High Maintenance: How to Manage Skilled But Spoiled Workers

How do you manage a skilled IT worker who is also a spoiled brat?

When the new IT contractor arrived at Tasty Baking Co., he might just as well have had "high maintenance" tattooed on his forehead. In his very first day on the job, he managed to alienate his co-workers with his poor interpersonal skills, solo mentality and penchant for repeatedly misunderstanding assignments.

When Autumn Bayles, CIO at the 1,000-employee Philadelphia-based company, saw a team disaster in the making, she acted fast. She canceled his contract immediately and asked him not to return the next day.

Bayles defines high-maintenance employees as those who feel their knowledge is exclusive or who have eccentricities that lead to bad behavior that they think they can get away with because of their technical ability. But no matter how much value a top performer adds, if the team suffers, he's out.

"There are too many people who have the technical skills we need without the negative traits," she says. "We are happy with a little less technical ability if the person has excellent people skills and no negative attitude."

However you define them, high-maintenance employees challenge even the most seasoned IT managers, and while you can safely jettison some incorrigible employees, others may have skills or experience key to your IT group's success. If you can't live without them, you have to learn how to manage them. And until you do, they can hurt team productivity and morale.

Some would say the idea of a high-maintenance top performer is an oxymoron. "The idea of a top performer is a complete package of top technical competence and on-the-job behavior," says Cushing Anderson, a corporate learning and performance analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass.

But all too often, Anderson sees managers hire for technical prowess and then live with poor behavior. He says that letting an employee get away with negative behavior leads to high maintenance, so he recommends an aggressive approach: changing an employee's role, starting disciplinary action early or even providing time off so the employee can address the problem.

Greg Valdez agrees that the key to managing high-maintenance employees is to quickly deal with the problems they create.

Valdez, an IT director at Intel Corp., says a big problem with high-maintenance workers is that opportunities are lost when a manager focuses his attention on the squeaky wheel rather than on real production. When that happens, "you are treading water," he says. "That's why it's so important to move on these issues before they become critical."

Valdez says that high maintenance and low performance often go hand in hand, and correcting one problem typically helps resolve the other. He encourages a high level of personal commitment from employees. Each employee should own and enjoy his work, he says, which means the manager must make sure square pegs aren't being forced into round holes. He also pays performance bonuses to employees who work well in their teams.

Valdez encourages his managers to promote a healthy work-life outlook, meaning no one should live at work. Employees who spend too much time on the job are almost always the ones who need more management attention, he says.

Goals and Resources

At CNC Global Ltd., a consulting firm in Toronto, CIO Andrew Dillane has found that goal-setting helps high-maintenance employees focus on the positive. He also makes sure they have access to the resources they need for their jobs, and he involves each person in the department's overall direction and vision. Each employee should know specifically how he's contributing to that vision, Dillane says.

Even so, he also says that there are times for asking high-maintenance employees tough questions, such as whether they think their contributions to the IT department are meeting expectations. "It's very important to make sure managers are communicating about the employee contribution -- that the employee is making a difference," says Dillane.

Bill Brooks keeps high-maintenance problems to a minimum through peer management, good hiring processes and careful communication about company policies and expectations.

Brooks, an IT director at Ingram Micro Inc. in Santa Ana, Calif., is in charge of internal support. He manages about 130 employees who handle about 5,000 calls a day, so high-maintenance employees can affect call volumes and success rates.

Peer management has been particularly effective, he says. It's based on the assumption that employees respond better to other team members than to people in official management positions. Often, this kind of relationship engenders trust, which is just what the high-maintenance IT employee needs, Brooks says.

The technique requires that senior IT employees be given real management responsibility. For example, Brooks tells of a veteran technical support engineer who was approached for information about security issues by a junior employee who was just learning the ropes.

In the past, a top performer might act like a high-maintenance prima donna, withholding information and blocking the junior employee's progress. But as a peer manager, the senior employee responded with an e-mail that said, "I have to commend you for your enthusiasm and efforts in learning more about the security field. Here are a few things I'd recommend." He then listed specific career suggestions and books about IT security, and he offered to help in other ways.

The mentor role focuses the senior employee on the team, so he sees that the team's success is his success, Brooks explains.

Better hiring processes can also help reduce high-maintenance behavior, Brooks says. In the initial stages of hiring, he looks for candidates with a technical foundation mixed with people skills and a team mentality. During a second phase of interviews, the prospective hire sits in with senior-level employees to discuss how the job works. "We give a very realistic preview of the position so no one walks into a role with false expectations," says Brooks.

In the process, those employees also note how comfortably the candidate fits into the team culture, and they assist in the selection process.

Communicating Clearly

Finally, Brooks uses clear communication to help employees understand where they stand in the company and where they're going. "High maintenance occurs when there is no solid career path or when the next level in a career is not discernably different from the previous position," says Brooks. "It can also occur when the manager is not communicating on a regular basis."

And the topics of that communication are crucial as well. "Managers need to catch employees doing something right and praise them, not just point out flaws and problems," he says.

Brooks says no single strategy will solve all of the problems related to high-maintenance behavior. If you want to keep a high-maintenance employee, try a management approach that involves consistent communication, coaching and mentoring combined with swift intervention and disciplinary action when problems arise.

High-maintenance employees will always exist, but how and when you deal with them can make all the difference.

Brandon is a freelance writer in Buffalo, Minn. Contact him at jbrandonbb@hotmail.com.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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