How to deal with talented but obnoxious employees

Here's how to manage those brilliant individuals who have a disruptive, dark side.

by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
Last Updated: 10 Jun 2016

All organisations have talent problems. The most common is not a shortage of talent, but an inability to manage talented but difficult employees. It is often the most talented individuals who display the most disruptive and counterproductive behaviours. If managers can't tame this dark side, they will end up with likable but mediocre employees - a dutiful army of 'yes' men who make for good company but uninspiring performance.

How should you manage talented but obnoxious employees? Here are four suggestions:

Tolerate their tantrums, within reason. If you conclude that some individuals are much more likely to contribute to the success of the organisation than others - and that they are also harder to replace - then you must accept that they should have some privileges. Putting up with their high-maintenance requests and diva behaviours is a justifiable perk.

Stop them from managing others. Your brilliant employees are often the worst managers. People who are exceptionally good on highly skilled and technical tasks are often disinterested in dealing with people, and they would never want to trade off their freedom for the responsibility of being in charge of others. When you can barely manage yourself, managing others is a bad idea.

• Build teams around them. No matter how brilliant an employee might be, she/he will be more productive if surrounded by the right people. Even when employees are obnoxious, there are certain individuals who will inhibit their dark side tendencies: by mentoring them, giving them feedback, helping them feel comfortable, and taking on the jobs they hate or are unable to do.

• Hold them accountable. The three previous suggestions would only make sense if your obnoxious employees are truly talented. And if they are, then you must expect their talents to translate into actual results, particularly if you are putting in place the optimal conditions for them. The arrangement is quite simple: so long as they deliver the goods, you will do as much as you can to keep them happy and engaged. But when they don't deliver, the privileges must go.

Finally, it is important to assess how counterproductive your employees are, irrespective of their talents. When individuals are demoralising and disengaging their colleagues, it is unlikely that their talents will make up for it. In that sense, a fifth point to consider is get rid of them.

Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is an international authority in psychological profiling, people analytics, and talent management. He is the CEO of Hogan Assessments and professor of business psychology at University College London and Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter: @drtcp

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