Anyone who has ever managed employees knows that some can be more difficult than others. One of the trickiest situations is having a “problem employee” who is brilliant and hardworking too. How can supervisors/managers navigate those situations in ways that will allow them to keep the employee — and keep the peace?
Nancy Halpern, a New York City-based executive coach, likens it to having a problem child — someone who can be “disparaging, raging, irritating, dismissive, aloof, overly independent, mercurial and resistant to change.” And yet, as she explains, “They produce great content, offer insightful recommendations, generate more new ideas and work harder than the rest of the team combined. They’ll do anything you ask, and are eager to learn, grow, contribute and won’t hesitate to tell you what’s on their mind.”
(Somewhat) tongue in cheek, she compares it to being held hostage.
“If you keep them, you are implicitly endorsing their bad behavior, contributing to tension with colleagues and depressing morale,” Halpern says. “If you let them go, you won’t easily replace their quantity and quality of output and contribution.”
So, what’s a manager to do?
“It’s important to distinguish if it’s a trend or a one-off — everyone has a bad day!” says Halpern. If it appears to be a trend, Halpern offers these suggestions to help anyone dealing with a smart, productive employee who needs to be reined in a bit:
- Identify the problem. Do this as an observation, not an accusation, says Halpern, who recommends saying something like this: “I’ve observed that when we’re in team meetings, you regularly interrupt the conversation” or “I’ve observed that your responses to email requests are frequently a day or two past deadline.”
- Assume good intent. If you say “I know that your intentions are good” or “I’m sure it’s because you’re enthusiastic to share your work” you give the employee the benefit of the doubt, Halpern says.
- Focus on the impact. Are the employee’s actions bothering or hindering co-workers? If so, address the problem by saying, “Others feel that they are [being] dismissed” or “The impact is that when people wait for your response, they can’t finish a project or move on to the next,” Halpern suggests.
- Suggest tactics to change the behavior. What suggestions might a manager make? Try, “Be sure to ask others questions so they have a chance to jump in” or “Set a reminder in email to respond within 24 hours,” Halpern offers.
- Avoid mentioning personality traits. Deep-six the urge to say, “You can be difficult to work with!” Halpern cautions. “Instead focus on the business problem: ‘We need to get this to market by the third quarter and that means keeping to a tight deadline,’” she says.
- Recognize their achievements. “End with recognizing their contribution and offering partnership in continuing their development,” Halpern concludes.