How to Manage a Brilliant But Difficult Team Member

Businessman with crown sitting at desk

Sooner or later in your career, you’re going to have a difficult team member – a person whose skills are great but who no one wants to work with because he or she is abrasive, unpleasant, and negative. As a manager, how can you manage the “brilliant jerk” to ensure that they don’t alienate and drive away other good people on your team?

1. View the issues through the lens of performance. Sometimes managers shy away from addressing soft skills or behavioral issues because they figure the issues aren’t about the person’s performance or work product. But if your difficult employee is chronically alienating coworkers, infusing your culture with negativity, or making it hard for you to give feedback on her work, that’s about performance and it’s legitimate to bring up.

In other words, view soft skills, like getting along with others, as being as much a part of what you need from the person in the role as hard skills are.

2. Give the staff member clear and explicit feedback about the behavior that’s concerning you. Share specifics about what the person is doing, what the impact of the behavior is on the team (and/or the person’s reputation), and what you need to see instead. For example, you might say: “When people ask you for help, you seem frustrated with them, which is causing people to stop coming to you for help. When Jane asked you to for language for the website this morning, you rolled your eyes and told her you’d send her something if you could find time. This role requires you to have good relationships with colleagues, I want people to walk away from their interactions with you understanding that you’re eager to be helpful. If people are afraid to approach you, you won’t be able to serve as a resource to them in the way we need you to.”

Or you might explain, “I need someone in this role who can maintain good relationships with other departments” (or “who makes colleagues feel their inquiries are welcome” or “who handles stressful situations calmly” or whatever the issue might be). In other words, define the soft skills you need as part of the role, and communicate about that need the same way that you’d address a skills deficiency.

3. From there, continue to address these issues the same way that you would address any other behavior that you asked a staff member to change. That means that if you see an improvement, you should recognize it with positive feedback (“I really appreciate how open you were to hearing Jane’s thoughts on this”). But if you don’t see the improvement you need, you should address it in a progressively more serious manner (“We talked recently about how I need you to be open to hearing feedback about your work, but you’ve continued to seem resistant and adversarial when hearing others’ input”).

4. Be willing to replace the person if they don’t respond to coaching. Ultimately, people who can’t get along with others probably shouldn’t have a place on your team, if they don’t respond to feedback and coaching, and especially if they don’t acknowledge the need to change. If you keep them on because they do good work, you’re likely to lose other good employees and end up with a frustrated, demoralized, and disengaged team that won’t appreciate the disruption in their midst. If someone is truly a jerk, you may need to show them the door.

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