Workplace Doctor: How to handle a high-maintenance employee

A high-maintence employee could be your company's best asset if you handle them well.

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I have a team member who is great at the job but demands a lot of input from me. He always has an opinion in meetings, wants a lot of one-on-one time and prefers to have side projects he can work on alone. He's taking up too much time, so how do I manage his expectations? SO, Abu Dhabi

This is a rather delicate situation. Decisions are much more clear-cut when difficult employees don’t give much back in return. The drawbacks of these types of team members far outweigh the benefits.

However, there are many employees who, like yours, are problematic, but at the same time exceptional contributors. A more appropriate way of describing them is “high-maintenance” or “hard work”. High-maintenance employees can be perceived as demanding, uncooperative and somewhat arrogant, and they usually know it. Yet they can be a company’s best and most creative asset. Often the same ability and confidence that makes them so talented also makes them challenging. I am sure Steve Jobs would have been impossible to manage.

As the manager of this employee, you naturally want to manage his expectations and knock him down a peg or two. Part of your role may be to do this and at the same time to help him develop the self-awareness to think before he acts, build better relationships with peers and not expect constant airtime with you. However, I urge that you do so in a cautious and considered manner, especially if he is a high-performing team member and his effect on those around him is not doing any significant damage.

You may need to realise that rather than only managing his expectations, you may also need to develop your own capability to get the best from this individual. It seems he has the technical prowess and must now work on the interpersonal skills necessary to operate effectively. This may not come naturally, as his preference is probably to focus on executing tasks rather than on how they are being delivered.

To do this successfully, there are a number of factors that can help with high performers. I work alongside a great deal of opinionated individuals in the many training and development programmes we run. You could try to develop his self-awareness using 360 feedback, which is one of the most useful ways that individuals gain insight into their blind spots. It certainly helped me realise what I needed to do more of and what I needed to do differently. As a result of this process, his general disruptive manner in meetings would certainly come to the fore.

Secondly, you mentioned he wants a lot of one-on-one time. Individuals like this tend to require a lot of feedback to keep them feeling special, otherwise they lose interest quickly. Research says that most high performers want to sit down at least monthly with their managers, yet for this individual it seems like a weekly catch-up may work better. He seems like he needs a frequent boost or will quickly begin to show signs of under-appreciation. Think of him like a theatre actor who is preoccupied with their own performance and needs their ego stroked now and again. Fortunately, they are relatively self-critical and tend to want to try to improve if they are made aware of how they should go about this.

My next suggestion is an unorthodox one. I suggest you consider stretching or challenging him with an assignment or project where he feels he can fully use his skills. It is important in his case to also be required to lead and influence others. It could be a difficult assignment or something other people have not been able to work on. Set it up well, schedule regular reviews and make sure he has some trustworthy colleagues to work on it with. Be clear that you are not just measuring the project on the outcome, but also how he delivered it and worked with the rest of the team.

Doctor's prescription:

Having a difficult high performer on your team is like being a theatre director trying to get the best out of a lead actor. It requires some management of expectations, but the real skill is to get the best out of them. Help them develop self-awareness while keeping them engaged and motivated. If you get it right you will have a hit, but if you get it wrong it could be bad reviews all round.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and client director at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at business@thenational.ae for advice on any work issues.

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