In my recent article on the value of empathy as a manager, I mentioned the archetype of someone who is “brilliant but difficult”. The extreme example might be John Nash played by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind or Will Hunting played by Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. You’ve worked with a less extreme example: somebody who knows their stuff, can do things in half the time it takes others, but has problem behaviors that makes them difficult to work with.
The John Nash or Will Hunting archetype is attractive – I think – because it’s hopeful. We hope that people will accept us as we are and see our unique brilliance and contribution, despite all our flaws.
Problem behaviors don’t usually come from a willful desire to cause trouble or friction.
It’s usually an automatic reaction to a particular situation, based on experiences earlier in life. Will Hunting doesn’t want to be a math genius because life has taught him he doesn’t deserve to be happy or successful. John Nash had serious mental illness.
Nevertheless, these problem behaviors can affect the performance of a team. In my previous article I suggested that “problem behaviors” really mean “behaviors I don’t want to deal with as a manager”. Hopefully that article convinced you to develop empathy and you are now willing to show difficult employees some kindness. Now these problem behaviors are just puzzles to be solved.
It’s important to distinguish temporary problems from habitual problem behaviors. Examples of temporary problems are being a new parent, having a sick relative, a relationship that’s in trouble or a health problem. These things manifest in a variety of ways in the workplace: being late, being irritable, difficulty focusing, falling asleep at your desk (I’ve fallen asleep at my desk. It’s an underrated way to pass the time). If you can’t find the patience and empathy to wait for someone to work through a major life change, I’d suggest that management isn’t for you.
It’s the habitual problem behaviors that are challenging. They don’t automatically pass with time and they affect teams in a variety of ways. They can obstruct the progress of work. They can prevent communication and information being shared. They can create friction that will erode team engagement. A manager must bring these problem behaviors into the open and work through them. Any less and they erode trust and teamwork. In my experience, problem behaviors come from :
- Experiences in this workplace
- Experiences in other workplaces
- Experiences from outside work.
- Mental illness – I’ll cover this in a future post
I had a gentleman on my team who was extremely talented. We brought him in to help the team take a technical leap forward in a particular area. He was brilliant and deeply wanted to help the team. Like many brilliant people, it frustrated him when other people didn’t “get” things as quickly as he did. It was difficult for him to work in teams. Unfortunately, we placed him in a team of one and told him he was going to lead the charge into this new technical area. We set him up for failure. Now he was under pressure to lead the team using influence skills he didn’t have. Our high expectations and the added pressure made it even more difficult for him when others didn’t “get it” as quickly as he did. We realized the problem too late and he’d damaged too many relationships. He left the company.
I had a guy on my team who had been previously laid off because a business unit failed, downsized and shed employees. Being laid off is a painful experience that can hurt your pride. He’d been laid off multiple times. Each time he’d proposed strategies that might have avoided the failure and been ignored. He’d learned that when he saw problems and proposed a change of direction, people ignored him and he got laid off.
He had a gift for spotting forthcoming business problems. When he saw some in my team, he proposed a strategy that didn’t get adopted. His subconscious alarm bells went off. Desperate not to repeat history, he started defending his ideas with increasing desperation which caused a lot of friction with team mates, and angry meetings. I brought his attention to the conflict he was creating and we worked on it. Eventually I let him go because he couldn’t put it behind him.
Most people pick up nuts ideas about the world from childhood and other life experiences. Here’s a personal example: my childhood taught me that being “right” was very important. I was also right a lot, which reinforced that belief. My ego became centered on being “right”. This made me a difficult team mate. I’d get into arguments with people and wouldn’t back down, or would beat people into agreement. I couldn’t concede things even if they were unimportant. I was also extremely bad at taking feedback. A couple of managers tried to bring my problem behaviors to my attention. I couldn’t see their kind attempt to help and decided that the feedback was obviously wrong! Wanting to be right made it hard for me to see other people’s viewpoint. It took me a long time to see this behavior and realize it was unhelpful. Putting it behind me transformed my ability to work collaboratively with people.
People show up at work with a variety of problem behaviors. These aren’t behaviors that people create simply to be difficult. They’re a deeply rooted part of their personality and based in their life experiences. The simple – and wrong – answer applied by many workplaces is to tell people to “leave that stuff outside work”. That’s unrealistic and, I would argue, deeply unhelpful. There’s an emotional cost to suppressing your personality which can exacerbate the problem behaviors.
A good manager – I think – makes a sincere attempt to support their employees and help employees address these problem behaviors. Pushing someone out the door at the first sign of problem behaviors is simply passing the problem on to someone else. Engage with difficult employees, bring attention to the problem behaviors with kindness. Give them time to work through problem behaviors and show sincerity in your support employees.
You aren’t a psychiatrist or a therapist. I’m not suggesting that’s the role of a manager. But you do have a choice. You have the choice of helping an employee manage through their problem behaviors for the benefit of yourself and future employers. Or you have the choice to pass the buck.
I know which I choose.