Leadership

How to handle the difficult genius

All managers have had to deal with the staffer who is highly skilled but hard to get along with. At what point do you take action?

Every manager has had to deal with a "difficult" employee at some point in his or her career. Obviously, every person is unique, and every employee needs and deserves unique treatment from the boss. However, there is one class of difficult employees that can truly damage an organization: the difficult genius.

When I say "difficult," I'm talking about someone who can be considered toxic to the organization. He or she is negative, overly opinionated (just for the sake of being argumentative), stresses out the rest of the staff, and makes it difficult for the team as a whole to get their jobs done. Moreover, he or she opposes every project, effort, and idea by others on the team, no matter how good they might be.

On the other hand, this is the indispensable person on the staff. He or she holds years of institutional memory, has a unique skill set, has become critical to a myriad of processes, or is just plain awesome at the job and is brilliant at coming up with new solutions... in spite of the fact that he or she works with "a bunch of dummies."

What effect does this person have?

What kind of damage can the difficult genius do to the department? First, constant negativity against the other staff will ultimately have a detrimental effect on the whole department. People will simply give up and go work elsewhere, perhaps in an environment in which the demonstrated behavior is not tolerated. Make no bones about it; if you have a difficult, arrogant genius on your hands, the rest of the staff knows it and, rightly, has an expectation that you will fix it. If you don't fix it, the situation could escalate to a point at which too much (bad) turnover starts to make people question your leadership abilities.

Note: I say "bad" turnover, because there is good turnover, too. Bad turnover happens when good people leave because of negative environmental factors within your control. Good turnover happens when people are able to improve themselves through upward opportunities in other organizations or when someone who either has poor skills or a poor attitude leaves the company.

Second, people outside the department are likely to know about the problem as well and, again, will probably expect you to do something about the situation. When a negative entity is allowed to interact with people outside your department, that person becomes the face of your department for that interaction.

I'm not going to get too deeply into the reasons behind the behavior except to say that there could be a lot of causes. Maybe he simply doesn't like you or feels that, since he knows more about something than you do that you're faking it and he's the one who should be in charge. Maybe she doesn't like her job. Maybe he doesn't like his coworkers. Or maybe, just maybe, she's just a jerk in all areas of her life. For the purposes of this article, let's assume that you're a capable manager who is generally respected in the organization and by the rest of the staff and that you do a good job. Obviously, there may be other reasons for the employee's bad behavior and those absolutely need to be considered before further action is taken. After all, if the person's attitude is due to something correctable, address the situation to fix the problem.

What do you do?

It all starts with making some choices:

  • What staff members do you want to preserve? Do you need to keep the difficult person around or can you afford to lose one or more of your other staff?
  • How badly do you need the services being rendered by the staff member in question? Can the work be handled by someone else?
  • Is the person replaceable? Frankly, if he's not replaceable, you have a real problem on your hands that goes beyond his attitude.
  • Is the person salvageable? If so, is it worth your time? This may seem to be a cold question, but do you have the time to devote to a single member of the team in this way?

Answers to these questions will lead you to having to choose from a number of options:

  • Do nothing. If the person is so important to the organization that he needs to be left alone, you can leave him alone while understanding that this option will probably result in losing other staff members. This tactic rarely works well.
  • You can try talking one-on-one with the person and making her aware of how she is perceived by others on the staff or in the organization. This is likely to become a confrontational discussion as people with attitude problems probably already know that they have an attitude problem, even if they call it something else. That said, I've actually seen this work well when handled correctly.
  • You can take steps to modify the person's workload so that they have less interaction with the staff, but this probably won't work in the long run. Too many tasks are collaborative in nature and require more than one person. You'd probably be doing the organization a disservice and would allow the person additional opportunity to consolidate what responsibilities they do have in a way that could make it difficult to eventually transfer those responsibilities to someone else if necessary.
  • As a next step, you can involve others in the organization (generally Human Resources) or even refer the person to the organization's external employee assistance service, if one exists. Unfortunately, if you have to go this far with the situation, you're probably facing an uphill battle, but it is possible that the person will recognize the severity of the issue and begin to correct.
  • Eventually, when a serious attitude problem exists, it's more than likely that you'll need to fire the person for the sake of the rest of the team. Constant negativity is a cancer that will have a negative impact on your staff. Further, your staff will take note if you decide to ignore the problem and they will blame you if they have to leave over it. Even if you have a so-called indispensable person, you need to find a way to make this person more dispensable. When is it time to move to this step? If you've exhausted your other options and the person's attitude is having a negative impact on everyone else, you owe it to the staff to take this step and bring the workplace back into balance. Find ways for the difficult person's work to be handled while you look for a replacement, even if you have to do the work yourself. You'll be in a stronger position for it later on.

