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When They're Tough but Good: How To Manage Difficult People

Make sure the candidate you hire will fit, stay, and perform for you.

Managing them drains you, but dang it -- they're great at their job. Here's how to hold difficult yet high-performing employees accountable and get them to "play nice" with others:

Some employees are great at their jobs. Some are easy to work with. While managers would love for every worker to meet both criteria, the fact is, some top performers are also challenging to manage within a team.

If your top performer is also one of your biggest management headaches, it's time to think differently about leadership. Here's how to help your prickly high performer integrate with the team.

Focus on Accountability

In a work context, 'accountability' refers to employees' ability to manage their workloads, follow team procedures and objectives, and get their work done.

Teams with high workplace accountability share several characteristics common to high-performing teams. These include:

  • Prioritizing their work to align with essential deadlines and key business objectives.
  • Collaborating effectively with one another.
  • Tackling challenges and setbacks with a focus on the goal.
  • Applying what they learn to new projects in the future.

Many top performers demonstrate a keen sense of accountability when it comes to their work. They know their role on the team, take their responsibilities seriously, and ensure they meet or exceed expectations.

Yet this understanding of individual accountability may not translate to team accountability. To build a culture of accountability on a team, managers will need to help team members bridge the gap between their commitment to their tasks and their understanding of the team's success.

To bring top performers from a 'me' to 'we' mindset:

  • Have the team set goals collaboratively. Emphasize the need to clarify which team members will be responsible for which tasks and why.
  • Give team members time to present their roles, responsibilities, and personal goals to one another.
  • Consider small group meetings as well as one-on-one sessions to monitor progress and offer constructive feedback.

Outstanding employees often reach that status due to a high sense of individual accountability. By building a culture of team accountability that connects workers' roles together, managers can leverage that sense of personal accountability to help the entire team grow.

Address Behavior

When your top performer is your most prickly employee, it's easy to see attitude problems as personal ones. 'Oh, that's just how they are.' 'Don't take it personally.' Yet behaviors that frustrate a top performer's co-workers or undermine co-workers' confidence aren't 'just' anything, and they do feel personal.

To address attitude problems in your best employees, leverage the attention to accountability that often attends an excellent performance by focusing on the behavior, not on the person.

To focus on behavior:

  • Set a clear goal, such as 'interrupt less during meetings' or 'file invoices on time.' Identify the purpose behind the behavior change: 'so that the rest of the team can contribute' or 'so the shipping process isn't delayed.'
  • Raise the issue by focusing on the behavior and assuming good intentions from the employee. 'I know you're enthusiastic about the new project, but it would help the team if you waited to speak until someone else had finished.'
  • Listen to the employee's perspective. You may learn something that can help you support them in a positive behavior change.

Let go of 'that's how they are' in favor of 'this is how they behave' -- then address how that behavior impacts the rest of the team and how to change it.

Involve Top Performers in Their Improvement

Outstanding employees are often passionately dedicated to their work and job growth. Sometimes, they're so dedicated to their professional goals that they lose sight of the collaborative human element required to make those goals happen -- or to fit them into the context of the team and organization.

When a top performer also struggles as a team player, engaging them in the development of their professional skill at collaboration and teamwork can underscore the value of this skill to their career. To start this process:

  • Focus on the issue, not the person.
  • Provide clear information to help them address the issue.
  • Work together to identify what concrete changes look like, set expectations, and articulate consequences.

In essence, you make 'being easier to manage or work with' a professional challenge for the top performer to tackle. You also give the employee practice with collaborative work by collaborating on the project of professional improvement.

It's not easy to be an outstanding professional and a great colleague, but many top performers embrace the challenge of becoming both. The right management approach can help these team members reach their potential in both areas.