Managing Challenging (but Talented) Individuals


Every manager has encountered an employee with obvious talent and skill, but who frequently disputes methods, deviates from assigned tasks, and challenges authority. If you have someone like this on your team, there’s no doubt their behaviour can be frustrating. What the best managers know is that this type of employee actually represents a great opportunity—to harness their obvious capacity for personal initiative, channel their talent into real productivity, and help them become one of the star players on the team.

Of course, every smart boss knows that encouraging the team to work together is the way to get things accomplished. So start by demonstrating that you can work with everybody and find suitable roles for each person.

In most cases, the challenging-but-talented employee needs a specific management style to draw out their best.

That doesn’t mean accommodating inappropriate behaviour; upholding a consistent standard is part of your credibility. It just means it’s worth reflecting on what kinds of interactions seem to trigger their undesired responses and determining what you can do differently to elicit a better result.

For example, if you’re operating with a hierarchical approach and directing everything from above, your most experienced employees will sometimes respond by being overly critical or pessimistic—reflecting frustration at feeling underutilized and not trusted to make decisions.

From their perspective, their competence is ignored. Their outlet for expressing this disappointment can be in negative assessments of your management choices.

Perhaps your annoyance with their seemingly poor attitude has limited your interest in dealing with them, but there’s still an excellent chance that you can turn things around, with the overriding benefit that your team can become more harmonious and productive.

Start with the usually effective strategy of empowering a challenging employee in meaningful, but manageable ways.

Try privately asking them for their opinion on a specific problem you know they have some expertise in. If their advice is useful, publicly give them credit for their contribution at the next
group meeting.

They will see you value good ideas when presented. If the conversation yields unusable suggestions, tell them while these ideas are not currently workable, you value their input regardless and hope they’ll come forward again. The point of the exercise is to change the employee’s role from critical commenter to constructive contributor. Give them a reason to make the switch—show them that you act on good ideas and respect their experience.

While your overall project strategy or direction might not be up for debate, the planning and implementation stage is also ripe with opportunity to empower and guide a critical employee.
See if you can give them public ownership of an important part of the project and then work with them to define how it should unfold. Given opportunities to shine and recognition for their achievements, they’ll soon become your ally.

If you tend to be a more hands-on manager, the talented employee’s unacceptable behaviour could be an indicator you’ve been checking in with them a bit too much (which is sometimes called micromanagement and rarely works).

Have you tried backing off a bit to see what happens? Chances are they know their work and are capable of doing it without you constantly checking up.

Don’t think as a supervisor, everything must fall on your shoulders. Let them know you have confidence in their abilities by seeking their input. Work with them one-on-one to define some specific milestones or deliverables, and then step aside and let them do it.

Weekly status meetings should suffice to keep things on track. Offer an open door and your complete support if they encounter any roadblocks.

While your first step should always be introspective and analytical to determine what you can do better as a manager, very occasionally the root of challenging behaviour is not something you can address by adjusting the way you’re dealing with the employee.

In these cases the issue goes deeper and into personal territory—things like relationship issues, health, or substance-abuse problems. If you aren’t able to make headway, you may need to involve your HR team or access outside coaching to determine appropriate next steps.

Remember, by giving challenging-but-talented employees more responsibility and seeking their input, you’re not giving in to them; you’re earning their trust and respect, and helping them redirect their energies in a way that helps your entire team work better.

You’re also putting yourself in a stronger position to hold them accountable. Chances are they’ll love the opportunity to demonstrate what they can do, and you’ll get the results you suspected they could deliver all along.

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