360 Answers: Managing a High-Performing, High-Drama Employee

Managing High Drama High Performing EmployeesEach of our workplace experts has weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you four points of view.  For other editions of our 360° Answers series, please click here.

Here’s the question, with our experts’ responses below:

One of my employees is great at her job. She has about 20 years of experience on me and is truly the rock star of our team.  However, with certain deadlines, she tends to put too much pressure on herself and gets frustrated. The level of emotion, I feel, makes it even harder for her to resolve what are already difficult problems.  And she tends to involve others in her stress, which sometimes brings the whole team down. 

In the end, she always meets the deadline and solves the problem.  And she usually comes to realize how futile all the “sturm und drang” was.  Yet, inevitably the cycle repeats itself every time a new problem comes along. However, I struggle to find ways to encourage her in the moment that is helpful but not patronizing. Any tips?

Alison Green says:

Have you talked to her about the problem? It sounds like you’ve been trying to address it from the side – trying to calm her down and relieve her stress without actually addressing what’s happening head-on. You need to have a direct conversation with her, just like you would about anything else that was impacting her performance.

Sit down with her – not during the middle of a stressful project, but afterwards – and tell her that she does fantastic work but there’s something you’d like to see her work on improving. Tell her you’ve noticed she tends to get anxious and frustrated before big deadlines, and that her frustration makes it harder to solve problems quickly and impacts the rest of the team. Be explicit that while her work itself is excellent, her work style has the potential to limit what she achieves. And then tell her that you’d like to work with her to find strategies to minimize her stress reactions, so that she and the people working with her have a calmer environment during these periods. (And frankly, simply articulating the issue to her might get you partway there; if she doesn’t realize the impact it’s having, just hearing the problem named might help her rein it in.)

Sometimes managers shy away from giving developmental feedback to high performers, figuring that they’re doing such a great job that they shouldn’t criticize any aspect of their performance. As a result, high performers often end up missing out on feedback that could help them do even better, because their managers figure that it’s not worth having a potentially difficult conversation when their overall performance is strong. And that’s terribly unfair; your high performers deserve to hear how they could grow just as much as anyone else. So talk to her.

Alexandra Levit says:

It sounds like your employee has a problem with anxiety and/or worry, which can wreck havoc on her motivation and your team’s as well.  You can tell her to live in the moment, but for someone who is accustomed to allowing unproductive thoughts to take over, your words may go in one ear and out the other.

I used to be very similar to the person you’re describing. For example, one summer, I worried obsessively about landing an agent to represent my new novel. Every day as I drove home during my lunch break to check the mailbox for agent responses, my blood pressure zoomed into the stratosphere. Several weeks later, I finally recognized that my worry was out of control, and I talked about it with my husband, who is also a psychologist. He said that I should consider the worst-case scenario and resign myself to accepting that outcome if necessary.

I took his advice and imagined that I couldn’t find an agent, and that my novel would never be published. I then brainstormed ways to improve the situation. This was a hard pill to swallow at first, but I actually felt better once my mind was purged of all the what-ifs? Free from worry, I was able to concentrate rationally on new strategies for obtaining an agent.

Just because you refuse to worry about a problem doesn’t mean you are denying its existence. However, if your employee could skip the part where she plays out a thousand variations of the same drama in her head, she and everyone around her would be a lot happier.

The next time a problem scenario comes up, work with the employee to consider the best way to approach the issue rationally. Help her make a careful decision based on facts, take action, and then move on right away without all that “sturm und drang.”  It may take time for her emotions to truly catch up to the strategy, but in a year, she’ll be thanking you.

Anita Bruzzese says:

I’d like to suggest that you borrow a strategy from the military and “debrief” the employee after a big project. While in the heat of the battle she may not consciously be aware of  everything she’s doing, so you need to learn everything you can about what went right and what went wrong so together you assess the operation and learn from it.

By helping her analyze a project once it has been completed, and getting as many details as possible, you both may come to recognize where the snags are that ultimately cause her to have meltdowns and jeopardize the entire project. It could be that someone begins to slack off, and she believes that she has to carry an extra load. Or perhaps she feels she has little support and has been blamed in the past for failures, instead of being given the opportunity to learn from them.

Try to work with her to come up with solutions. My bet is that if she is a rockstar, she will welcome the chance to improve her performance and put an end to the drama. Perhaps you can come up with signals to her so that when she begins to ratchet up the emotion, you can signal her to step away and take a deep breath or even start fresh the next day. Encourage her to come to you even if it’s to vent, so that she feels she has the support she needs to do her job.

I commend your commitment to be respectful of this employee and help your team. I think by staying focused on solving a problem, everyone will benefit and you won’t risk a star employee burning out.

Eva Rykrsmith says:

I can really relate to this because, left unchecked, I have these tendencies myself. It is really hard to do something about it “in the moment” without some up-front prep work. That’s because during a stressful time, we are most likely to revert to our natural selves, and abandon all those things we know we should do instead. Our deeply rooted tendencies take over as if on autopilot, and without prepared coping techniques we are powerless to do much about it. Here are a few tips on how you, the manager, can help her overcome the dysfunctional behavior:

1)    Only provide information/feedback during a calm time. Wait a few days until wounds have healed after a situation and then debrief. Talk about that specific incident only. Describe what you observed, how it affected the team, and then move to an open discussion about what can be done differently next time. Likely, you will reach agreement on the problem but may have to work together to develop a sustainable solution.

2)    During an incident, appeal to emotions—not logic. Intellectually, she knows this is not the right way to respond and doesn’t need to hear about it at this point. That portion of the brain that thinks clearly is compromised when strong emotion takes over. Anything you can do that can diffuse the level of emotion will be helpful.

3)    From a more operational perspective, it might be worth a closer look at where these fires, problems, and deadlines are stemming from. Are there any process improvement opportunities that might make the work environment more calm and predictable?











Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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