Turn High-Maintenance Employees Into High Performers

Philios Andreou
May, 2019

Originally published in TD Magazine.

Ricardo is a top performer. He is an amazing consultant and a great person in many ways; he is intelligent, likable, and witty, which makes him fun to be around. Co-workers love Ricardo, as do clients, who always comment on his attention to detail and how his communication style earned their trust. But there is a problem.

Despite Ricardo’s performance and charm, his manager is desperately looking for ways to effectively work with him. While his love for detail is a boon for clients, it is a nightmare for his manager—because Ricardo notices everything. Anytime a new policy or position is announced, Ricardo gets worked up and worries that the new plan or person will replace him or undermine his success. And every time, Ricardo’s manager must put considerable time and effort into updating and reassuring Ricardo of his position in the company. This works for a while—until the next policy change takes place or a new hire joins, and then the cycle repeats again. Ricardo is surely but steadily draining his manager’s energy.

The rise of high-maintenance employees

In your organization, you probably have your own Ricardo, or even multiple, all with special needs and personalities. During the past decade, the number of difficult employees has risen dramatically, originating from two changes in workforce demographics and organizational complexity. Millennials are now the largest generation in the U.S. labor force, and they’re far more demanding than their predecessors. They are also courageously outspoken about what they feel is needed. Recent surveys reveal that 68 percent of Millennials are willing to challenge the status quo if they do not believe in, or align with, the decisions a company is making.

Business meeting

While this is happening inside firms, organizational structures are becoming more complex. Companies are merging and expanding, often resulting in less transparency. Reporting structures are also becoming more complicated (such as matrix organizations, dotted-line reporting, and global versus local management). To employees, these changes appear to be frequent and sudden, which can lead to fear and worry, as was the case with Ricardo. And managers are left to deal with the aftermath.

Today’s managers do not have time to pull out a psychotherapist’s couch to determine what is driving an employee’s behavior. Meanwhile, many managers feel stuck in a cycle of making all sorts of efforts to maintain peace. Some are even driven to get rid of employees, despite their positive performance in other aspects of the job.

However, the most effective solution is to find quick ways to customize a management strategy for high-maintenance employees, depending on the cause of their behavior. Based on my experience advising global leaders during the past two decades, I have identified eight distinct high-maintenance personality types and unique strategies that work for each.

1. The attention seeker

Attention seekers look for ways to be in the spotlight during meetings and require ample time to speak or be on stage. Otherwise, they become miserable and can even turn against a group’s ideas.

Root cause: As the name suggests, attention seekers crave support and affirmation from others.

Strategies: Attention seekers may have interesting things to say, but it is the timing and the percentage of their contribution in relation to the rest of the team that can create problems. Set firm boundaries as to the time you have available for them. For group settings, set boundaries in advance by establishing rules for meetings, such as a predefined speaking sequence or time limit for each presenter.

2. The distracted child

Distracted employees may forget details, book the wrong meetings, show up at the wrong time, or neglect to follow up. Almost every time, they require someone to step in and act urgently to remedy the situation.

Root cause: Generally, distracted employees have not learned to take responsibility in many areas of their life. They do not have a firm grasp of cause and effect, especially when they are the cause.

Strategies: Pair distracted employees with strong, administrative employees. In one-on-one settings, be direct in your management style, setting priorities for tasks and an expected order of completion. Add processes or systems that transfer responsibility to the distracted employees, including the cost of mistakes. For example, you may enact a policy that every employee receives a set phone purchase allowance per year. If a phone breaks, is lost, or stops working, the burden of replacement is on the employee, not the manager.

3. Need-to-know-first individuals

Like Ricardo, need-to-know-first employees are disappointed if news gets out and they were not the first to know—and they will be sure to express their distress.

Root cause: Many need-to-know-first employees lack confidence by nature, upbringing, or circumstance; for example, the employee may have lost a job previously or is stressed about the company’s restructuring.

Strategies: A BTS survey shows that only 30 percent of employees feel new strategies are communicated well, so start with a candid conversation. For example, you may say, “If there is something that affects you personally, I will make sure you know first, but if not, you will hear it when others do.” Explain the thinking behind your decisions so the employee understands you have thought through the situation and are aware of his needs.

4. The debater

Debaters have an opinion on everything and do not view a decision from the top as valid unless it has been thoroughly vetted, discussed, and argued.

Root cause: Debaters are intellectually stimulated by discussion and believe they generate good ideas. Often, their motivation is genuine, because they believe they have things to add, even though they are perceived as disruptive.

Strategies: Clearly indicate to debaters when the window is open for discussion and when it is not. Keep in mind, studies show that negative feedback, though often unwelcome, is vital to an organization’s success. To reap the benefits of debate, set time limits, and do not allow debates to spring up if you have clearly communicated it is inappropriate. If you are challenged, remind the debater about these guidelines and move on.

5. The never-ending conversationalist

Never-ending conversationalists drain your time and energy by going through everything with you—repeatedly.

Root cause: By definition, conversationalists like to digest and work through ideas verbally. They may learn and come up with solutions by talking about them. They also feel more secure with changes and decisions when they have thought them through and discussed them in depth.

Strategies: Provide written information for the conversationalists to access and reflect upon first. Ask them to discuss topics with colleagues, so they can digest the information before they approach you. And then set specific times for discussion and indicate what the parameters of the conversation will be.

6. The problem denier

Problem deniers do not relay issues to their managers; only later will the manager find out. The longer problems are ignored, the more extra work is needed to repair or correct the trajectory.

Root cause: Problem deniers may not be comfortable with conflict. They may want to avoid problems that could reflect negatively on their job, or they lack the ability to ask critical questions.

Strategies: To start, pair problem deniers with strong, detail-oriented critical-thinking colleagues. Provide checklists and demands in writing and, when problems are evident, take direct action.

7. The high intenser

High-intensity people—“intensers,” if you will—bring their high energy to every project and issue and expect others to keep up with them. This may result in managers prioritizing their needs as a way of dealing with these individuals, even if their issues make less management sense in terms of business priorities.

Root cause: Intensers are driven employees who believe achievement comes from following up constantly as well as working passionately on their issues.

Strategies: Leaders need to avoid being drawn into issues that are not business priorities. Use empathy to construct boundaries and educate intensers on how and when to raise issues and how to prioritize them.

8. The martyr

Martyrs take on all types of work and assignments, only to later complain about a poor work-life balance and the impossibility of completing the tasks at hand.

Root cause: Martyrs need recognition from others to see their own personal value. They like when others depend on them—until it becomes too much.

Strategies: Reinforce the value a martyr brings to the organization and transfer the responsibility of them taking on the right amount of work from you. Ask, “How many projects can you handle?” You may even require proof that their workload is not too much by developing a schedule or a quarterly plan. Set specific times when you will discuss the workload throughout the year so you can avoid it being a topic of constant conversation.

Working through issues with high-maintenance employees can be difficult and unpleasant. However, many of these employees are valued professionals who enrich your organization in countless ways. As someone once said to me, “There are three kinds of people: the ones who see the challenges, the ones who talk about the challenges, and the ones who actually do something about the challenges.” An effective leader is the latter.

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