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How CIOs should handle high-maintenance IT workers



High-maintenance employees can be frustrating to manage and, if you let them, they can suck the life out of you and consume large chunks of your day. They come in a variety of forms—here are some common types you might have come across in your IT shop, and ways to handle them. I would welcome your comments on these as well as others that have challenged you.


The Dramatic Actor


These folks are also sometimes known as “drama kings” or drama queens” because of the “royal pain” they can inflict on an organization. They thrive on personal crisis. Everything, no matter how small, is a life and death experience and, of course, they are always innocent victims. I have had quite a few of these over the course of my career. They quickly alienate their fellow employees with their “performances,” the disruptions these cause and the constant focus on themselves. Everything they do says, “Look at me!”


I have found that, more frequently than not, Dramatic Actors have underlying psychological problems that are best handled by professionals. Their behavior and its effects on the organization must be firmly addressed first. Have a serious talk with the offender focusing on the effect their actions are having on the organization and/or their colleagues. Don’t judge, just stick to the facts. Then, working through your HR organization, get them referred for professional help. Be compassionate, but be firm. Those who refuse to understand and accept the consequences of their behavior will need to be dealt with through the appropriate disciplinary measures.


The Prima Donna


Prima donna, according to, is “a term that comes from the Opera, and literally means first woman, in Italian. Because the ladies that starred in operas were often egotistical, demanding and flamboyant, the term prima donna came to mean anyone who acted as if they were a world-famous talent. The term is not an insult if you're talking about an actual opera star, but if anyone else is called a prima donna, it means they're terribly vain.”


These folks are usually are really bright and talented—the problem is that they know it! Universities are full of prima donnas and, thanks to tenure, some get by with behaving very badly. Over the course of my career, I have actually fired several prima donnas who were verbally abusive, rude, and, in one notable case, a pathological liar. They will test your leadership because the time will likely come when their behavior forces a showdown. When that happens, IT leaders had better be prepared to win. Prima donnas are sometimes referred to as “toxic high-performers.” Joel Greenwald from Strategy + Business recently wrote an excellent blog that I highly recommend about how to deal with toxic high-performers titled How to Get the Wrong People Off the Bus.


The Obsessive Perfectionist


These people never actually finish anything because what they are doing is never quite good enough yet and, of course, the work of others is always sub-standard. Obsessive perfectionists when placed in management roles have a tendency to micromanage. They have problems meeting deadlines and frequently complain that the work of their colleagues isn’t up to their standards. This can create a lot of friction. The challenge in managing these folks is that you don’t want to discourage a commitment to quality but at the same time you don’t want to feed their obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I have found that it helps to be very specific about deliverables and unyielding on due dates.


The Black Hole


These folks simply suck the life out of everyone they come in contact with. They are frequently chronic complainers who want to share their misery with anyone who will listen. With Black Holes it is important to set clear limits. Years ago we had one of these in our department who I will call John. John was a middle-aged guy who topped out in his career years previously in a lower level job. He complained constantly about just about everything, including the fact that others were not willing to listen to his complaints. He reported to a lady who worked for me at the time. She mentioned that he was a problem to manage and that she had been working with him a lot. When I asked how much time she was spending with him she replied that she had spent “about 10 hours” with him in the past week. Needless to say, we had a very serious conversation about her use of time! Left unchecked that is what Black Holes will do. Setting limits with these folks and enforcing them is essential. If they are complaining they are not working and neither are the people they are complaining to. Put a stop to it quickly.


Every individual is different and every high-maintenance employee comes with their own story, their own issues and their own needs. There is no single magic formula for dealing with them but they must be dealt with or they will poison your entire organization. Recognizing this, I have found that three overarching principles are important, regardless of the individual approach called for in a given situation. I call these the “Three F’s.”


Be Fair. First and foremost treat these people fairly. If in doubt ask yourself, “If I were them, how would I want to be treated in this situation.” It is tempting to act out of frustration and anger. In doing so, you will likely act in ways that are inconsistent with how you treat others. Being unfair or treating these folks differently can open you and your organization up to legal problems later on.


Be Frank. You need to be brutally honest without being brutal. Subtlety may be lost on them. They sometimes will hear what they want to hear. If you are confronting their behavior be really clear about what is and what is not acceptable and the consequences of continued bad behavior.


Be Firm. Don’t allow yourself to be manipulated. Make sure that you have done your homework, consulted with HR and, if necessary legal, and that you are very clear about the message you are giving them. Have a script and stick to it. Expect excuses, blaming, denial and, in the case of dramatic actors, even tears. Stand your ground.


There is an old saying that says “One bad apple will spoil the whole bushel.” High-maintenance employees can become bad apples and they can spoil the morale and culture of the whole organization. Don’t let that happen.


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Related links:

How CIOs can avoid jumping the track—and running off the rails

4 things that Warren Buffet does—and why CIOs should take note



Joel H. Dobbs is the CEO and President of The Compass Talent Management Group LLC (CTMG), a consulting firm that assists organizations with the identification and development of key talent and with designing organizational strategies and structures to maximize their ability to compete in the business worlds of today and tomorrow. He is also an executive coach and serves as Executive in Residence at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Business. Joel is also a popular and frequent contributor to the Enterprise CIO Forum where a version of this article was first published.

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