Managers frequently complain that the toughest part of their jobs is managing underperforming individuals. In my experience, that’s actually not true. It’s usually pretty easy to characterize the gaps between job expectations and actual job performance, and to provide underperforming individuals with the coaching they need to bridge those gaps. Conversations with underperformers may be difficult, but the empirical evidence that underpins such discussions is usually painfully obvious.
The toughest people to manage in any organization are frequently those with the greatest talents. Talented individuals typically play critical roles in an organization’s success. However, they can also be arrogant, argumentative, condescending, aloof or disruptive. Their managers are acutely aware that their contributions could easily be magnified if they were only able to overcome their self-imposed limitations.
Talented individuals commonly display unique traits which must be taken into account in any feedback discussion. Really talented people don’t necessarily display all the characteristics listed below, but are likely to exhibit one or more.
Lack of confidence
At some level, we all have job security issues. Talented individuals are particularly adept at camouflaging theirs. Surprisingly, it’s been my experience that whenever a reduction-in-force is announced, the most talented individuals within the organization are among of the first to ask whether their names are on the layoff list. This happens with stunning frequency. Individuals who would be the last team members to be discharged don’t truly appreciate their criticality, regardless of the accolades they’ve received in the past. If your organization is facing tough times, take the preemptory step of telling your most talented people that you’ll be relying on them to assist in weathering the bad times and rebuilding the organization after the storm has passed.
Extroverts versus introverts
Talented individuals can have very different personalities. Some are constantly trying to prove that they’re the smartest, best organized, most clairvoyant people in the room. Others are shy and somewhat introverted. They need to be constantly invited to share their views and opinions. There’s usually not a whole lot of middle ground between these two extremes. Managers need to establish subtle code words and phrases for curbing the airtime of the talented extroverts and encouraging commentary by the introverts.
Emotional IQ deficiency
In many cases the technical IQ of talented individuals is inversely correlated with their emotional IQ. Simply put, they don’t understand how their styles and personalities impact their co-workers. It’s ironic that many talented individuals would tell you they welcome a lively exchange of views with others while their behaviors suggest exactly the opposite. Managers need to find graceful ways of facilitating discussion among all members of their teams and may have to personally challenge the opinions of their most talented people, simply to empower others to share their views as well.
Susceptible to bouts of depression
Talented individuals can develop a messianic complex in which they feel they’re carrying an entire organization or project team on their backs. They observe the behaviors of others and conclude that their colleagues are not working as fast, smart or hard as they are. Under these circumstances they can easily become demoralized and depressed. In extreme cases they become passive-aggressive, marginally delivering on their commitments while paying public lip service to their team’s goals. Managers who detect symptoms of emotional or intellectual disengagement need to find ways of getting their most talented folks back in the game, especially since other team members will inevitably pick up on the cues being displayed by their most prominent peers.
Overly sensitive to criticism
Talented people have received so much positive feedback throughout their careers that even the mildest forms of constructive criticism can trigger severe reactions. They may reject such criticism out of hand, vilify its source or attach far more significance to such comments than was originally intended. Managers need to realize that talented individuals may need a little more help in processing and internalizing critical feedback than other team members. More than one conversation will likely be required to ensure that such feedback has been properly interpreted.
Compulsive idea lovers
It’s all too easy for talented individuals to fall in love with their own ideas. In some instances they feel that their primary responsibility is to generate ideas and not necessarily to develop the business justifications or implementation plans needed to convert their ideas into practical business outcomes. Talented individuals who suffer from implementation deficit disorder need to be counseled that ideas alone – regardless of their potential significance or theoretical value – are not a source of competitive business advantage. A relentless stream of great ideas that never get implemented is actually a sign of career failure – not career success.
Finger in every pie
Some talented individuals suffer from a compulsion to offer ideas, suggestions or criticisms about a wide variety of projects and operational practices – even those in which they are not directly involved. In many situations, their feedback is very well intended. They typically have skills, knowledge and experience that qualify them to make such observations. However, this compulsion frequently distracts them from the problems or initiatives you want them to work on. Every manager needs to become adept at politely but persistently curbing the intellectual promiscuity of their most talented team members.
The biggest challenge
Talented individuals are almost inevitably called upon to assume broader organizational responsibilities precisely because they’ve been so successful in the past. When asked to serve as a team leader or first level manager they frequently find it difficult to stop acting as individual contributors. They instinctively attempt to continue performing their former jobs while striving to prescribe the activities of their new team members in detail.
The transition to first level management or team leadership is difficult for everyone, but particularly problematic for talented individuals because they probably could perform everyone else’s job better than the current incumbents!
Talented individuals need to come to terms with the fact that no matter how smart or dedicated they may be, their personal talents cannot scale to address all the requirements placed on their teams. This realization is the first step in learning how to broaden their organizational impact by working constructively through a multitalented team.
It’s the responsibility of senior leaders to ensure that talented individuals consciously acknowledge the scalability dilemma they are facing as a first step in turning them into true team managers.