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.


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...

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