely as possible. If there’s difficulty, for example, collaborating with other team members as a member of the XYZ team, state it. If there are problems delivering projects on deadline, state it. Don’t wait until mid-year or end-of-year evaluations for feedback. Provide feedback often and in both directions – positive reinforcement when things are going well and corrective guidance when they’re not.

No drama. When conflicts arise, as they inevitably do, stay calm. Some challenging employees even enjoy being provocateurs. Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into the fray and pull rank and lose your temper, however tempting that might be.

Document clearly. Thorough documentation is always necessary for clear fact-based evaluations, assessing objectively whether goals are achieved or not. Solid documentation is also essential should you need to build a case for termination.

Q: Are there different types of difficult employees? Should managers deal with them in the same way?

Difficult personalities negatively impact coworkers and damage the culture of an organization. Yes, there are different types that you may encounter and each requires a unique approach. Managers need to ascertain these differences and decide which strategy works best.

Examples of Difficult and Probably Super Talented:

The Super Competitor

No matter how a situation plays out, no matter who gets hurt in the process, the ultra-competitor can’t let it go until they’re convinced that they’ve won–and, more importantly, that someone else has lost.

Strategy: Get them focused on having the entire team win, rather than just themselves. Hint: Pay them a bonus based on team achievement–never on individual accomplishment.

The Drama Queen

He/she automatically turns absolutely everything into a hissy fit, replete with pique, umbrage, and a host of other French emotions. He/she seems to draw energy from the drama while draining energy from everyone else.

Strategy: Set up boundaries for the behavior that you won’t tolerate. Eject them from any meeting where their behavior becomes obstructive.

The Procrastinator

They say yes to projects but fail to follow through. As deadlines approach, they can’t be found, even via email. When the work is finally turned in (often by others who have covered for them), they’ll go on a mini vacation to “recuperate from the stress.”

Strategy: Unfortunately, the only solution here is a little good old-fashioned micromanagement. Layout frequent (even daily) milestones, and create consequences for missing one — or for failing to report that they missed it.

The Creative Genius

He’s a legend in his own mind … and makes certain that you know about it. He’s always talking about the amazing stuff he did in the past and his equally amazing plans for the future. Still, he seldom seems to actually do anything today.

Strategy: Give some lip service to their greatness, then bring them down to earth by breaking a project into chunks and getting them to “consult” on each chunk.

The Panic Button

Some people really shine in a crisis. Others … not so much. This personality may remain calm for day and weeks, but then when a problem has reached its inevitable conclusion, he runs around like a decapitated chicken.

Strategy: Create an early warning system so that there are fewer surprises. And replace the regular coffee with the decaf on the day the bad news hits.

The Social (Network) Butterfly

They are convinced that it’s productive for them to remain online all day “building relationships” with all your customers. In fact, they’re just adding to the day-to-day chatter that’s such an integral part of the social network.

Strategy: Assign measurable goals–like a certain number of qualified sales leads that they need to create every week.

The Volcano

They explode whenever things don’t go the way they think they should. They scream at meetings, yell into the telephone, and get in your face. While they might apologize later, the whole team ends up perpetually walking on eggshells.

Strategy: Raise your own intensity (or you won’t be heard), and then refuse to put up with unprofessional behavior. If necessary, leave the room until they’ve cooled down.

Q: What options exist other than termination?

If you have determined that the employee is extremely talented and you want to retain them, the following employee development strategies may help.

Pair them with effective mentors: Mentoring can be enormously valuable for those employees who thrive on interaction with influential colleagues. The difficulty lies in finding that perfect match between a seasoned employee with the willingness and openness to mentor someone, and an employee who respects that mentor and is eager to incorporate the knowledge. But when that is achieved, it can be a great employee retention approach.

Openly communicate with them: Give them the one-on-one attention they deserve with all levels of management and foster their creativity.

Introduce new challenges and invest in their learning and development: Think about other types of learning and employee development opportunities that you could offer, beyond certifications or employee training programs.

Measure progress quarterly: Given that companies measure themselves on a quarterly basis, wouldn’t it make sense to take your high potential employees and measure them the same way? Implement a proactive quarterly review that provides them with more immediate feedback. In turn, this feedback can be used to improve the employee’s performance in the short-term, thus improving overall performance and communication at all levels.

Q: At what point does an extremely talented employee become more trouble than he or she is worth?

If a manager has provided direct feedback to an employee and they repeatedly choose not to change their behavior, then you know beyond a doubt that a situation is destructive and unsalvageable. Examples of high maintenance, high performers whose style continually disrupts the workplace would include:

ASAP Syndrome. Everything is urgent. Everything is needed As Soon As Possible. They constantly expect everyone to drop what they are doing to help them with even the smallest of details. Big things, small things, it doesn’t matter everything is a crisis and top priority.

More Drama Than A Soap Opera. This is one of the most insidious problems with these types of high maintenance employees. They create drama by intentionally stirring the pot. They gossip, they divide and conquer, they look for ways to increase their stature at the expense of others (usually their boss). They manage to get people all whipped up and upset over things they ordinarily wouldn’t have given a second thought to…It’s like the little devil sitting on your shoulder whispering in your ear.

Reply To All Disease. They are constantly emailing EVERYONE about EVERYTHING. They feel the need to involve everyone in what they are working on, usually in an attempt to point out, “See how great I am, look at all the things I’m doing.”

“You Do Know Who I Am Right?” The ego drive has really warped into something sinister; a sense of entitlement that is way out of proportion to who they are. Yes, you may be a top performer, but you’re not curing cancer. They feel the rules, guidelines, procedures, etc. just don’t apply to them and it creates resentment and chaos with the mere mortals who work with them.

More Of A Hog Than Boss Hogg. Not so much a money hog (although they can be) as a credit hog. They are constantly hogging all the glory for any accomplishment and fail to credit those that helped them achieve it. Rarely is an accomplishment in a company the sole work of one person. Yet these types of employees would have you believe that without them nothing would ever be achieved. It infuriates co-workers and destroys any team building and teamwork culture a company has tried to build.

The Grudge Master. They can remember every slight (perceived or real, large or small) that has been done to them. They just can’t get past it and take everything personally. They use these as justifications for their own poor behavior or choices.

“That’s Not My Job.” Not only are they not team players but if you ask them to pitch in and help out with something they deem beneath them, they will be insulted and pout. If they feel certain tasks or jobs are beneath them, what message does that send to the person who normally does those things?

Managing difficult employees takes time, yet it is still worth the effort in order to avoid additional hiring costs. Many super talented folks can exhibit behaviors which require assessments to help managers navigate these employees. Knowing how your employees respond in stressful situations or how they fit with certain management style arms you with valuable information that can help you manage problem employees.

Difficult employees are always going to be in the workplace. Your job as a manager and coach is to determine the best path to ensure the team and work environment is productive. The way in which you manage these employees will not only affect your reputation as a manager, but also the organization’s bottom line.

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