Tuesday, December 4, 2018

High-Maintenance Employees in the Workplace

What effect does the high-maintenance colleague have in your workplace?

We're not talking here about the person who is doing bad work or has overtly unacceptable behaviors, such as abuse or intolerance. We're talking about the kind of person most managers describe as high-maintenance because they demand a lot of time without producing a lot of work.

We have had this issue come up three times with clients in just the last few months. Consider the fictional example of George.

George is good but not great at his job. He always has questions about how to go about his work, has a pessimistic view of the future and resists change and innovations. His colleagues have to overcome these obstacles to work with him and have to resist arguing with him about his views and behaviors. It should be noted that George's work output is perfectly reasonable.

Researcher Eli Finkel at Northwestern University, and many others, have looked at the effects conflict and interpersonal friction have on people working on common goals in relationships—and it's not always what you think. The Finkel research is well replicated and the social coordination model is well understood in psychology. We can apply the research in the workplace and come up with some interesting results.

Managers often feel that the reason for keeping a high-maintenance employee on the team is an issue of diversity or fairness—that it would be unfair to remove someone from the team because of a personality issue. Further, managers often think the issue is one of morale and they can compensate for the Georges of the world by keeping up morale in other ways.

Finkel's research views the problem more as one of social coordination and self-control. It describes self-control as a limited capacity system that can be run down when taxed too much. High-maintenance interactions put a lot of pressure on the capacity for self-control, and so social friction occurs and workplace coordination breaks down.

When personality issues are brought to us we look first at the organization to ensure that everything is set up to position the employees for success. Are goals understood? Are the roles clear? Are there effective processes in place? If the answer to these is yes then the personality issue can usually be concluded as the problem. Colleagues can't collaborate with someone if dealing with them results in more self-control than successful outcomes of teamwork.

We reviewed the workplace, and in George's case the goals, roles and processes were clear. George's behavior was in some way wired-in. As a first step, we advised the managers to bring to his attention the effect he was having on his colleagues. The managers needed to address the situation not as a personality issue, but as specific behaviors that were affecting the ability of his colleagues to collaborate with him.

In our experience, some people find this behavior extremely hard to change. As a leader you have to balance the work the person is accomplishing against the effect they have on the team and make a decision that is best for everyone. In the last three months one of our Georges resigned, one was terminated and one is making a sincere effort to change based on the feedback and the effect on their colleagues.

What’s the take away for business? Managing a high-maintenance employee isn't about exerting control over their personality. The right perspective is to view it as setting up a work environment with smooth social coordination so that goals, roles and processes are achieved collaboratively.

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