How to keep a project on track when top performers refuse to participate

Here's what to do when you're faced with a team member you can't work with, but can't work without either.

Video: Why CIOs need team buy-in for IT initiatives

She was a top system programmer who practically wrote the book about how to optimize and orchestrate rapid transaction processing in an online stock trading environment. We were building an online stock trading system and desperately needed her.

I was managing the project. We had extremely aggressive deadlines, so when this online transaction expert said she was "already busy" and didn't want to work on the project, and upper management seemed to support her, I got worried.

I also understood my own limitations as a manager. I did not understand the details of her discipline, although I had enough working knowledge to realize that no one on my staff could completely fill the role.

What could I do?

With a tight project deadline staring me in the face, I decided to recruit a more junior member of my staff to do the transaction tuning work we needed. The strategy worked, although it took us longer to complete the project.

When it was all over and the project was up and running, I was happy with the results, but I also came away with a new understanding about star performers: that while they are indeed valuable and can save the day, they can also come with an inflated sense of self-importance that can make them hard to manage or work with.

SEE: Employee non-compete agreement policy (Tech Pro Research)

A friend of mine who is a CIO in a financial SaaS company shared a similar experience.

"When we wanted to commercialize some of our IT products and transform IT into more of a customer service organization, I had several top performers in the systems and database areas who did not like the approach of service over technology," he said. "I was worried that I would lose these highly skilled individuals to other companies--and I did."

What my CIO friend and I both discovered is that there are several best practices that can help you as a manager cope with hard-to-manage star performers.

Here are some recommendations:

Talk things over with your star performer first

In some cases, it can be easy to get everything on track with a heart-to-heart discussion with your star performer. Let them know how critical they are to the project's success. If it is important for this star to be recognized for his or her expertise, see if you can place this individual in a leading, visible role that is technically challenging and interesting. In some cases, star performers also enjoy showing and sharing what they know with junior staff members, so mentoring on a project (instead of doing every tech task themselves) can be an important perk. In other cases, there are star performers who just want to do it all by themselves and who don't want to share. If you have one of these, at least you know what you're up against -- and it's probably time to hire in a consultant with similar expertise or look for other alternatives if this person is uncooperative. The good news is, most star performers want to be part of the team, and they can really buy into the project and be a tremendous asset if they feel that their knowledge and expertise is being respected and rewarded.

If talks don't go well, go to management

If you find that a star performer just won't cooperate, especially if you are a new manager who has recently joined the company, go to your management superiors. Chances are that this uncooperative behavior on the part of your technical guru has already been encouraged by management's not dealing with it, so your management may or may not support you. However, management will usually acknowledge that there is a problem. When I encountered the problem with the guru system programmer who refused to participate in the project I was managing, the response from my superiors was, "Yes, we know she is like that, but we don't feel we can afford to lose or alienate her."

In a case like this you have no support--but at least you have made the managers who are evaluating your own performance aware that the non-cooperation could be a stumbling block in your project.

SEE: How to build a successful project manager career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Evaluate your alternatives

In my case, I was able to find a junior person to tackle the technical role in the project. It took us a little longer to complete the project, but since I had already briefed upper management on the potential difficulties, the delay was understandable.

If I had not been able to find a junior person to tackle the work, my other alternative would have been to look outside for a consultant who had expertise on the level of the technical guru I had hoped to have. This ended up not being necessary, but if it had, I'm reasonably sure management would have supported the extra budgetary expense, since they knew the situation.

Plan to micromanage as needed

If you are managing projects in a technically-oriented company like a commercial software or engineering firm, technical expertise is often revered by staff more highly than management authority. This reality reflects itself in daily project work, where staffers go to their tech guru and not to the manager to resolve project technical issues. You will never change this dynamic as a manager, unless you share the same level of competency in specialty technologies that your gurus do, which is unlikely. Given this fact, the danger is that your staff can form allegiances to these gurus that can undermine your authority. A good way to address this is to manage by walking around and by engaging with the individual members of your staff on a daily basis. This helps cement your role as the guru who runs the project--an area of responsibility that your tech gurus aren't likely to have either interest or background in.

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