There seems to be a lot of discussion out there right now about “High Maintenance” employees. Depending on what you read, these are either the folks that are destroying companies or the ones that are driving the success at companies.
Which is it? Is being a high maintenance employee a good thing or a bad thing? Should we hire these types or avoid them like the plague?
In a word…yes. Because, there are different types of high maintenance employees. In her book, “High Maintenance Employees” Katherine Graham Leviss classified two types as:
I propose that there is also a third type of high maintenance employee:
The High Maintenance High Performers are the highly talented employees who are challenging to manage but produce the biggest results and are worth it. The High Maintenance Low Performers are the employees who spend more time figuring out how to game the system than they do working. They need to be ferreted out of a company because they are dead weight dragging it down. The High Maintenance High Performers But Just Not Worth It employees are really the biggest threat to a company. They are the highly talented employees who produce results, but in the process exhaust everyone and can destroy morale and company culture.
Based on some great books and articles on this subject (see footnotes below for links) and my own experience analyzing employee performance, I’ve put together some of the characteristics of each High Maintenance “type.” As you read through these, do you see yourself or people you manage? (And, if any former bosses of mine happen to be reading this…yes, I know I’m in here too.)
High Maintenance High Performers:
Confrontational and Blunt. They usually get right to the point and are direct about what they want because they KNOW what they want very clearly.
Bored Easily. They master new things quickly and then get bored once they have, and look for new challenges. That is why they frequently are job-hoppers. They simply must feel they are continually learning and moving forward.
Low Bureaucracy Threshold. They do not deal well with bureaucratic obstacles and are not typically diplomatic in dealing with it. They usually ignore corporate hierarchy and do not have an innate respect for authority. They respect accomplishments – not titles.
Demanding. These are talented, high performing individuals who know their worth. They are demanding of themselves and have very high standards. They push limits and boundaries to see what’s possible. This also means that they demand the same from those around them. They have high expectations and do not “suffer fools gladly.”
Independence. They want clear, direct communication of what is expected of them and then the latitude to get it done their own way. They want freedom and control over their work. And, to that end, they question EVERYTHING. It’s not meant to be disrespectful. It’s because this is how they learn and because they need to know the “why” of something in order to evaluate what they are being asked to do.
Emotional. It could be something big or something seemingly insignificant, but if they feel it is important they will get involved and give it their all. A favorite phrase is, “It’s the principle of the matter.” They fight for what they believe in.
What I Do Matters. These high performers need to feel that their work makes a difference in the success of the company. They are usually very entrepreneurial and see their work as running their own company within a company.
Recognition. They have a very strong ego drive and need continual recognition for their accomplishments. They must feel they are appreciated for their expertise and what they bring to the company. They want to be asked their opinion about things and be “in-the-know” when it comes to company politics or inside information. I’ve always said, praise high maintenance high performers and they’ll kill for you.
Quick Decisions. They are very decisive, trust their gut, make decisions quickly and expect others to do the same. They get frustrated when dealing with people who want to analyze and think through all the possible outcomes first.
High Maintenance Low Performers:
Blame Game. Nothing is ever their fault. They are unable or unwilling to see their part in any situation where they have made a mistake. The closest they might come is to admitting they made a mistake but then follow it up by saying they only made it because of someone else.
H.R. Groupies. Because they are chronic low performers, they are constantly in H.R. complaining about something in order to cover their butt and deflect attention away from the real issue; which is of course, their sub-par performance. Many times they take advantage of well-intended H.R. managers because they are so adept at playing the martyr.
Everything Is “Unfair”. They are always complaining to their manager about some perceived slight they feel they have received. It seems that someone is always getting more of something than they are and they believe if only they had a level playing field they could be a top performer. They make it their business to know everyone else’s business and they are obsessed with knowing just what everyone else is doing and getting.
Bad Money Management. Because they are overly concerned with what others have, they frequently are materialistic and live beyond their means. This creates more stress as they find themselves increasingly in debt with no way out. Often they look to their company to bail them out.
Always An Excuse. No matter what the situation, these people are masters at having a well thought out and prepared excuse for their lack of performance. It might be something in their personal life or something work related, but you can be sure it will be creative.
The Lifetime Movie Effect. Something is always going wrong. One day it’s a flat tire, the next day maybe it’s spouse/girlfriend/boyfriend trouble, or kid problems, or someone is sick/dying/in a car accident, you get the idea. No one can be this unlucky. Usually they are just more weapons in their arsenal to make you either feel sorry for them, not put them on probation/fire them, or buy themselves some more time.
Nothing Is Ever Enough. You can give them everything they have asked for and yet it is like filling up a sink with no drain plug. No matter how much you give, it will never be enough and they will continue to under-perform and sap your strength. Why? Because they just don’t have the talent to do the job, or they are just too lazy to do it.
High Maintenance High Performers But Just Not Worth It:
ASAP Syndrome. Everything is urgent. Everything is needed As Soon As Possible. They constantly expect everyone to drop what they are doing to help them with even the smallest of details. Big things, small things, it doesn’t matter everything is a crisis and top priority.
More Drama Than A Soap Opera. This is one of the most insidious problems with these types of high maintenance employees. They create drama by intentionally stirring the pot. They gossip, they divide and conquer, they look for ways to increase their stature at the expense of others (usually their boss). They manage to get people all whipped up and upset over things they ordinarily wouldn’t have given a second thought to…It’s like the little devil sitting on your shoulder whispering in your ear.
Reply To All Disease. They are constantly emailing EVERYONE about EVERYTHING. They feel the need to involve everyone in what they are working on, usually in an attempt to point out, “See how great I am, look at all the things I’m doing.”
“You Do Know Who I Am Right?” The ego drive has really warped into something sinister; a sense of entitlement that is way out of proportion to who they are. Yes, you may be a top performer, but you’re not curing cancer. They feel the rules, guidelines, procedures, etc. just don’t apply to them and it creates resentment and chaos with the mere mortals who work with them.
More Of A Hog Than Boss Hogg. Not so much a money hog (although they can be) as a credit hog. They are constantly hogging all the glory for any accomplishment and fail to credit those that helped them achieve it. Rarely is an accomplishment in a company the sole work of one person. Yet these types of employees would have you believe that without them nothing would ever be achieved. It infuriates co-workers and destroys any team building and teamwork culture a company has tried to build.
The Grudge Master. They can remember every slight (perceived or real, large or small) that has been done to them. They just can’t get past it and take everything personally. They use these as justifications for their own poor behavior or choices.
“That’s Not My Job.” Not only are they not team players but if you ask them to pitch in and help out with something they deem beneath them, they will be insulted and pout. If they feel certain tasks or jobs are beneath them, what message does that send to the person who normally does those things?
Obviously, High Maintenance Low Performers need to be terminated or helped to “de-recruit” themselves as I like to say. But what about the High Maintenance High Performers But Just Not Worth It employees? Can they be reformed and join the High Maintenance High Performers group? And what are the most effective ways to manage High Maintenance High Performers? I’ll leave those questions for Part 2!
“Confessions Of A High Maintenance CEO”, David K. Williams, Forbes,
“The (Unlucky) 13 Traits of High Maintenance People”, Cheryl Conner, Forbes
The 3 Types Of High Maintenance Employees Infographic: