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How to deal with high-performance but high-drama staff

Brilliant employees can often require excessive emotional maintenance

“I don’t know what to do with my operations department manager," I was told by a CEO in northern Israel. "He is a brilliant and creative manager with vision who has achieved some professional breakthroughs. In all his performance reviews he receives grade A. On the other hand he is not service-oriented, he complains about everything, and people walk around him on eggshells. I am constantly involved in giving him attention and putting out fires.”

Meet the HMHP – the high maintenance high performer. This concept was created by Katherine Graham Leviss, an expert in high-tech talent analytics and author of High-Maintenance Employees: Why Your Best People Will Also Be Your Most Difficult. This term describes a category of employee that are high-performing on the one hand and have emotional and interpersonal difficulties on the other. Often these difficulties create high-intensity organisational drama.

It is important to know the characteristics of these workers, to adapt approaches suited to effectively working with them, and to distinguish between those who should remain in the organisation and those who should be let go.

The HMHP can be identified by five main characteristics:

  • Achievers who will always receive high performance ratings and meet targets.
  • Individualists who prefer to do the work themselves, their way and without partners.
  • Nonconformists who are not interested in the company’s policy and will ignore it to achieve optimal performance.
  • Unfriendly. Relationships and small talk are off the table and they will only help a co-worker if asked to.
  • Evoke fear. They are perceived by colleagues as all-knowing and achieving. Co-workers rush to give HMHPs what they want to avoid a quarrel.

How to produce peak performance from HMHP types:

1. Talk to them, not above them. A conversation eye to eye about their performance and your expectations of them will encourage them to co-operate. Talk to them about work as if they are colleagues. Instead of demanding obedience ask for help.

2. Acknowledge their value. In a feedback session on their behaviour, begin by expressing appreciation for their work and their contribution to the organisation. It is important to demonstrate to these employees that their performance is of great importance to the organisation's success.

3. Be specific. Set clear expectations and give specific examples. If there is difficulty in team collaboration or mutual assistance explain the 'what' and the 'how'. For example: 'The solutions you offer are great and it's important that the rest of the staff know them as well. Let's schedule a meeting with the team twice a week so that everyone can maximise the company's success.'

4. Commit. A HMHP doesn’t want a manager but a partner that helps them move forward. If you trust them and systematically support their ideas they will make a personal effort to correct behaviours that require improvement.

5. Be flexible. Differentiate between minor and major infractions and avoid frequent remarks about small things. This freedom is required in order to continue towards the desired outcome and to make headway in areas that are less compatible with their personality.

If in addition to the five characteristics of HMHPs your talent constantly complains about everything, victimises themselves, and does not take responsibility, there is a good chance that their high performance is fundamentally wrong. Such workers create exaggerated drama and draw considerable energy from the working environment. Any attempt to develop their strengths will soon be replaced by constantly dealing with their complaints and other workers' complaints about them. Brilliant as they may be, in the absence of basic social skills it is best to minimise damage and let them go as soon as possible.

Ravit Oren is an organisational leadership expert, an academic lecturer and researcher, a corporate HR executive, a public representative of the Israeli Labor Court, and co-founder and CEO of WALKSTOCK