For my own organization, I hire attitude first, skill second. This strategy has worked to tremendous success. Obviously, I don't hire completely inexperienced people into high-skill positions, but when I and my full team interview people, we do look for a fit. We don't look for "yes men" or people too much like us, but we do look for people who fit our culture and have appropriate skills to do the job, even if that means we need to provide some training. We have a variety of personalities on the team, and people get along extremely well. Moreover, our results with this team have been incredible, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that we don't hire jerks into the organization.

You can teach skills, but teaching attitude is much harder.

About

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

101 comments
Robert.Teilmann
Robert.Teilmann

What do you do when the "Difficult Genius" is the Boss?

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

that genius is always difficult. For both genius and non-genius.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Is how did this so called [b]Difficult Genius[/b] come about? If you are managing the department that they work in you have created this person. If you have just moved into this department you have inherited the stain on the floor from another [b]Bad Manager.[/b] ;) This type of person is always created they just don't spontaneously appear. Col

felleroy
felleroy

A bit naivet?, but the start of a good discusion.

corneliusgoh
corneliusgoh

3 tactics to handle difficult genius: a) Move up: promote him away from his current position to some job out of his expertise. He will be motivated to pass his job to his successor, while being made humble by the new job's challenge. b) Move out: by performance review, peer review, emphasize his attitude problem. He will definitely look out, and quite easy for him to find new job because of his expertise. Good luck to his new boss ! c) Move lateral: same as a) but no promotion. Tougher to convince him, so he will choose b) In conclusion: a)=c) or b)

jsargent
jsargent

What if you have 2 difficult geniuses having a go at each other?

aziz.rahim
aziz.rahim

My simple practice in handling such people I spend time initially to let him/her realize that we all expect him to change his attitude and what he/she can achieved if he do so. If the above efforts fail then I believe in simple phrase: If you cannot change the person, change the person.

jhughes2020
jhughes2020

A long time ago . . . I read about a "genius" who was difficult, but the company wanted to keep him. So, the company hired a person at an inflated salary with the condition that under no circumstances could the new hire complain about the genius. It worked. The two employees got along, they produced genius work, and the company made lots of money.

dmil
dmil

You've copped out on the main point when you yourself state in the article regarding the talking one-on-one with the person: "...I?ve actually seen this work well when handled correctly." So what is the way the way to "handle this correctly"? That is THE key question here, and you failed to address it.

renodogs
renodogs

I have to laugh at some of these comments. Some of you folks are a bit inexperienced in dealing with difficult people, period. First and foremost, you don't MANAGE difficult people, or easy people. You manage the business, and you place the assets in the proper position to maximize that profit potential. Key personnel or not, a company exists to make a profit, and if that profit isn't being made, then you are the manager have failed and you should be shown the door. It's been my experience that most managers were plucked from the depths of the employee base because they performed a certain job well with the expectation that they would also perform well as a so called "manager". Some were okay, most failed miserably. Why? Because they could not get over the personal link from their past and make the difficult decisions required to produce a lean and efficient department. They simply replicated to the best of their ability the same old crap they came from. In other words, they haven't a clue on what to do with the marshmellow, the bland employee, or the little general. It takes balls, money, and a little faith to make decisions in business. More importantly, it takes a people skill to guide people into their best performance so your organization can perform at its peak. Excuses are a dime a dozen- and plenty of managers have those by the dozens. I'd say this to any manager: GROW A PAIR and quit trying to be everybody's friend. Be fair, but firm. Don't tolerate insubordination from any rank, lest you lose control of the whole darned place and you be handed your walking papers.

