The solution for handling a problem employee who is a poor performer might be a no-brainer: You involve HR, document and terminate their employment.
It’s not so easy, however, when you have a very difficult employee who is also one of your high performers. What do you do when someone who is invaluable to your business is also a major pain for everyone else around them?
Unfortunately, it’s not that uncommon. Sometimes it’s a certain ego or hubris that makes some talented individuals feel they can act with impunity. Other times, the prima donna mentality emerges after there were no consequences for poor behaviour as long as the superstar brought in revenue or business. And sometimes that high-performer is so focused on delivering the goals they are simply oblivious to how they’re being received by everyone else.
You’ve probably encountered the excuses:
Arrogant grandstander? But driven.
Demanding and never satisfied? Running through admins like water? But creative and innovative.
Uncooperative and insensitive to others on the team? But one of the best in the field.
Prone to outbursts and verbal abuse so that everyone is walking on eggshells? But always lands the big clients.
Managing high performers who can’t play nice with others can be a nightmare. Dealing with the fallout of their actions and their high maintenance ways can quickly monopolize your time as their leader. Odds are that many of these personalities are also the first to challenge your authority or undermine your decisions, which further complicates your role as it steals your time and attention away from other matters.
Here are some strategies leaders can use when their top talent’s intellect and ability is also a liability:
Have the difficult conversation. Sure, someone who is really bright ought to realize when they’re continually creating drama or upsetting others but if you as their manager don’t say anything, they can plead either ignorance or argue that they’ve never been corrected for it. The first step is for you to make that high performer know that while you value their contribution(s), that X or Y is ALSO part of the job and it’s something they need to work on. (Pro tip: Prepare for this difficult conversation carefully – read our tips and use our worksheet for having a difficult conversation remotely or otherwise.) Pay careful attention to how willing this top performer is to acknowledge first, that there is an area in which they could improve and second, how willing they are to take you up on support to do that. Remember, if this is truly your first conversation about the problem, they may need time to digest.
Draw some really firm boundaries. A large accounting firm in one of Canada’s northern territories had a very bright, very senior accountant with a very niche specialty who gained quite a reputation for his nasty demeanor with everyone from admin assistants and reception to clients — and the leadership team based elsewhere made excuses because he was a rare talent (and kept hiring new admins to deal with him!). As leaders, we have to decide what we absolutely will not tolerate. How many harassment complaints are too many? How many rude interactions are unacceptable? What’s the baseline of courtesy that should be extended to clients, colleagues and others? What sort of insulting behaviour should result in someone being asked to leave a team meeting? Give some thought to that, jot down some notes and make sure that the high performer is told that X, Y and Z cannot continue to happen — and then follow through. Sometimes people push when they think the boundaries exist only for others, and not for them.
Be confident in your authority. As the leader, you can’t let a difficult personality rattle you. Stay calm and grounded no matter how they behave. That’s easier said than done but you might want to have a confidential discussion with a peer who has been through this before, or talk to a certified executive coach (whose conversations are always confidential). When talking to the problem employee, if they try to distract you from the issue, redirect the conversation. If they rant and rage, say that you’ll take the discussion up again when they’ve calmed down and then end the meeting (for now!). Trust in your executive presence and remember most of all why you’re doing this — to save the full team and to prevent the long-term losses that occur when a high performer with poor connection is allowed to continue. Remember that others on your team (whether they have told you, or not) will admire you addressing the problem and appreciate that you are reining in the high performer who gets out of control. Pro tip: it also might prevent some problems down the line when others realize you’re not a boss who can be bullied or walked on.
Be consistent going forward. If issues arise, deal with them right away, with a face-to-face conversation ideally (or video teleconference if necessary during the pandemic). Focus on the issue, not the person, and raise any ongoing issues for discussion. “Remember we talked about collaborating with marketing? There seems to be more tension.” Conversely, if you notice a concerted effort to change, make a point of sharing that you see and appreciate the progress.
Assign projects carefully. Some high performers do best when they have a really challenging project to undertake that requires them to stretch — it’s when they’re bored that they stir up drama and get prickly. Then there are those who like a challenge, but lose those grace-filled interpersonal skills under pressure — so team projects may not be the best decision. Assess what’s going on and figure out how to mitigate any potential fallout based on what you’ve seen in the past.
Make sure performance reviews always document the good — and the bad. Too often the trouble areas are overlooked for superstars, which isn’t fair to them really (and it will be even more difficult if you eventually decide that you do need to build a case to terminate a talented troublemaker). In a situation where there are challenges, it’s important to review and provide feedback more frequently, perhaps even monthly or every quarter until you see a better long-term outcome emerging.
Be strategic with incentives. I remember hearing about one rock star asset manager who upset everyone around him constantly. He said things like, “My whole life I’ve been on winning teams, but I’m always the captain.” Any hint of an individual reward or bonus made him even more ruthless. The solution? An astute manager ensured that bonuses were structured for team achievements based on some 360-degree feedback.
Help to support the changes you want to see. You can find a good mentor for a superstar who is a little rough around the edges. This takes a bit of matchmaking ability, because it has to be the right fit, but when it works it can be life-changing. Alternately, consider whether there are any professional development opportunities for this member of your team that could help to boost the (usually softer) skills you want to see. Working with a coach, of course, can be helpful. As well, launching the coaching with an emotional intelligence assessment tool can be eye-opening for the person. Build time into your schedule to meet regularly with this challenging high performer one-to-one so that they feel they have your attention and support.
Now, the big question is: When do you cut your losses?
Sometimes, no matter how much we as leaders work with someone, they aren’t willing to change. This is a much bigger problem than someone who needs support and mentoring or coaching to change.
You might ultimately decide that no matter how talented someone is, there are too many drawbacks — particularly in today’s world of remote work because we can recruit talent from anywhere around the globe. In some situations, you might conclude that it’s very well worth recruiting a slightly less talented or capable replacement who is a lot nicer to be around.
Making that decision may take some time. It might require that the leaders or the board members you report to need to buy-in to the idea (which is why careful documentation is important from the get-go).
If this is a real possibility, then be sure to reference that in the next Essential Conversation you have with the person (in the part where you state what is at stake).
Who do you know who fits the description of the very talented difficult employee? What has held you back from dealing with the situation? Given what we’ve offered, what will you do going forward?