Living with the enemy

We’ve all come across them, the highly strung, paranoid, demanding office members who make for hard work. But, like it or not, High Maintenance Employees are making a name for themselves in today’s cutting-edge business arena – so it’s time we learnt to live with them


There was a time when being closely associated with someone “high maintenance” meant something very specific to business executives. For a start the subject was invariably female, probably not in gainful employment, and the possessor of a seemingly insatiable appetite for luxury. But then the expression was hijacked by psychologists – and suddenly paying a high maintenance bill had become costly in a different sense.

It was about spending in terms of your own time and mental well-being – about having your energy drained by a voraciously emotional person needing constant reassurance, nurturing and molly- coddling. At the risk of introducing yet another unwelcome acronym to the lexicon, step forward the HMP (high maintenance person) and their workplace alter ego, the HME (employee).

I am sure you know this person. “HMPs tend to be very successful. There is often a charisma attached to them. Their best point is they are quite dynamic – they are interesting people to work with – life won’t be dull,” says Susan Cartwright, senior lecturer in organisational policy at Manchester School of Management.

“Their downside is they can almost burn you out because they are so demanding – and they use you. If you work with someone like that they might have a sense of ownership in the workplace and you are there to help their career and meet their demands. You are expected to work long hours to support their career aspirations.”

In terms of behaviour, the classic HMP model is volatility: “If you look at charismatic behaviour there is a huge range – these people are constantly switching from one behaviour pattern to another,” says Dr Brian Baxter, senior partner at organisational development and business psychology specialist Kiddy & Partners.

“Basically they think the world revolves around them. They are temperamental, so people have to put up with some pretty awful behaviour. They are prima donnas, flouncing in and out of meetings and expecting things to be done quickly for them when they insist on working at their own pace.”

In many ways, he adds, these people have been brought up to see themselves as a cut above the office hoi-polloi. “They often have a pattern of personal success in their lives. They have done well at school and university – they have not possibly experienced any real trials and tribulations, and consequently they have a very high opinion of themselves.

“There is an element of childishness in this – they could have had an indulged childhood; perhaps they never came up against first-class minds operating in a different frame. They often truly believe they have a unique insight.”

This is why many HMPs believe – albeit sometimes unconsciously – that they can get away with behaviour denied to less gifted colleagues. They perceive it as a price they can exact from companies for their expertise.

And the infuriating thing is they are often right. Without launching into a detailed dissertation on the link between talent and difficult or eccentric behaviour, it is safe to assume that any organisation aiming to make an impact needs a healthy quotient of HMPs. You need only note the effectiveness of the war-time code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park – an institution which housed one of the most concentrated gatherings of HMPs yet seen – to get the point.

“Some of our clients regard HMPs as bloody nuisances, but they are very important to the business,” says Baxter. “They are usually technical experts – experts in a particular market place, or with a particular financial awareness or product specialism. Perhaps they are just good at making money. But they are absolutely necessary in top executive teams. HMPs are the true grit in the oyster – they jolt people out of complacency because they often see things from a different perspective. But they are exasperating, and if you get three or four of them on the board at the same time it is a nightmare,” he adds.

“The character of many HMPs is associated with Type A behaviour,” says Cartwright at Manchester. “Type As suffer from “hurry sickness” – they are extreme in terms of urgency. They are perfectionists and, typically, they have an exaggerated view of stress – their priorities are often extreme. If the washing machine has broken down, if it is raining, these are all seen as acts conspiring against them personally. So their perception is somewhat unbalanced.

“Type Bs, on the other hand, are more relaxed, laid-back people. They are comfortable with themselves – they do not feel so driven. It is a bit like cars: there are some tried-and-tested models that keep on going and others that need constant maintenance. Most people fall somewhere in the middle.”

Yet she argues that in the dog-eat-dog environment created by the rush into the new economy business conditions have never been quite so ripe for Type A HMPs. “My own experience is that certain kinds of industries attract and then tend to recruit high Type As – people do tend to recruit in their own image.” And they are currently riding high in many leading-edge operations – typically among the dot.coms and in the data and telecommunications sectors where future prospects are currently valued more highly than actual performance levels.

You can see how this fits neatly with one defining HMP trait, as outlined by Dr Colin Selby a senior partner with occupational psychology specialist Selby Millsmith. He claims that a typical pre-occupation is “how they are regarded, rather than what they have actually achieved”. But as Freeserve founder John Pluthero once famously remarked, “paranoia is a handy thing in this business”.

Since it is an accepted fact that HMPs are critical to business life, the obvious problem facing HR departments is how to manage them. How do you harness the energy and innovation they bring while downplaying the many negative effects of their behaviour on other employees and the workplace as a whole?

At the heart of this issue is the knotty question of nurture versus nature. Are HMPs born, or are they made? Is it possible for them to present extremely high maintenance behaviour in the work environment, and yet be a model of accommodation at home? Are high maintenance employees the same people who make life a misery for their partners at home? Most importantly, can they be made to change?

Selby is a strong proponent of the nature argument. “These people are a definite type – they are as likely to be causing drama at home as they are at work. It is because they are almost addicted to drama and risk.”

Consequently he believes they are very difficult to change and the best way of handling them is to place them in an environment or role most suited to their character. There are any number of measurement tools now available to determine what sort of workplace role is best suited to which character-type – Selby names Hersey-Blanchard’s situational leadership questionnaire and the Firo-B methodology.

But others warn against taking too scientific an approach to the question. “If HR people use a typology to help define people, they run the risk of looking at them in an over-diagnostic fashion. And then all you see is the traits you have already outlined for them,” says Dr Ido Van der Heijden, a visiting fellow at Cranfield School of Management and senior partner in Van der Heijden Associates.

