Problem child – dealing with gifted employees

They can be charming when they want, but seem not to know or care how they as individuals tick, let alone anyone else. Managing these awkward star performers can be a difficult job. Sometimes no-one has ever dared tell them they aggravate. Few are trained to deal with the situation and no one wants the job.

But these people represent potential business risks. It might be a misplaced but damaging remark – or sustained action concealed through arrogance or desperation. Or the damage might be less dramatic, but insidious: a section of the business getting a reputation for high billings but unpleasant atmosphere, with high staff and client turnover.

A senior partner in a City firm recently said to me high-risk people like these keep him awake at night.

How to handle them
So what is to be done? The first question to ask in dealing with an awkward star performer is, ‘how awkward?’ I note with interest that after years when it was widely known but never publicly mentioned, the word ‘psychopath’ is appearing in the newspapers. This is a dangerous but important development.

Dangerous, because applying such a label is a matter of the utmost gravity.

Diagnosis is complex and difficult, to be done only by people with specialist expertise. But important, because if it is the case, the business is exposed to risk and needs to know. Coaching is inappropriate here; intervention needs to be handled by trained experts accustomed to the ways of the Square Mile.

Most often the star is not that awkward. One of the pleasures in working in accountancy is it is a more benign environment than much of the Square Mile. Those few who are awkward are often so because of lack of information rather than anything more sinister. As a result coaching can be quite effective.

Coaching is useful in two ways: either directly with the individual concerned, or by supporting those who are given the tough job of sorting them out.

Whoever does it, whether internal or external, there are several things to try. First, check they have been told the impact they are having. If not, tell them. The ultimately expendable external coach is handy here.

Give appraisals
In fact accounting firms are generally good at this, ensuring their people receive appraisals. If there is a residual problem, there should be a raised awareness in the star performer, and plenty of evidence amassed for the person intervening to draw upon. The coaching then builds on that awareness, persists until the star ‘gets it’ and action is planned, implemented and sustained.

Second, check the individual has the basic skill set and knowledge they need to understand their own make-up and what triggers their behaviour.

They may have no appreciation of personality types and believe everyone who is bright and competent is like them in other ways as well.

They may not appreciate that what they consider appropriate, even motivating, behaviour, others consider quite inappropriate. Or they may respond well to people like themselves, but find people with very different personality types incomprehensible and hence dismiss their ideas. A swift dose of Myers Briggs often cures the problem.

With this basic toolkit in place, individuals learn quickly. Once they grasp the structures and patterns, they are intrigued to apply them and colleagues often notice a change. In one or two coaching sessions they can pick up how to plan in advance, motivate, persuade and challenge those different from themselves.

Basic hygiene factors
The third area to check is to find out how much the star performer knows about the basic hygiene factors in managing teams. Often people who appear to be brilliant loners lack knowledge of team basics. Once clear on the underlying core principles of building teams, conducting meetings to access the energy and varied perspectives in the room, and so on (as opposed to the conventional rules, which often bore star performers) team performance can be appreciably lifted.

Then there are the millions of reasons for awkwardness. We often encounter in professional services firms gifted technicians struggling to find the right tactics for the transition to client-focused business developer and/or manager of larger groups, and frustrated with the struggle.

Several sessions of coaching can help them identify their solutions so they get back on track to grow and find work fun and exciting.

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