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The high maintenance employee

high maintenance employeeDo you have someone on your team who you think of as “high-maintenance”? What do we mean when we throw around that phrase? The workplace behaviours I’ve heard supervisors describe include:

  • Chronic complaining.

  • Demanding the supervisor’s constant attention

  • Dependency, needing ongoing direction

  • Endless questions, concerns and problems with any work assignment.

Note that all these behaviours are inter-related. And they involve a pattern, not one-time events.

Recently, I came across the concept of the “Adversity Quotient.” Dr. Paul Stoltz defines the Adversity Quotient as “the capacity of the person to deal with the adversities of his/her life.” The high-maintenance employee has a low Adversity Quotient. Instead of meeting challenges with resilience, they blame others and make excuses.

And somehow there are always things going wrong in the lives of high-maintenance people. They are perennially at the centre of some sort of drama.

Up to a point, I’d say that it’s your job as a leader to rise to the challenges that high-maintenance employees bring to the workplace and help them make the most positive contribution possible. Some really high performers can be a challenge to manage or work with together on a team, yet the value they bring to the organization outweighs their less desirable behaviours.

If you find that you are continually avoiding or ignoring someone you consider a high-maintenance employee, it’s time to get analytical. Did they get proper training in the first place? Do they have objectively more on their plate than they used to have? Would they benefit from more structure, more directives from you, rather than a hands-off management style that their co-workers seem to prefer?

And what’s your part in this? Could your own instructions be clearer, or expressed more effectively for this person’s learning style? Could you be more generous with praise and appreciation to help build their confidence? Are you setting and upholding boundaries so that you get uninterrupted time periods to focus on others or your own work?

Or are you allowing the high-maintenance employee to cross those boundaries and take up your time whenever they want, even if you resent it?

After examining your role in the dynamic with the high-maintenance employee and resolving to change some of your own behaviours if needed, you can coach this person on alternative approaches they could take for a more productive work relationship. For example:

  • Set up specific (and limited) times in the day or the week when they can come to you with questions and problems.
  • When they do bring a problem, ask them to always recommend a solution.
  • Ask them if they notice any patterns in the problems they bring to you.
  • Ask if there is any part, even a small part, of a situation they’re willing to take responsibility for.
  • Brainstorm a list of possible actions. Keep asking, “What else can you do?”

Show your appreciation

Let’s say you take all these steps and you notice some improvements – a little more self-sufficiency, fewer complaints, some follow-up on your suggestions. If that happens, be sure to let the person know you’ve noticed and you appreciate their efforts. People do more of what they receive positive reinforcement for doing. They tend to lapse back into old behaviours in the absence of that positive reinforcement.

If there’s no sustained improvement? If the high-maintenance employee is otherwise doing good work, you’ll just have to maintain your boundaries and be sure that they get no more than their fair share of your time and attention. If they are performing poorly, follow your steps for corrective action, just as you would for any other employee.  • 

 

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