The Downside of Genius

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How to Reduce the Maintenance of High-Maintenance Employees

Like so much in effective management, the key involves clarity.

Most managers are familiar with the type: one employee who requires more managerial attention than all the rest combined. He or she may be a high performer or a low performer, but a common characteristic is the amount of management time consumed. Issues can be as variable as personalities: They may involve complaints, frustrations, conflicts with others, desires to do things their own way, problems with deadlines… but the common thread is the constant need for a manager’s involvement to keep things on track.

I’ve often written and spoken about what I call the management variant of the “80-20″ rule. Rather than “80% of your business often comes from 20% of your customers,” my own version is that “80% of your management time is often spent on 20% of your employees.”

Katherine Graham Leviss wrote extensively on this general subject in her 2005 book High Maintenance Employees: Why Your Best People Will Also Be Your Most Difficult…and What You Can Do about It. For those really wanting to delve into the topic, I’d suggest her book. For those interested in a quick crash course, following are my own observations after more than two decades of management.

I believe it’s helpful to look at two groups: 1) highly valuable employees, and 2) problematic, less talented employees you’d ideally like to see succeed but (truth be told) are not that valuable to your organization.

Like so much in effective management, a key here involves clarity. First, for the top performers:

Clarity of feedback about the kind of behavior expected. The issue is usually not with the quality of work that is done, but the way it’s done: the personal conflicts, the team squabbles, the time spent dealing with miscellaneous uncollaborative activities. From a manager’s perspective, it’s essential to be clear about what’s acceptable and what’s not. Make it clear how much you value them and their contributions, but at the same time make it equally clear there are limits to the amount of time that can be spent on unproductive drama and intrigue.

Provide challenging assignments that will engage them and fully utilize their abilities.  A talented employee who’s totally engaged with a challenging project will have much less opportunity to go off track. In such circumstances, engagement usually equals productivity. An effective antidote for a valued but high-maintenance individual is a steady diet of high-involvement projects.

For problematic lower performers, the fundamental challenge is to ensure standards are set and the message is unmistakable:

Clarity of performance expectations – what can be tolerated. Confronted by malingering, carping, gossiping, tardiness, conflicts, work not turned in on time or of mediocre quality… management needs to make it completely clear what level of work and behavior are required, and what can and can’t be tolerated. Clear performance objectives coupled with ready feedback are the managerial tools of choice.

Up or out. Managers – just trying to be nice people – often have a natural tendency to put up with too much for too long. Unfortunately, problems rarely resolve themselves. At some point “enough is enough” and high-maintenance employees have to be managed up or out. Either they raise their performance to the needed standards or they can find work elsewhere. This of course is the time to work closely with HR to ensure performance standards are clear and well documented – and that if “up” isn’t happening, the proper protocol is followed when “out” is only alternative. It’s never enjoyable, but sometimes it has to be done.

Keep in mind that an overriding objective here is for managers to be protective and productive about their own use of time.

If you’re constantly preoccupied with one high-maintenance employee, you won’t be nearly as effective as if your time were more in your own control and evenly distributed.

This article first appeared at Forbes.com.

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The Downside of Genius