More on HRM

How to handle talented but complicated employees

A guide to managing “complicated” top performers. When should you keep them, and how do you do that without alienating the rest of your staff?

“Complicated” employees are a practical reality for any workplace in which multiple personalities and skill sets interact. A common approach is to manage them out of the organisation. However, what should you do when a staff member is challenging but you feel the business needs them?

In this article we consider three types of employees who, despite personal or professional shortcomings, have become an integral part of your business.

1. The technical wizard

‘Technical wizards’ are those employees who know what makes your business tick. They know what your business can and cannot do. They are dedicated and getting things done. However, even though they’re effective behind the scenes, these employees may become invisible when it’s time for the “big sell”. They don’t like to speak up, and when they do their voice gets drowned out by bigger personalities.

What if you need more from your technical wizard? What if the nature of your business requires that the person with this knowledge takes centre stage? While its unlikely that any of your tech wizards are a Steve Jobs in waiting, there are steps you can take to ensure they are well-rounded enough to get the job done when it’s time to face the client. For example, you may consider:

  • Development opportunities, such as customer engagement training. There’s value in investing in upskilling your employees.
  • Having your technical wizard shadow “social butterflies” to everyday meetings, as a way of exposing them to this side of the business. This will allow them to observe and learn before, hopefully, taking the lead themselves.

2. The social butterfly

Social butterflies are the “faces” of your business. Their voices are heard far and wide; they win work, face clients and keep the cash flowing in. Social butterflies may present issues wholly different from your technical wizards. They could fail to appreciate the technical intricacies of what your business can and cannot do, and their drive to deliver results to clients, while commendable, may result in them focusing on internal completion with colleagues.

A general understanding of what your business can and cannot do is a crucial factor in ensuring you don’t overpromise and under-deliver to clients. Some steps which can be taken to address this difficulty with social butterflies include:

  • Help them focus on a “one team, one dream” mentality. Consider assigning key performance indicators to employees in these positions which are focussed on team, as opposed to individual, achievement.
  • Consider requiring regular “work in-progress meetings” with your technical wizards, to ensure social butterflies have an on-going understanding of your business capability before making promises to clients.  

3. The “stable genius”

Like winning the US Presidency, the success of any business often exists alongside the egoes of those who helped pave the way. In this scenario, your employee may have the ideal combination of technical wizardry and business acumen but – for reasons unrelated to their core duties – they are the source of undue workplace tension.

This might be for any number of reasons. Their success may have lead them to developing a level of self-regard that surpasses the value of their ability. Or they may simply have a confrontational personality which makes fostering professional relationships challenging.   

A stable genius presents the greatest difficulty to management, given that the issue lies with their personal, rather than professional, shortcomings. Despite the difficulty, there are strategies to effectively manage employees like this:

  • if the issue is a sizeable ego, consider providing a fresh challenge they have not faced before, which caters to their estimation of their abilities. Consider establishing a mentor relationship between them and a junior employee as a key component of your stable genius’s KPIs. This will indicate to the employee that you value their skillset (acknowledging their personal sense of worth), while also presenting them with the fresh challenge of imparting their knowledge.
  • personality issues must be confronted head on, but with tact. Where a complaint is received, speak with your stable genius to understand the reasons behind the complaint. If the source of the complaint is the stable genius’ behaviour, indicate that, while you appreciate everything that they do for the business, there are clear boundaries as to what behaviour will be tolerated.

But should you manage them out of the business?

Ask yourself: can you really not survive without a complicated employee?

Should your attempts at addressing issues with your technical wizard, social butterfly or stable genius fail or fall on deaf ears, you must ask whether keeping a brilliant but complicated employee is worth it. Be careful before coming to a hasty conclusion; the worst perception you can foster among other employees is that someone is “untouchable” by virtue of their position or success. This belief can lead to a toxic work environment, which several organisations dealt with last year.

You must always bear in mind the risk that you may alienate a significant portion of your workforce all for the benefit of protecting one high-performer. The takeaway to ensure this never occurs, is to remember that ultimately no one person, no matter how talented, is larger than the business.

Aaron Goonrey is a Partner and Adam Battagello is a Lawyer in Lander & Rogers’ Workplace Relations & Safety practice.  Aaron can be contacted at

Leave a reply

  Subscribe to receive comments  
Notify me of
Kellie Mills
Kellie Mills

I am often called in to provide coaching for these organisational misfits. They feel valued with the one-on-one assistance and as an outsider I can be frank about what they need to do to be an acceptable part of a team.
Kellie Mills, Partner Mills-Eaton Training

Nathalie Lynton - Shared and Halved Consulting
Nathalie Lynton - Shared and Halved Consulting

In our era of diversity and inclusion it’s imperative that businesses recognise diversity in all its forms including neurodiversity in the workplace. There is a difference between being less social than the workplace culture and isolating one’s self because its preferred, and isolating others because they don’t like working with you.
A top performer isn’t a top performer if they can’t work collaboratively if it’s a requirement of the position.

Mary Tehan
Mary Tehan

All interesting thoughts and categories (technical wizard, social butterfly or stable genius) – thank you! But perhaps there are other ways of facilitating a win-win situation that keeps everyone in the loop AND allows brilliance to shine in the way that its meant to. Perhaps this genius/wizard/butterfly lives in a liminal reality that takes many many years of discipline to settle in to. Because it is a highly challenging space to live in, it takes a completely different approach to helping that person to flourish there. Perhaps the reason why it is not working for an organisation is because the… Read more »

More on HRM