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How to Manage Difficult but Talented Employees

Notice I included “talented” in the title, since an employee who’s just plain difficult without being talented should probably be managed out of an organization. Many employees who are very difficult, however, can also be exceptional contributors. Sometimes the same keen intelligence that makes them talented also makes them challenging. Think Steve Jobs and Bill Gates would have been easy to manage? Sure, piece of cake…

I sometimes felt this aspect of management was a variant of the 80-20 rule. But rather than 80 percent of business coming from 20 percent of your customers, it seemed as a manager that 80 percent of my time was spent on 20 percent of my employees.

Personalities being unique, there are no simple one-size-fits-all-solutions. That said, after several decades in management, here are seven suggestions to help navigate these choppy waters.

1) Be thoughtful about assignments. To the extent possible (and naturally this isn’t always controllable), provide some especially substantive, challenging assignments that will fully utilize and stretch their considerable skills. “We give our best people the worst assignments,” was a how a former colleague of mine used to jokingly put it. Such assignments can also engage them and bring out their best.

2) Make HR an ally. Despite Hollywood’s tendencies to humorously stereotype the overly bureaucratic Human Resources manager (and I enjoy “The Office” as much as anyone) the fact is, when dealing with delicate personnel matters I found HR invaluable. They provided additional perspective and (no small matter!) kept me and the company out of trouble.

3) Be 100% clear about articulating pain points. Don’t dance around problems – articulate the issues as precisely as possible. If there’s difficulty, for example, collaborating with other team members as a member of the XYZ team, state it. If there are problems delivering projects on deadline, state it. If a manager is so demanding he or she is burning out staff and causing too much turnover, state it. Then work with the individual to build problems into clear and mutually agreed upon performance objectives.

4) Give ample feedback in both directions. Don’t wait until mid-year or end-of-year evaluations for feedback. Provide feedback often and in both directions – positive reinforcement when things are going well and corrective guidance when they’re not. There’s no way to course-correct if it’s not clear correction is needed… and naturally there’s a difference between insightful feedback and pesky micromanagement.

5) No drama. When conflicts arise, as they inevitably do, stay calm. Some challenging employees even enjoy being provocateurs. Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into the fray and pull rank and lose your temper, however tempting that might be. (To use a saying from another realm of experience, it might feel great at the moment but you’ll hate yourself in the morning.) Prepare for a potentially volatile meeting by gaining tight control of your emotions going in. As the manager, you’re the voice of authority and reason – maintain the moral high ground.

6) Document clearly. Thorough documentation is always necessary for clear fact-based evaluations, assessing objectively whether goals are achieved or not. Solid documentation is also essential should you need to build a case for termination.

7) Know when to say when. When you know beyond a doubtthat a situation is destructive and unsalvageable, work closely with HR to follow all proper termination procedures, and then (as Nike would say) just do it. Make the move and move on. Indecision erodes authority when action is needed.

A few quick words about terminations: If a termination is capricious, it sends chills throughout an organization. (“This could happen to anyone, or worse yet, me!”) But if a termination is truly deserved, a manager will likely be respected for doing what needed to be done. Other employees usually know better than managers what’s going on in the trenches, and problem employees disturb more than just their manager. Since firing and re-hiring are long processes, however, with very real human and economic costs, I always felt it best to try to make a situation work – if it genuinely can.

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