Curtis R. Unruh
Curtis R. Unruh

I call them the 50-50's. That is, 50% of the time they bail you out of a serious jam, 50% of the time they put you in some kind of jam. My success with them always comes down to this. I call them in and tell them that I have an expectation that their priorities will immediately begin to line up with my priorities. Then I ask them if there is anything unreasonable about that. If they say yes, I start the process of termination (whatever and however that works in the organization you're in). If they agree, I document the discussion in an email to them mandating that they respond that they agree that is what was discussed. They get one, maybe two additional counseling sessions (if necessary) about how they need to line up their priorities (of course also documented). If it works out, it's good for everybody. If not, out they go. They see it coming a long time before it happens and they either leave on their own or are escorted out but they know it's serious. I've been very successful in turning employees around using this methodology.

agilebrainz
agilebrainz

Attitude over competence? While I do not suggest that anyone's professional brilliance excuses them from being a human being, this concept is still kinda scary. It might explain why there are so many pleasant but ultimately incompetent people in the workforce. Oops, am I sounding like a difficult genius? :)

vinotech
vinotech

dwdino has the methodology - the part that we seem to be missing is that the DG possibly has a touch of personality disorder and it's not completely the DGs fault. the simple fact of the matter is that it is beyond the DGs abilities to understand that what comes to him so easily could not make sense to the other individuals in the organization. It just doesn't make sense to them. Keeping this in mind and following a development path very similar to that which dwdino posted has allowed me to manage DGs into productive members of global teams.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Watch, learn and thank your lucky stars. It's the best training you'll ever get. ;) Col

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

I'm not Difficult I'm [b]NICE.[/b] I know this because I read it on the Internet. :0 Col

Doncenzo
Doncenzo

I am a DG. I believe that ignoring prolems or tolerating ineptitude and accepting a lower standard is its own punishment. If it wasn't for the miscreants in management who have risen as the Peter Principle dictates; if it wasn't for the "positive attitudes" who search for shinola every day, I wouldn't have my job. God bless these idiots, I say. In the meantime, is it too much to ask that clerical support be able to perform basic arithmetic and know all 26 letters in their original order? So, I will continue to walk among you, picking up the pieces, saving your asses and coming up with original thoughts. I know that scares some of you. What scares me is that sometimes what seems so crystal clear to a DG is muddied and confusing to others. You just don't get it. That's OK. Blame the DG. You'll feel better. And remember... Ignorance is bliss! Call me when it breaks! I walk among you.

corneliusgoh
corneliusgoh

Chinese ancient philosopher Confucius had said 2,500 years ago on talent selection: Attitude 1st Skill 2nd

dwdino
dwdino

and some popcorn.

jahman8991
jahman8991

I agree he didn't address it at all and of course you cannot address someones attitude because an attitude is not a behavior. You have to talk about tangible actions they take. Rolling their eyes, huffing etc. An attitude is something you infer from observation. That conversation would go like this - Manager:You have a bad attitude. Employee:No I don't. You really need to address their behavior. I recomment what they teach at manager-tools.com which is desribe the behavior they are displaying and the impact of their behavior. Ex:Manager:When you belittle people in meetings you make other people feel uncomfortable, people don't speak up in the meetings and we are not an effective organziation. What can you do to fix that? I think as a manager you have to try and mentor them into becoming a better employee and improving but if they can't change or unwilling to change then you must take action to remove them. But along the way you have to document it, and work through the HR and employee relations processes of the company.

