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Dealing with an employee who is too good at his job

An exemplary worker is struggling in a chaotic environment. Instead of pushing him to act against his nature, find ways to accommodate and make use of his work ethic.


Reader: I work for a small nonprofit supporting research. The work culture is about doing a lot while limiting overhead. As a result, we are understaffed and over-busy, and tend to run a little late. In addition to active projects, we often throw ideas around with no specific task associated yet. I think of it as chaotic good.

My question concerns someone who reports to me and is an exemplary employee — enthusiastic, conscientious, knowledgeable, with organizational ability and great people skills. The problem is his rigid mind-set and outsized work ethic. He has a need for precision and timeliness, for himself and collaborators. He always wants action items spelled out, even though I have tried to communicate that not everything mentioned is a command. He’s like the kid in class who finishes all their own work and then starts doing other kids’ work.

When I’ve tried to communicate that he could be looser and not get so stressed, he interprets this as me being too lax and not caring enough. I fear he will burn himself out or get so frustrated that he quits. How can I get my message across effectively?

Karla: So you want an exemplary employee … but without the traits, quirks and requirements that make him that way.

Where you and most of your colleagues are used to throwing ideas out and seeing what takes root, this employee wants every idea tethered and tagged. You’re comfortable with free-floating uncertainty; he needs order and predictability. You share the same basic goals, but have different ways of getting there and different ideas of what constitutes a good result.

If you want to better understand his strengths and challenges, it’s easy to find online personality assessments and matrices, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, that help sort people into tidy little acronyms and archetypes and tell you how to bring the best out in them. But it sounds as though you already have a good idea what motivates him. You just need to figure out how to fill the needs you’re telling him to ignore.

While things might be simpler if this guy would just loosen up and go with the flow as everyone else seems to, that’s clearly not something that comes easily to him. Telling him to relax is only going to increase his frustration and make him dig in. He needs some order in his chaos. As his supervisor, you are in a position to provide it without necessarily upending the system that works for everyone else.

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Here’s one example: Instead of expecting him to just “get” when something is an action item versus a random suggestion, make that distinction explicit. When the team is tossing around ideas, separate them into action items and discussion items on a whiteboard/spreadsheet/wall of sticky notes. Physically arrange them by priority. Be prepared to revisit and rearrange those priorities. Come up with a process by which team members can take ownership of projects, so he can see that they’re getting done without him having to take them all on himself. You may even want to deputize him as a de facto project manager to keep track of who’s doing those projects.

But while you’re accommodating his needs, you’ll also want to establish boundaries for what your above-and-beyond performer is responsible for. Remind him where that line is if he becomes too invested in making sure other people are following protocols and timelines — and be prepared to diplomatically speak up on his behalf when he has a point and the chaos is getting out of control.

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Yes, his constant need to confirm every detail and check every box can be tiresome. But making an effort to acknowledge and meet his needs may help him loosen up a bit — and it might have benefits for the team at large, such as keeping good ideas from falling off the radar and ensuring projects are done on time.