high-maintenance employees

Super-talented employee driving you crazy? How to deal.

November 30, 2012: 12:27 PM ET

Most creative teams have at least one gifted, difficult loner. Luckily, says one expert, they're "highly coachable."

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I've never seen this problem addressed in your column, but I can't be the only one struggling with it. About six months ago, I got this great new job leading a team of 18 software developers and designers, and everything's going great, with one exception. One of our most talented people is also the most difficult and unpredictable. He has terrific ideas and often comes up with elegant solutions to challenges that have other people tearing their hair out. He's also the brain behind two of our biggest hit products.

However, he's not at all interested in project deadlines, he's dismissive of other people's ideas, and he's so absorbed in his own work that he misses a lot of meetings, so he's never quite up to speed with the details of what's going on. I want to keep him here (he's already changed jobs four times in eight years, and I know for a fact he gets other offers all the time), but his prima donna act is bad for the whole team. How can I get him to play well with others? — Baffled Boss

Dear Baffled: Ah. Sounds like a textbook example of what executive coach Katherine Graham Leviss calls a high-maintenance high-performance (or HMHP) employee. "These people tend to be visionary, big-picture thinkers. They're independent producers, and they're very driven, but they're not process-oriented. They're focused on results," she says. "Once they have a mental image of the outcome they want, they go after it without regard to how what they're doing affects teammates."

Leviss runs XBInsight, a coaching firm that specializes in taming HMHPs for Fortune 500 companies and the National Football League. The company has developed a proprietary tool for assessing where and how employees' (and managers') behavior can improve. Leviss also wrote a book you might want to check out called High-Maintenance Employees: Why Your Best People Will Also Be Your Most Difficult…and What to Do About It.

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"HMHPs are tremendously valuable if properly managed," Leviss says. "And luckily, they're highly coachable. One thing this personality type can't stand is feeling out of control. So once you create an awareness of the problems an HMHP's behavior is causing, he or she is likely to feel a sense of urgency about getting back on top."

How do you do that?

1. Set up consistent processes and guidelines. "If there's no process in place, HMHPs will create their own," says Leviss -- and that can lead to chaos. But don't let an HMHP determine what the process is going to be, even though he or she will probably try. Instead, assign designing the structure of a project, including deadlines, to "more methodical, step-by-step team members who are good at that."

2. Assign them tasks they can "own." This is largely a matter of turning an HMHP's outsized ego to your, and the rest of the team's, advantage. Since these are people who want to put their own stamp on their work -- and since "they're usually highly technically proficient," Leviss notes -- put them in charge of the part of each project where they can shine the brightest.

To bring out an HMHP's best performance, Leviss says, make it about him. "Instead of saying, 'The team has to get to X result by such-and-such a date,' focus on his part of it: 'In order for the team to get to X, you have to produce Y.'" Then stand back. "It's usually pointless to tell an HMHP how to get there," says Leviss. "He or she will just try to find a better way, and they usually can."

3. Make your expectations clear. Sit down with your HMHP for a frank discussion of exactly what isn't working, and don't hesitate to be blunt about it. "You don't need to 'sandwich' your remarks with praise, as you might with other employees, because HMHPs already know they're extremely talented," Graham Leviss says. "So get right to the point: 'Here's how what you're doing -- skipping team meetings, for instance -- affects everybody else, and here's what I need you to start doing instead.'

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"We do this kind of coaching with NFL trainers" who must turn star players into responsible team members, she adds: "It takes a little while for new habits to form, but hold people accountable and remind them of the changes you've said you want to see."

4. Provide as many learning opportunities as you can. High-performance employees get bored more easily than others (which helps explain why they tend to change jobs so often). They also "like to feel that they're on top of the latest, newest, hottest" trends in their field, Leviss notes. So be on the lookout for cutting-edge training, interesting conferences, and other learning experiences you can offer your HMHP. Whatever the cost, it's lower than the price of replacing him.

5. Keep the challenges coming. Leviss, a self-confessed HMHP, writes in her book that, having changed jobs six times by age 30, she had an epiphany: "I loved my job when I was working on new projects or new problems…. It was the thrill of something new that kept me going…. Most high-maintenance employees are unhappy when a project is over and they don't have another one in sight."

This eventually motivated her to start her own company, but you probably don't want your HMHP to do that in this case -- so make sure he never runs out of fresh puzzles to solve. A definite upside of having HMHPs around: One of their defining characteristics is that they don't know the meaning of the word "overwork."

Good luck.

Talkback: Have you ever worked with, or tried to manage, an HMHP? Do you think you are one? Leave a comment below.

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