How to Manage — and Motivate — Challenging Employees

by Michael Feuer and Dustin Klein

No doubt, you have some high performing and/or supremely creative employees on your team, but if they are difficult to deal with, you need to ask yourself if they’re worth putting up with.

The dilemma occurs, though, when these difficult types really are terrific at their jobs. And it’s even worse when they — and maybe even you — believe they’re irreplaceable.

With an employee does a good job but has a problematic personality or habits, you have two choices:
• get rid of the person and risk the consequences of lost productivity
• figure out how to deal with the person’s shortcomings while taking advantage of his or her strengths (most times, this will be the more profitable route).

If the second option sounds better to you, here’s our advice for managing three of the most common types of challenging employees.

1. The Prima Donna M.O. (Modus Operandi)
This person might announce a brilliant solution to a longstanding problem or unfailingly woo your biggest customers.

But through it all, he or she wants to be applauded, coddled, admired and generally treated like a celebrity.

This behavior consumes your time, disturbs day-to-day operations and alienates other team members.

• The Live with ’em Solution
Put your cards on the table. Tell your prima donna how valuable he (or she) is and how grateful you are for his work, but also let him know that he’s a pain to deal with and that he’s approaching a crossroads.

Ask what you can do to avoid future problems, and stress that your door is always open; however, make it clear that these behaviors need to change — or else.

Make this person a part of the solution by putting the onus on him to come up with a fix for a peaceful and productive coexistence.

Allow him to win — but on your terms, not his.

Remember that most prima donnas are typically OK people deep down inside.

Usually, their egos have been stroked too much in the past, or they’re hiding a major inferiority complex — or both.

Sure, prima donnas require more of your time and attention, but the alternative is losing a highly productive or creative performer.

If you figure out what makes your prima donna tick, you’ll be a big step closer to neutralizing the annoyance factor while preserving productivity.

2. The Mr. or Ms. “It’s Not My Job” M.O.
Technically, this person isn’t breaking the rules. He does everything his job description says he should, and he does it well.

But when he’s asked to go above and beyond, expand his role or pitch in on another project, he responds with, “It’s not my job.”

• The Live with ’em Solution
Not everything an employee is asked to do is going to fit comfortably into his or her predetermined job description.

But the fact is that a successful organization is a team effort, and, sometimes, people need to do more to help out.

As a leader, you must make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that contributing to success — in any way necessary — is everybody’s job.

Every member of your team must know that “whatever it takes” isn’t an option; it’s a requirement.

It doesn’t matter if someone is an administrative assistant or a vice president; it’s all for one and one for all.

3. The Perfectionist M.O.
Nobody can deny that your resident perfectionist is a hard worker.

He makes sure every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed — every time.

He’ll continue to tweak a project hours after someone else would have declared it complete.

• The Live with ’em Solution
Normally, an employee who thinks that a half-baked effort is unacceptable would be an asset.

The problem is that not accepting anything less than perfection can be too much of a good thing.

As a leader, you must make sure that your employees don’t sacrifice too much time — or end up failing to achieve anything at all — in their quest for the best.

Don’t get me wrong; you should not encourage lackluster performances or tell your workers that they shouldn’t worry about getting it right the first time

Just remember that if you’re putting out a fire in a garbage can, you need only a few gallons of water—not an entire water tanker.

Try to help resident perfectionists distinguish between tasks that must be done to the letter and those that can be done just adequately enough to move on to the next step or support another initiative.

This is often a learned skill that can be difficult for people to embrace at first — especially those who are fearful of making a misstep.

Therefore, be very clear and cautious when you’re explaining what must be done and how much time and energy each task is worth.

Michael Feuer (pronounced “foy-er”) cofounded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money, a partner, and a small group of investors. As CEO, he grew OfficeMax to more than 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual sales topping $5 billion.
He also is CEO of Max-Ventures, a venture capital and retail consulting firm, and founder and CEO of Max-Wellness, a comprehensive health and wellness retail chain that launched in 2010.

Dustin S. Klein is the publisher and executive editor of Smart Business Network Inc., publisher of one national and 17 regional editions of Smart Business magazine, organizer of Smart Business conferences and creator of Smart Business marketing programs.

This article is excerpted from the new book,
The Benevolent Dictator: Empower Your Employees, Build Your Business, and Outwit the Competition, by Mr. Feuer and Mr. Klein.

(Wiley; 2011; ISBN: 978-1-118-00391-6; $24.95;


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