How to deal with the brilliant, but problematic employee

Do you have that one brilliant, irreplaceable employee who brings so much to the table but who seems to have been raised in a barn? Here's why you need to do something.

The first doctor: "Well, we could try that treatment and buy you a year or two, but at your age, you've already cheated the average life expectancy."

Doctor #2: "You're 87? You don't look like you're in very good shape. My dad's 87 and he walks four miles a day."

And yet another: "It might be cancer. Now would be a good time to ask - would you want to live on a ventilator if that were your only choice?"

These are some things I've heard some highly trained and brilliant medical professionals utter in the last few weeks as we've been seeking treatment for my father

The excuse I've heard for off-putting behavior like this is that these people are geniuses at what they do and slight imperfections, like the ability to communicate in a humane way, are a small sacrifice. Well, maybe.

Yes, I would prefer my dad's surgeon be more brilliant with the knife than conversation.  But there's something to be said for tact and for being able to convey the information you have that many others don't.

I started with this article with this more extreme example to make a point about how eager we are, even in the workplace, to dismiss the lack of social graces—or in some cases, downright rudeness—as a byproduct of the brilliant mind.

As a manager, I don't expect those who possess some singular talent that drives business in a big way to be Dale Carnegie-esque. In other words, I don't need them to be winning friends all over the godforsaken place. But I don't think it's too much to ask these people to not make their coworkers dive under their desks in order not to have contact with them.

Geniuses like to play the Steve Jobs card to defend their countenances. Well, you know what? Mr. Jobs was indeed a genius, but if he'd reported to me, I'd have lauded his ideas but asked him to watch how he conveyed them.

The effect on the team

When management doesn't chastise the brilliant employee for his or her negative attitudes or interaction with other team members, what do you think it says? It says that that person isn't held to the same principles of civility; that no one else on the team is as important. Productivity can tank as well, if your other employees would rather drink battery acid than have an encounter with the resident genius.

The Harvard Business Review spent a decade studying the effect on antisocial behavior in the office and, based on responses from thousands of managers and employees, found that those with anti-social co-workers exhibit:

  • a decrease in effort (48%)
  • less time spent in the office (47%), and
  • lower quality of work (38%)

Steps to take

It's not always easy to face the cold, confident eyes of the office Einstein in a one-on-one consult. You might think that criticism will be met with anger or, worse, condescension. And you might be right. But sometimes the person is absolutely unaware of how he or she comes across, is shocked by the truth, and wants to change. If not, you can and should impose some kind of checks and balances on him or her. No one is irreplaceable. Weigh the loss of your genius against the stats listed above.

You may also want to consider offering bits of feedback throughout the year rather than in one sit-down.

Another complication—some anti-social behavior comes about because of a need for control, an aggressive nature, and a host of other psychological aspects that are not in my (or your realm) of understanding and/or dealing with. (Unless you're reading this and you're a licensed psychologist. In that case, I apologize, Dr. Phil.) In that case, you can refer employees to HR or an EAP if your company has one.

Either way, don't sweep the issue under the table. It's unfair to your other employees. And just think of what heights your genius can climb to if his or her social skills are honed?


Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

Editor's Picks