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Managing a Top Performer Who Alienates Their Colleagues

Managing a dominant personality is a challenge, especially if they’re alienating their colleagues. For starters, you need to provide some tough feedback. What’s the best way to manage this dominant personality?

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Source: HBR.org /Rebecca Knight

Summary. Managing a dominant personality is a challenge, especially if they’re alienating their colleagues. For starters, you need to provide some tough feedback. Tell this person how they’re perceived, and explain the consequences of their behaviour. Say, “In order to live up to your talents, you must learn to behave differently. Otherwise, you won’t accomplish your goals.” Next, you need to coach and help your aggressive star develop empathy. Engage your employee in active inquiry by asking them to step into the shoes of their peers. Ask them to consider their colleagues’ perspectives and viewpoints. Say: “What matters to this person on your team? What is that person’s biggest concern? Is there any common ground?” Your objective is to foster social and self-awareness.
You know the team superstar: The one who’s brilliant, high achieving, and outperforms pretty much everyone else — but burns through relationships all the while. What’s the best way to manage this dominant personality? How can you encourage them to improve their interactions with colleagues? What can you do to emphasize the importance of collaboration, especially if your formal incentive system only rewards hitting goals and targets?

What the Experts Say
Having a supremely talented and confident employee on your team is a wonderful thing — except, of course, if that person is also alienating their colleagues. “This is a person who’s both contributing to — and undermining — your team’s long-term performance,” says Nancy Rothbard, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Even though this hard-charging employee may be very good at their job, colleagues are “repelled by their general disagreeableness” and uncollaborative attitude. “People may respect this person, but they don’t like working with them and they don’t trust them,” says Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School and coauthor of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. “Over time, this person becomes isolated because others go out of their way not to work with them.” In the interest of team cohesion and productivity, you need to take action.

Here are some tips.

Give tough feedback.
It’s no fun to give negative feedback, but in the case of a so-called “competent jerk,” you need to make the person aware of the problem, says Rothbard. “This person needs to understand the metaphorical wake they leave behind.” She recommends starting by acknowledging their positive contributions to the organization. “Say: ‘You’re doing a great job here and you’re an integral member of this team. I need you. But I also need you to know the effect you’re having on other people.” This person needs to understand how other colleagues perceive them, says Hill. A little tough love is in order. She suggests saying something like: “You’re being held accountable for not just what you do, but how you do it. In order to fulfill your ambitions, you must learn to behave differently. Otherwise, you will not accomplish what you want to accomplish.” Don’t sugarcoat the situation. “Say: ‘You are in repair mode.’”

Talk about development.
It’s important to frame the consequences of this behaviour in terms that your abrasive high-achiever will appreciate: As a hindrance to their career growth. Your employee needs to buy into the fact that their attitude and approach “matters in a material way to their performance and their reputation,” says Rothbard. Strong peer relationships are critical to both short- and long-term professional progression, says Hill. If this over-aggressive superstar aspires to a promotion — which, of course, they do — they need to change. Even in spite of myriad talents and abilities, this person will not advance in your organization without good interpersonal skills. As the manager, you need to “help them understand that this behaviour could derail their career.” Hill also recommends being honest about the flaws and conflicts in your organization’s incentive system. “Say: ‘I know you’re getting mixed signals because there’s pressure to make deals and hit your numbers, but I need to impress upon you the importance of building and maintaining relationships.’”

Encourage empathy.
Next, you need to help your employee develop a plan to improve their relationships. It starts with empathy. “You need to teach them techniques to help them become more sensitive to others’ reactions,” says Rothbard. Encourage your employee to pay closer attention to colleagues’ emotional responses. “Are they pulling back? Do they look uncomfortable? Are they anxious?” This kind of observation is the first step toward “improving self- and social-awareness,” she adds.
You also need to help your employee develop a deeper understanding of others’ perspectives, says Hill. She suggests engaging your employee “in active inquiry” by “asking them to step into the shoes of the people they depend on to get their work done.” Ask them to imagine their colleagues’ views. “Say: ‘What do you think matters to this person on your team? What do you think is that person’s biggest concern? Is there any common ground? Do you share any pain points?’”

Be compassionate.
It’s also prudent to show a little empathy yourself. After all, “this person is not all bad,” says Rothbard. They’re likely highly conscientious and “care deeply about getting the work done right.” Think about the aspects of your high-performer’s personality that you enjoy and admire, says Hill. “You might really like the fact that they’re hard-driving,” she says. “It brings a certain energy to your team.” In one-on-ones, she advises compassion and sympathy. “Say, ‘I understand your frustration. Not everyone is as hard-driving or as motivated as you.’” Perhaps you have, ahem, personal experience with this personality type. “Maybe you suffered from [a similar affliction] earlier in your career,” she says. “Share that.” Think back on meaningful advice you received at the time. “Then ask: ‘How can I help you? How can we get better together?’”

Coach.
You also must try to help this person overcome their natural know-it-all tendencies. “Many times, these people have learned how to moderate their behaviour with the boss,” which makes them a lot easier for you to get along with, says Hill. Your objective is to get them to act that same way with their colleagues. “You need to encourage them to ask questions and not assume they know everything.” She recommends coaching your employee on how to build relationships with peers by role-playing possible scenarios. Rothbard recommends helping your employee “get over their knee-jerk reaction of disdain and frustration” by helping them learn how to give people the benefit of the doubt. Encourage them not to jump to conclusions, she says.

Have patience.
Finally, don’t expect your efforts to yield immediate results. Behavioural changes take time. Help your employee recognize that their colleagues’ opinions of them won’t shift overnight. “This person already has task competence; now they’re working to improve their relational competence,” says Rothbard. “They’re learning how to let other people take responsibility and be held accountable.” Encourage them to be patient as well — with themselves and others. “Make it clear that this is a skill and a task to be accomplished,” Rothbard says. “They have to work on it to get better.”

Principles to Remember
Do

  • Help your abrasive superstar see how their behaviour could derail their career.
  • Teach your employee techniques to help them become aware of people’s emotional reactions.
  • Demonstrate to your employee the value of asking questions

Don’t

  • Shy away from giving this person tough feedback — they need to know how they’re perceived by others.
  • Enable egotism. Help your superstar understand their colleagues’ perspectives.
  • Be unsympathetic. Think back on helpful advice you’ve received and share it.

Comment: There is always a fine line to thread when you have a High-performing team member who is not a team-player. Some useful tips given in this article to help manage such a person.

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