It’s common to hear about companies having talent problems, and for good reason. Finding, retaining, and developing top talent is a challenge that at its worst can feel sisyphean. But there’s another type of talent problem that can keep you up at night: when your most talented employee is also your most difficult to manage.
Managing talented troublemakers is crucial to a business’ success. You naturally want to keep your best and brightest, but not at the expense of a healthy and progressive team dynamic. Fortunately, even the most difficult employees are rarely intentionally destructive. Bad behavior usually stems from frustration, misuse, or boredom, which are all fixable scenarios. And a company without quirky, sometimes troublesome employees can quickly become homogenous and unimaginative.
This article will cover how you can empower and guide your talent to be more compatible and collaborative, without taking away their edge.
Understand the source of the bad behavior
Disruptive and difficult behavior is often a side effect of something else. It’s possible your direct report has a major distraction in their personal life, is suffering from boredom, or is unfulfilled in their current role. The best way to find out is to ask. Knowing what’s causing the behavior lets you take action and make meaningful changes that benefit the entire company.
Be sure to have resources available to lend support, and make it clear that you want the employee to succeed. In an interview with FirstRound, Bethanye McKinney Blount, a tech company veteran with two decades of experience managing troublemakers, advises managers who want to succeed in shifting a disruptive behavior to “go into conversations… rooting for their relevance and redemption.”
Sometimes, the source of an employee’s limitations is the same as their source of talent. If this is the case, you don’t want to take away from what makes your employee effective at their job. An example of this is an employee who is detail-obsessed and eager to improve products and processes.
While their keen eye and intense scrutiny is valuable to the team, they may be unaware of how their curt, critical feedback irritates and upsets coworkers. Once you understand that your direct report isn’t intentionally being mean and instead needs to learn how to give better feedback, you can troubleshoot solutions to reinforce the behavior you want to see.
Schedule regular check-ins
A useful habit to get into that will help you identify potential troublemakers is having regular one-on-ones. This gives you a chance to build a personal relationship with your direct reports, connect on a personal level, and figure out how to help them succeed in their role. By meeting regularly, you’ll be able to provide more consistent guidance, measure progress, and assign new opportunities they’ll be excited about.
Provide meaningful challenges
A talented mind that doesn’t have enough to keep it occupied can quickly turn disruptive. Use this to your advantage by assigning your troublemaker challenging projects. Less free time is better for minds that thrive off of being kept busy, so utilize your talent on your most critical business problems. Go further by giving the employee some ownership and space to really dig in.
Surround them with the right people
Experiment with surrounding your troublemaker with different people. Maybe they engage better with certain coworkers than others due to communication style, or there’s a teammate who somehow knows how to push all the right buttons. Pair them with a mentor or, if the situation calls for it, allow them to lead a small group. Thoughtfully assign tasks that have them work with the people who complement their skills, without putting them in settings that enable the bad behaviors.
If a direct report’s behavior is truly harmful, isolation may be your best option to prevent the toxicity from spreading throughout your team. Isolation, in the form of remote work or desk rearrangements, is very effective should only be taken as a severe measure.
Tolerate, within reason
No matter how difficult it is to find talent, you need to draw the line somewhere. While you don’t want to risk losing high performers because of your inability or unwillingness to curtail their bad behavior, you also don’t want to stifle your talent with strict rules or risk losing them with a hard-line confrontation. There are ways to stand firm while still moving toward developing a solution together.
Let go of lingering resentment: You’ll only see positive results if you truly want them to succeed!
Give direct, yet professional feedback: Focus on business implications and results, as well as how their behavior affects the team’s productivity, instead of focusing on personal feelings. You’ll be able to better steer the conversation toward a solution that benefits everyone.
Explain the consequences: Consider walking your direct report through all the tasks and time you’ve devoted to their misbehavior, and how this has affected your and the team’s efficiency. Explain the repercussions if their behavior doesn’t begin to improve. This may evoke the empathy and awareness needed to drive change.
Keep detailed records: Document conversations, warnings and resources given to the employee, and formal complaints. This will help track the employee’s improvement, but if things get worse and you need to let the employee go, you want to be covered from a legal perspective.
Recognize when to let go: Make sure you understand the difference between difficult and toxic. Termination should be a last resort, but if chances, resources, and support have been provided with no significant change, it may be time to proceed with proper termination procedures.
Effective management requires balancing a variety of challenges and making the best of situations, some more pleasant than others. Each direct report requires something a little bit different from the next. For your most talented employees, the challenge may lean toward grooming them for more collaborative or leadership-focused roles, and refining some of their rough edges.
Troublemakers can anchor your team, or sink it. When talking with FirstRound, Blount acknowledged that not all individuals will improve on their bad behaviors, “but knowing how to recognize and troubleshoot them will save and benefit the organization and them — and ideally both.” With a focus on understanding, development, and support, you’ll help your direct reports get the most out of their talent and become more productive collaborators.