How to handle talented but complicated employees

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A guide to managing “complicated” top performers. When should you keep them, and how do you do that without alienating the rest of your staff.

“Complicated” employees are a practical reality for any workplace in which multiple personalities and skill sets interact. A common approach is to manage them out of the organisation. However, what should you do when a staff member is challenging but you feel the business needs them?

In this article we consider three types of employees who, despite personal or professional shortcomings, have become an integral part of your business.

1. The technical wizard

‘Technical wizards’ are those employees who know what makes your business tick. They know what your business can and cannot do. They are dedicated to getting things done. However, even though they’re effective behind the scenes, these employees may become invisible when it’s time for the “big sell”. They don’t like to speak up, and when they do, their voice gets drowned out by bigger personalities.

What if you need more from your technical wizard? What if the nature of your business requires that the person with this knowledge takes centre stage? While its unlikely that any of your tech wizards are a Steve Jobs in waiting, there are steps you can take to ensure they are well-rounded enough to get the job done when it’s time to face the client. For example, you may consider:

  • development opportunities, such as customer engagement training -- there’s value in investing in upskilling your employees; and
  • having your technical wizard shadow “social butterflies” to everyday meetings, as a way of exposing them to this side of the business -- this will allow them to observe and learn before, hopefully, taking the lead themselves.

2. The social butterfly

Social butterflies are the “faces” of your business. Their voices are heard far and wide; they win work, face clients and keep the cash flowing in. Social butterflies may present issues wholly different from your technical wizards. They could fail to appreciate the technical intricacies of what your business can and cannot do, and their drive to deliver results to clients, while commendable, may result in them focusing on internal competition with colleagues.

A general understanding of what your business can and cannot do is a crucial factor in ensuring you don’t over promise and under-deliver to clients. Some steps which can be taken to address this difficulty with social butterflies include:

  • helping them focus on a “one team, one dream” mentality -- consider assigning key performance indicators to employees in these positions which are focussed on team, as opposed to individual, achievement; and
  • considering requiring regular “work in progress meetings” with your technical wizards, to ensure social butterflies have an on-going understanding of your business capability before making promises to clients.

3. The “stable genius”

Like winning the US Presidency, the success of any business often exists alongside the egos of those who helped pave the way. In this scenario, your employee may have the ideal combination of technical wizardry and business acumen but – for reasons unrelated to their core duties – they are the source of undue workplace tension.

This might be for any number of reasons. Their success may have led them to developing a level of self-regard that surpasses the value of their ability. Or they may simply have a confrontational personality which makes fostering professional relationships challenging.

A stable genius presents the greatest difficulty to management, given that the issue lies with their personal, rather than professional, shortcomings. Despite the difficulty, there are strategies to effectively manage employees like this. This includes the following:

  • if the issue is a sizeable ego, consider providing a fresh challenge they have not faced before, which caters to their estimation of their abilities. Consider establishing a mentor relationship between them and a junior employee as a key component of your stable genius’s KPIs. This will indicate to the employee that you value their skillset (acknowledging their personal sense of worth), while also presenting them with the fresh challenge of imparting their knowledge.
  • personality issues must be confronted head on, but with tact. Where a complaint is received, speak with your stable genius to understand the reasons behind the complaint. If the source of the complaint is the stable genius’s behaviour, indicate that, while you appreciate everything that they do for the business, there are clear boundaries as to what behaviour will be tolerated.

But should you manage them out of the business?

Ask yourself: can you really not survive without a complicated employee?

Should your attempts at addressing issues with your technical wizard, social butterfly or stable genius fail or fall on deaf ears, you must ask whether keeping a brilliant but complicated employee is worth it. Be careful before coming to a hasty conclusion; the worst perception you can foster among other employees is that someone is “untouchable” by virtue of their position or success. This belief can lead to a toxic work environment, which several organisations dealt with last year.

You must always bear in mind the risk that you may alienate a significant portion of your workforce all for the benefit of protecting one high-performer. The takeaway to ensure this never occurs, is to remember that ultimately no one person, no matter how talented, is larger than the business.

All information on this site is of a general nature only and is not intended to be relied upon as, nor to be a substitute for, specific legal professional advice. No responsibility for the loss occasioned to any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any material published can be accepted.

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