Cartwright contends that because many HMEs are created as a direct result of their working cultures or backgrounds, change is certainly possible. “If you work in a frenetic competitive environment, you either grow into that mode, withdraw or leave. The nature of work has become much more achievement-driven – people’s expectations of what they can achieve are much higher than in the past.

“In a way, we have become more American and therefore need more maintenance. But you need a balance. From an HR point of view, you don’t want to put together an homogenous group of people. You find they tend to lose touch with reality: they get into group-think and become non-challenging. You need diversity.”

Averil Leimon, director of Plus Consulting, an association which claims it can “transform” individuals and organisations, agrees. She claims many companies actively encourage staff toward high maintenance behaviour by depriving them of basic good management.

“To some extent we are all HMPs. People do not get the basics they need – they get financial rather than feedback rewards. People will push and push to get approval, and if they don’t get it, they will compensate by seeking attention”.

Leimon claims there is a ratio of the type of feedback you need to give if someone is to improve. “If you want them to stay the same, you need to give them a 4:1 positive-to-negative feedback. If you want them to improve it needs to rise to 8:1.”

The bottom line, says Baxter, is that many HMPs continue behaving as they do because their behaviour is rewarded. “They realise they could spend four hours in a meeting slowing working to a consensus, or they could come in, throw a wobbly and get the same effect – and get talked about into the bargain.

“On one level”, he continues, “these people appear emotionally unintelligent because of their behaviour. But they know how to manipulate other people, so in some sense they are supremely emotionally intelligent.”

Other commentators line up to disagree: “In terms of Emotional Intelligence as defined by psychologist Daniel Goleman – how a person integrates their emotional feelings and reactions into their behaviour and how they integrate with other people – they score poorly,” says Selby.

“They have low integrity, low sensitivity, low resilience, and low empathy. They need a lot of care, respect and reinforcement in their work. The person who believes they are the best is also the person who is the most fragile. It is a sign of poor self-confidence – they are looking for reinforcement all the time.”

Nonetheless, all agree that the first step to both dealing with – and possibly changing – high maintenance behaviour is to point it out to the offender. “Type As are not always aware of the effect of their behaviour, so you should point it out to them,” says Carwtright.

To this extent, she believes that measures such as 360-degree feedback can be very effective. Leimon agrees, “Once a person understands there is a pattern, they can go some way towards changing it. But you cannot just strap on skills – people have to change from within.”

Another critical facility when dealing with an HMP is not to take what they do or say personally – do not mimic HMP behaviour by taking umbrage. “On a day-to-day level the best thing you can do is let them rant – let the anger surface,” says Baxter. “It is a bit like lunging a temperamental pony,” he adds. “After a while many begin to see they are being slightly silly – often this is why people leave meetings.”

But although organisations frequently pander to the wilder outbursts of their HMPs, companies are not charities, as Van der Heijden points out, “If someone is highly valuable, companies are willing to invest a lot of money in them and take a lot of grief. But if that person is marginal – they will quickly be fired.”

And ironically, adds Baxter, many companies find that on waving goodbye to this person, they do not miss them. “They realise the individual was not as valuable as they were making themself out to be.”

So HMPs tend to live and die by the sword. Indeed their real tragedy is that when they do fall, they plummet further than most of us.

It is no coincidence, perhaps, that a fallen HMP is often a reformed HMP. Those craving to be centre of attention might actually discover a natural aversion to it once they are actually cast into the spotlight. People can and do learn self-discipline, empathy and self-reliance – all the opposite qualities of the HMP profile – if they find themselves suddenly having to struggle.

Moreover, it will not have escaped the attention of the more self-aware among them that their promotional chances are likely to hinge on demonstrating a more nurturing and empathetic relationship with their own juniors. As Cartright points out, “Even if they are performing well, if they are not developing the people they are managing, they will get nowhere. They need to delegate and nurture their staff.”

With this in mind, some companies are spending fortunes on sending HM high-fliers on courses in the hope of injecting them with a little self-awareness and empathy. Leimon says many companies believe the process is worthwhile when it comes to nurturing the best talent. “I have been in the business for 20 years, and I have seen miracles.”

To some extent, as Van der Heijden concludes, “It is not always the person who is sent on the course who turns out to be the HMP. Often it is the person who has sent them.” He lists countless examples of people labelled “difficult” with “limiting patterns” by their companies, who turn out nothing of the sort outside the confines of their organisations.

He puts this down to a working environment in which they feel obliged to take on defensive mechanisms. One of the most frequent customers on his courses are women who have often been labelled “aggressive” by their (predominantly male) managers “when we find the real problem is they often have not been assertive enough”.

Perhaps the inevitable conclusion here is that one person’s HMP is another’s blissfully low maintenance type – it depends on what narks you.

Which of us cannot claim to have suffered a touch of the prima donnas at some point? On that note, I have to dash. My editor’s about to throw a wobbly.


HMPs of our time

Michael Heseltine politician and chairman of Haymarket Publishing: for marching out of Cabinet over Westland and – in an earlier parliamentary incident – brandishing the sacrosanct House of Commons mace


Baroness Thatcher for services to high maintenance behaviour too numerous to mention. Most notably, her insistence that no-one needs more than five hours’ sleep a night


John Knott politician for storming off set during a television interview when Robin Day asked if he considered himself a “here-today, gone-tomorrow politician”


Peter Langan restaurateur for chucking out a customer who complained that his food when it arrived was too cold


Evelyn Waugh novelist: for appropriating his children’s post-war banana rations – the first they had ever seen – and eating them with relish in front of them

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