Three High Maintenance Types You Don’t Want to Be

How can organisations address 'high maintenance' behaviours in high-performing employees? In this article, Angela Lane and Sergey Gorbatov give some practical advice on how to go about it.

In many companies, managers are expected to take a point of view on the potential of their team members. They identify those with the highest potential so that the organization can channel the development resources to where it matters most. It means that the companies deliberately and disproportionately invest in the training and development of those team members with the most potential.

In our experience, one of the most challenging types to assess is those that consistently demonstrate high performance and have exceptional potential to take on bigger roles in the future but who have behaviours we might think of as “high maintenance”. High maintenance comes in many shapes and sizes. Let’s focus on the three most common manifestations of this hyper-demanding employee.

Firstly, we all recognize those individuals who not only strive to do excellent work but consistently demand recognition and validation from others that they are, indeed, excellent. These talented individuals constantly crave credit and attention, often at the expense of their colleagues and the Team. This attention-seeking behaviour, which we call “look at me”, tends to be challenging for others, especially those who don’t appreciate their colleagues fishing for compliments, exaggerating their achievements, and trying to overshadow the accomplishments of others. There is no doubt that many of these individuals produce excellent quality; they just cannot deal with others not constantly acknowledging and applauding their brilliance.

A second manifestation of “high maintenance” is the employee who consistently brings up their compensation. These employees demand special treatment. They expect a premium based on their perceived uniqueness, which may or may not relate to their actual performance or the compensation approach of their organization. This often shows up as an entitlement mindset, rejecting offers that they do not consider adequate, even if it means they lose out. We call this archetype, “Please, sir, I want some more.” In truth, this is a little unfair to Oliver Twist. His request for more stemmed from a genuine need. In the case of the high-maintenance team member, the requests are not reasonable but stem from a belief that they deserve more than others.

The final and perhaps most challenging high-maintenance team members are employees who break the rules. We label these as “Rules don’t apply to people like me …” and these talents simply do not feel constrained to behave in ways that are consistent with formal or informal norms. We are not sure of the root cause of this behaviour, whether it is a sense of superiority and belief they know better than others, or the organization, or whether it is simply the drive that makes them so high performing also drive to move forward that means they feel compelled to disregard established approaches. While rule-breaking may not infringe on anything serious, the employee puts their comfort and convenience ahead of others, creating problems with perceived equity with those who follow the rules.

These talents may be tolerated in the short term, but their behaviors wear thin over time. They create problems for bosses, who eventually become frustrated with having to clean up the mess that is made. The result is that these high-performing, high-potential leaders fail to realize the potential that they have, and organizations fail to have the quality successors they need to meet their future needs.

Learning organizations have a key role to play in helping turn these high-potential but high-maintenance employees around. While we believe it is unlikely that development will change the underlying personality that drives these behaviours, development organizations can employ three strategies to improve the chances of these talented individuals having the opportunity to play a significant role.

Firstly, we owe it to our organizations to ensure these employees have an elevated level of self-awareness around their behaviours and the implications of those behaviours. We need to ensure strong feedback loops, including psychological profiles, 360-degree assessments, as well as observation, and real-time coaching.

Next, we need to provide and, more importantly, coach their bosses to provide the impact of these behaviours on their progression and career. You could approach this based on their effect on others. We believe that you will get more impact from being specific about how their progress will stall if they cannot adjust these behaviours.

Finally, you cannot train someone to believe they are not special or that they do not deserve more than others. Especially when, often, they are genuinely exceptionally talented. But you can train leaders in recognizing high maintenance types and giving recognition to these types for the right behaviours. Rewarding “look at me” talent when they give recognition to others, complimenting “I want some more” types at the first sign of maturity over the compensation and acknowledging the “rule breaker’s” frustration with the rules while rewarding their staying within the boundaries seem like it should be unnecessary. And at one level, it is. But talent is scarce. Learning Departments have an opportunity to help organizations have more talent but have responses in place to deliver a little more “high potential” and a little less “high maintenance”.

The views expressed here are solely those of the authors and do not represent those of any affiliated organisations.



Angela Lane & Sergey Gorbatov

Angela Lane and Sergey Gorbatov work and write about the complex science of human performance, while making it simple.Both are practising senior executives in talent management, leveraging Fortune 500 experience and gained across four continents. They are researchers, regular contributors to journals and the authors of “FairTalk: Three Steps to Powerful Feedback.”