NexS
NexS

"First and foremost, you don't MANAGE difficult people, or easy people. You manage the business, and you place the assets in the proper position to maximize that profit potential" What about the people aren't CEO's? I'm SURE there is at least some form of a 'tree' hierarchical system. "Team Leaders" or "Supervisors" do not manage the business. Further, I'm sure if a supervisor decided to take on managing the business, then the CEO would rip them a new one. Think "Santeewelding" but actually in your face. Pah.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

managers parachuted in than grow up off the shop floor. I've seen no real correlation between sucess and origin though. None for having a pair either. Procrastination and cya being necessary skills in corporate management. 'Promoting' a successful tech to management doesn't generally work because the reasoning behind it is badly flawed. The reasoning behind that suggests that being a really good doctor's receptionist means you can take out someones appendix out without killing them. Junior devlopers can be promoted to senior developers. Junior managers to senior ones. Developer to manager or vice versa is a career switch. So on what basis is the decision being made? Tony will make a good manager because he can program in five languages? I beg to differ. Tony will make a better manager than anyone stoopid enough to believe that, I agree...

JamesRL
JamesRL

Where its all black and white, cut and dried. I have a number of "genius" types on my team. They are smart enough to know not to do something that would get them fired. They are adept enough to deflect, turn the tables and yes lie their way out of conflicts. They wouldn't still be with the company unless they made a valuable contribution. The point at which you have to look at getting rid of them is the point where the effort involved in keeping them is more than the value they bring to the table. Managers do manage people as well as the business. Managers must try and get the best out of their team, in terms of producitivity and effort. If one prima donna is taking up too much management focus, and the manager isn't working to develop the rest of the team, its time to deal with it. James

djed
djed

I think they use that concept at BP.

santeewelding
santeewelding

By the horns, didn't you, and sent it right back where it came from.

dwdino
dwdino

"I'm not Difficult" nor genius.

djed
djed

applies to everyone, not just managers. I take it you're not a manager.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

looks like you went in over your own head.

santeewelding
santeewelding

When you have no spelling prolems, genius. When you do, it don't.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Pretends to be a team player while being excluded? Suffers fools gladly? Brownnoser? Or just for a laugh Enthusiastic contributor and learner driven to excellence....

JamesRL
JamesRL

Have you ever hired anyone? Skill is easier to determine. There are lots of people who demonstrate a great attitude during an interview, whose attitude is different once they get into the job. James

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

What has made bad outweigh good? Are they now of less value because there's nowhere for them to add it. Job done say. How do you imagine someone capable of designing huge complex systems feels about a steady diet of caption changing? If that's all there is to do, bin them and hire some cheap vaguely competent type who will be challenged or content with that sort of work. Problem and genius are two sides of the same coin. Without both sides, all you have is a valueless metal disk....

Get-Smart
Get-Smart

At least BP is better than the Obama mis-ministration, which has neither good attitude nor competence! As a DG, my perspective (as well as others I have worked with) is that management "doesn't get it". It's not always the engineer that over-engineers a product. Give me 15 minutes to fix a problem myself that management would take 2 months to discuss, plan, implement the wrong solution, and roll it back. Then give me the 15 minutes I originally asked for to fix the problem "unofficially". So there!

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

Couldn't be me as I'm [b]NICE.[/b] I know that it's true too because I read it on the Internet. :^0 Col 0:-)

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Vaguely competent problem, didn't sound too good. I'm not anti-management, perish the thought. I'm anti-bad management.

JamesRL
JamesRL

I do note you often seem anti management, but then again from what you have said in other it sounds like you've had more than your share of bad managers. You could be a genius.....how would I know.

