Click to toggle navigation menu.


ExpertBeacon Logo

How to get the most from a valuable but difficult employee

Managing difficult but valuable employees is like digging for precious metals; it sometimes requires moving a lot of muck in order to get to the gold. But while retaining a range of talented employees will allow you to exploit a wider range of opportunities, occasionally it is also tiring, sapping work. You have to take stock when the gold is increasingly costly to mine.

So how do you manage these irritating but gifted employees? How do you find more gold and dig less dirt? With some preparation and self-confidence, there may be a way to resolve the predicament with mutual benefit.


Do be clear on why they are valuable and why they are difficult

Is the employee worth the investment? Answering this question is the crux to resolving the issue to your mutual satisfaction. It allows to you consider alternative sources for the employees contribution, and to weigh up the investment you’re willing to make to overcome the disruptive behaviours, attitudes, or actions.

Do address the matter quickly

“A stitch in time saves nine.” Don’t let too much time pass between spotting disruptive behaviour and amending it. When your employee gets off track, a brisk follow up prevents the consequences of poor behaviour from scaling, and refrains its from infecting other parts of the organisation. Further, a short timeline communicates to the entire organisation that such behaviours, attitudes, or actions are not to be tolerated.

Do have a back up plan

Have a Plan A, B and C. Plan A may be to use this meeting as a coaching opportunity. But what if the employee refutes your claims? For example, Plan B may include an innovative way of retaining the employees valuable services but minimises their disruptive influences e.g. give an option to telework. Plan C could focus on other sources for their skills, network, or capabilities, should the employee decide to terminate their contract with immediate effect.

Do be involved but maintain perspective

Expect the person to be defensive when you confront them with the negative consequences of their behaviours. The conversation will be difficult for both of you. This is only natural and you should plan for it. And while you can’t remove the discomfort entirely, you can reduce it. Before the meeting, list the disruptive behaviours of the employee, and their consequences on business performance and team culture. During the meeting focus the impact of the behaviours rather than the behaviours themselves; the employee will draw the link without you pushing it into the spotlight. Ask for their suggestions on how, collectively, an improvement in performance can be achieved. Separating ego from action will allow the individual to save face. This is crucial. You want to foster improvement, not resentment.

Do create a path forward together

A solution to which both parties have contributed is more likely to stick. Ensure that you have a proposed way forward or structure for discussion, but commence by asking the other party for preliminary ideas. Build on their proposal in preference if it has the potential for resolving the issues to mutual satisfaction; this enhances the chance of successful implementation.


Do not assume the person is damaged or broken

Collaborate rather than condemn unless this is a fireable offence. We are all vulnerable, particularly when receiving unsolicited feedback. Focus on the impact of their behaviours and actions, not on the person but very explicit on the negative impact of the behaviours and how it detracts from the value.

Do not compromise your values or that of your organisation

Common values such as safety, customer orientation, or courtesy to colleagues unites a team. If you compromise these on behalf of one individual, you will set a negative precedent you cannot reverse.

Do not rely on hearsay

Seek out your own evidence and place primary weight upon this. Others may have grudges to bear or carrying jealousies. Using comments from others often leads to attempts to discredit the sources. As the leader, your observations carry much more weight.

Do not speak, listen

Spend less time broadcasting, and more time listening. Lay out the reasons for the meeting, and your desire for a productive outcome. Provide your evidence of the negative impact of their behaviour, quickly and early. Then keep quiet. You have one mouth with which to talk, and two ears with which to listen. Give them an opportunity to respond and then steer the conversation. Listen and watch. You are looking for openings, which could be subtle, where the employee is signaling an acknowledgement of the current condition and desire to improve it. Grab onto this opportunity and ride it.

Do not leave without agreement on next steps

Record the highlights of the discussion in writing. You must absolutely agree a date for a follow-up conversation. Note this date, the agreed upon actions, and measures of improvement. Both parties should have a copy of this note and, if relevant, a copy should be provided to the HR department.

Jumping cartoon

To be considered a valuable colleague on a team, an individual's contribution has to exceed their cost of membership. Sometimes there’s an imbalance and this has to be redressed quickly, fairly, and with evidence based on first hand information.

At all times, try to keep a cool head and warm heart. This is made easier if you believe the situation is worth fixing. Backing this up with proposals that benefit both parties, and allows the employee to save face makes a difficult activity much less stressful.

More expert advice about Career Success as a Manager

Photo Credits: dolgachov/; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Dr. Iwan JenkinsPresident

Dr. Iwan Jenkins specializes in business improvement with a focus on strategy and leadership. Iwan is a scientist who enjoyed a 20 year commercial career for blue chip companies, spending time in marketing and sales, mergers and acquisitions...

View Full Profile