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Lead Your Team Managing

How to Manage High-Maintenance Employees

How to Manage High-Maintenance Employees
Credit: GaudiLab/Shutterstock

Every workplace has at least one or two employees who can be described as "high maintenance." These individuals take up their managers' time with problems large and small, often to the exclusion and detriment of their peers.

Although high-maintenance workers may come off as insecure, arrogant or self-important, personality traits alone aren't indicators of a "needy" employee. However, there are a few concrete behaviors that may spell trouble for managers if they go unchecked:

They seek constant affirmation. Vip Sandhir, CEO and founder of HighGround, noted that high-maintenance employees will look for praise after every assignment they complete or email they send. Similarly, Samantha Lambert, director of HR at Blue Fountain Media, said these workers feel that everything related to their jobs is urgent, and they may have a bit of an entitled attitude.

They ask a lot of questions. It's good when employees ask smart questions that help them do their jobs better, but constant questions about everything could indicate a lack of confidence or initiative, said Sandhir.

They can't handle criticism or change. High-maintenance employees either won't accept or respond to constructive criticism, or simply take all criticism personally, Sandhir said. They also tend to be inflexible and are resistant to changes within their job or the company, added Lambert. [Become a better leader by following these simple practices.]

It's not always easy to handle an employee who requires constant attention, especially when it takes you away from managing the rest of your team. Instead of getting frustrated, it's best to start an open dialogue to determine whether there's simply a disconnect between you and your employee.

"Very frequently a 'high-maintenance' employee is one whose … needs are not being met," said George Brough, vice president of organizational development at Caliper. "These things may [be] … psychological needs, working conditions, tools/systems [or] remuneration. Your job as leader is to get the most out of the people in your team, so your first question needs to be, what does this person need from me to be successful?"

Brough offered a few examples of questions you can ask yourself to determine what will best motivate and encourage your employee:

  • Does the person require more structure and direction, or more freedom, to achieve goals using their preferred method?
  • Does he or she need more contact with other people, or fewer interruptions?
  • Does the individual need to be in a more competitive environment, or a more collaborative environment?
  • Does the employee need to be given more intellectually challenging tasks, or more tasks that are easier for them to complete? 

Sandhir agreed and advised determining the "why" behind the things your employee wants.

"Managers need to evaluate every idea proposed and question raised, and work to understand why the employee brought it up," he said. "For instance, if a young employee asks to head an entire department, what are they really asking for? This might be a sign that this employee is looking for an opportunity for growth or more responsibility, both of which can be dealt with in practical ways."

If your employee is one who constantly seeks affirmation or assistance, discuss expectations about when and how your employee should be asking for help, Sandhir said. This does not mean ignoring employees or foregoing providing direction; rather, encourage your employee to take more individual initiative or work together with peers versus going straight to managers with questions.

"Managers should also work to respectfully distance themselves from employees if they're depending too heavily on managerial support," Sandhir told Business News Daily. "Distance arms employees with the room to grow in their roles and find their own footing – which can lead to better work down the line."

You'll want to plan your words carefully, though, said Lambert: You want to stay focused on the person's specific problem behaviors, rather than making blanket statements about their character.

"Be straightforward," Lambert said. "Don't use the words 'needy' or 'high maintenance.' Identify behaviors that won't fly in the workplace ... [and] talk to them specifically about things they do or did rather than focusing on characteristics as to who and how they are. Help them develop self-awareness and identify things they should not do or say."

Once you've discussed specific behaviors and issues with a high-maintenance employee, you need to think about the best management approach moving forward.

Most leadership experts agree that the most effective managers tailor their interactions based on each employee's individual needs and motivations. For example, if your employee prefers you to be more hands-on and wants regular check-ins, make time for that and see if their performance improves.

"Set up a weekly check-in so they have their one-on-one time with you and your 'undivided attention,'" Lambert said.

Brough said it's important not to confuse one employee's motivations with those of others, or with your own motivations.

"Your motivators as a leader are powerful stimuli for your performance but may have little, or even a negative impact, on the performance of some team members," he said.

"Discovering what motivates them – even if it is something that seems irrelevant for you – will have the same powerful impact on their performance. Frequently … a small tweak in the leader's approach brings in huge productivity gains and a transformation in the team's results."

"Treating employees as individuals and recognizing their differences is key to building successful work relationships," Sandhir added.

For more advice on tailoring your management approach based on employees' individual habits and motivations, visit this Business News Daily guide.

Nicole Fallon

Nicole received her Bachelor's degree in Media, Culture and Communication from New York University. She began freelancing for Business News Daily in 2010 and joined the team as a staff writer three years later. She currently serves as the managing editor. Reach her by email, or follow her on Twitter.