JamesRL
JamesRL

The whole point of behavioral interviewing is to get someone to provide real examples of how they reacted in certain situations. While I would never make a hiring decision on one question, there have been flags raised based on certain answers. I've had people answer what they think I want to hear. Thats not a good sign. Its not about a perfect answer, its about demonstrating that you have a reasonable process for dealing with challenges, that you learn from mistakes and so on. I don't think all managers are perfect, nor are all corporate policies, nor are all employees. As for politicians, I've worked with some great selfless ones, and some pretty shady manipulative types. The reason I don't participate in politics anymore is that I've come to believe that the great ones are less likely to become leaders than the manipulative ones. You seem to want to paint me as some evil manager type. I guess thats why some of my former staff members still call me for advise on how to deal with issues at their new companies. James

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

we've had to learn one or two marketing ploys. That's why corporate BS and logo saluting leaves techs cold. We engineered some very effective filters after learning sales and marketing (i.e. business) techniques, at the request of management I add...... You guys have spouted them for so long, you've managed to convince yourselves.

JamesRL
JamesRL

...they belong in sales or marketing, not IT. James

iamsource
iamsource

That's only because the hiring manager lacks the vision to see the truth of their character. If you ask the right questions in an interview, you should take note of the answers and the sincerity of the answers. If you have a negative feeling overall, after at least 3 different negative feelings out of all the questions, this shows a strong pattern of something that is hidden, and hidden agendas damage businesses. 1 or 2 negative moments is typical. Focus on seeing if there is an urge to do things the company's way, or their own way. Be careful not to give this away though, so you do not inadvertently invoke a standard ego compliant response. Cite some situations of mild insubordination just in passing, without being heavy or critical and see if the prospect has the courage to voice a perspective AGAINST insubordination without losing their head as if they would shoot an offender on site. This will indicate someone who is trainable, respects management, and will support those ideas with their coworkers. It may take some reaching for courage inside them to voice this, but that will show they are on the path to becoming better. You can always help them lower their intense nature later with a genuine smile and some light humor when you work with them, of course, after you have got them on the same page with respect to cooperation with policy, procedures, management, and coworkers.

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

I've been in a situation where we hired someone that had good skills, a seemingly great personality and his reference checks - one was a former supervisor - were perfect. He was a disaster. After I let him go, his former supervisor emailed me to apologize for lying to me about the person. In short, it's not perfect and mistakes will be made. Scott

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

context. Real ones don't work 40 hours a week at 20$ an hour for people with better hairdos... Admittedly calling you apolitician was a bit strong, you do seem to have a gift for substituting an accurate response with the party line though.

JamesRL
JamesRL

but I did work in politics, for a political party, for a polling firm, for a Member of Parliament. But the examples I'm thinking of from my private sector experience - large corporations, household names. I'm sure government bureaucracies have similar issues though. I've seen co-workers who were friends for years turn on each other and create a toxic environment for the rest of the team, as well as each other. I'm sure you can imagine the situation. At that point, genius is nice but the productivity of the whole team is more important. I have scored high enough on an IQ test for Mensa, but I don't think I'm a genius. I can assure you none of my staff or colleagues think I am either. James

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I'll admit we can pick out cases where this article is applicable. Not one mention of where the environment makes your genius a problem though. Not a sniff, so like I said superficial drivel.

JamesRL
JamesRL

Things escalate. I'm talking about the case where they work the same way forever. But some long term employees, probably emboldened by their longevity, can become more destructive to their teams. Thats when you have to take a look. James

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

The hypothesis is they have always been like that. Too much is a relative assessment. You spent an hour last week with this person, this week you haven't got the hour. Why?

JamesRL
JamesRL

Some examples: When they require too much management time. When they bully the other team members and cause them to be less prodcutive. When they refuse to co-operate with other teams unless its under their own terms and conditions. Of course these conditions may happen on occasion with evern "good" employees, but when they become an ongoing saga, you have to start looking at alternatives. There are times when a very productive individual can be left alone to crank out stuff and they don't impact the rest of the team, but for most projects these days, people have to work well with others. James

djed
djed

I'm no fan of Obama, but the group that causes a massive problem is better than the group that has trouble fixing it? Might want to think that through, DG. Everybody thinks they have a better opinion than management. The solution might be engineering, but engineering isn't the only thing you need to look at in a problem.

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