Can’t Live with ’Em, Can’t Live without ’Em: Dealing with Difficult High Performers

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Michael Feuer

If you’ve ever watched NBC’s The Office, you know that the show makes hilarious use of business-world stereotypes. Granted, the personalities, quirks, and antics of the employees of the fictional Dunder Mifflin Paper Company are taken to extremes, but we find them funny largely because they ring so true.

While these characters are funny on TV, in the real world, dealing with them can make leaders want to pull out their hair or throw in the towel. There is no need for you to waste your time with high maintenance employees who are poor performers. The real dilemma occurs when difficult employees are also terrific performers who get the job done.

Once you identify an employee who is valuable, but whose personality or habits present a problem, you have two choices. You can simply get rid of the troublesome employee and risk the consequences of lost productivity. Or, you can take the more profitable route and find a way for peaceful coexistence by learning how to deal with the performer’s shortcomings while taking advantage of his or her strengths.

If you decide to go with option number two, read on to learn about the three most common types of challenging performers, and how best to manage them:
1. The Prima Donna: He might announce a brilliant solution to a longstanding problem, or he might unfailingly woo the biggest customers. But through it all, your prima donna wants to be applauded, coddled, admired, and generally treated like a celebrity. This behavior consumes your time, disturbs day-to-day operations, and alienates other team members.

The live with ’em solution: Put your cards on the table. Tell your prima donna how valuable he is and how grateful you are for his work, but also let him know that he’s a real pain to deal with, and that he’s approaching a crossroads. Ask what you can do to avoid future problems and stress that your door is always open—but make it clear that these behaviors need to change (or else).

Make him a part of the solution by putting the onus on him to come up with a fix for a peaceful and productive coexistence. Allow him to win, but on your terms, not his. Remember that most prima donnas are typically decent people deep down inside. Usually their egos have been stroked too much in the past or they’re hiding a major inferiority complex—or both.

Sure, prima donnas require more of your time and attention, but the alternative is losing a high performer. If you figure out what makes your prima donna tick, you’ll take a big step toward neutralizing the annoyance factor while preserving productivity.

2. Mr. or Ms. “It’s Not My Job”: Technically, this person doesn’t break the rules. She does everything her job description says she should, and she does it very well. But when she’s asked to go above and beyond, expand her role, or pitch in on another project, she responds with, “It’s not my job.”

The live with ’em solution: If you’re a leader, it’s your job to make it clear in no uncertain terms that contributing to success—in any way necessary—is everybody’s job. Not everything an employee is asked to do is going to fit comfortably into their pre-determined job description. However, a successful organization is a team effort, and sometimes people need to do more to help out.

Make sure that every member of the team knows that “whatever it takes” isn’t an option—it’s a requirement. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if someone is an administrative assistant or a vice president—it’s all for one and one for all.

3. The Perfectionist: Nobody can deny that your resident perfectionist is a hard worker. He makes sure every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed—every time. He’ll also continue to tweak a report or project hours after someone else would have declared it finished.

The live with ’em solution: Normally, an employee who thinks that a half-baked effort is unacceptable would be an asset. But perfectionism is another matter. As a leader, you must make sure that your employees don’t sacrifice too much time—or end up failing to achieve anything at all—in a quest for the best.

Try to help resident perfectionists distinguish between tasks that must be done to the letter, and those that can be done adequately enough to move on to the next step or to support another initiative. This is often a learned skill that can be difficult for people—especially those who are fearful of making a misstep—to embrace at first! Be very clear and cautious when you’re explaining what must be done…and how much time and energy each task is worth. Remember: if you’re putting out a fire in a garbage can, you need only a few gallons of water—not an entire water tanker!

Concluding Thoughts
Most major personnel problems within organizations develop because leaders ignore a series of smaller issues along the way. You should absolutely deal with your most difficult personality types—and watch out for budding prima donnas, perfectionists, and unhelpful types in the making! And always keep in mind that you aren’t marrying these employees. You just need to be able to dance with them occasionally.

About the Author(s)

Michael Feuer cofounded OfficeMax in 1988 with one store, $20,000 of his own money, a partner, and a small group of investors. As CEO he grew it to more than 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales topping $5 billion. He is also CEO of Max-Ventures, a venture capital and retail consulting firm, and founder and CEO of Max-Wellness, a comprehensive health and wellness retail chain that launched in 2010. He is author of The Benevolent Dictator: Empower Your Employees, Build Your Business, and Outwit the Competition, edited by contributor Dustin S. Klein (Wiley, 2011,