Managing The Maverick Employee
Difficult and hard to manage employees can be very frustrating, but many problem employees also have a very positive flipside if only the manager can use their talents well, and minimize the problems or employee deficits. In this article we look at the maverick employee, the person who likes to do his or her own thing, but may have some very special talents.
Understanding The Maverick
He seems to march to his own drum, always slightly out of step with the rest of the group. He tends to be independent, and never quite fits in with any one group. The maverick is usually challenging the way things are done, always looking for different ways to get things done, though sometimes these different ways aren't an improvement. Hard to manage, the maverick seems relatively oblivious to the normal constraints of organizational control, authority of his boss, or even rewards.
The maverick has much to contribute to an organization, since he often serves as the "gadfly" that encourages, or even pushes others to think differently. Unfortunately, mavericks can also be seen as pushy, aggressive or even obnoxious, and in the worst cases, they can provide regular nightmares for those that must manage them.
The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly
Organizations need to be able to examine themselves so that they can change. What worked last year may not work this year, and research on successful organizations shows us that they have been able to reinvent themselves when required. Unfortunately, many organizations, particularly government ones, tend to get stuck, repeating the old ways even after they are no longer the best way. Organizational inertia holds the organization back, or even threatens its existence.
Mavericks serve to counteract this inertia. They constantly question, often critically, but good mavericks also offer solutions and alternatives. Their forceful arguments are hard to ignore. One of the strongest contributions a maverick can make is to force those around him to analyze and evaluate the basic underlying assumptions of the group.
The good part is that the maverick can become the conscience of the organization, while encouraging creativity, and change. Provided the maverick works in an environment that values these contribution, the relationship between the boss and the maverick can be fruitful, and at least, relatively free of animosity.
Unfortunately, these contributions come with a cost. Because mavericks tend to be outspoken and overly forthright, they tend to disrupt teams, particularly in organizations that have a low tolerance for conflict. They are difficult to manage, and may even ignore directives from their bosses.
More problematic is the fact that mavericks don't make particularly good team-players. Their aggressive, blunt communication style puts people off, and their contributions at group meetings can be exasperating as they seem to go off on tangents or miss the point of discussions. They tend to go off on their own, sometimes ignoring decisions made by the boss or the team. That's the bad.
The ugly is really ugly. When mavericks are highly skilled and knowledgeable, they can provide many positive contributions, and often, mavericks are, in fact, excellent at what they do. But if they aren't that skilled or knowledgeable, their contribution will almost always be negative. They will create a great deal of conflict and frustration without coming up with anything valuable, or ideas that are useful. These people are severe performance problems...loose cannons.
The second ugly situation occurs when the organization does not recognize the contributions of the wild maverick. Over a period of time, the maverick moves from maverick to scapegoat to rebel to martyr, At each stage the organization becomes less tolerant of his seemingly uncontrollable behavior, and the maverick becomes more forceful and more uncontrollable. Other employees blame "the different one" for a host of sins, until any contributions the person can make will be discounted and lost.
Managing The Maverick
Managers can do a great deal to harness the power and energy of the maverick, while working with him to minimize the negative effects of the mavericks social style. In large part, the manager's approach is going to determine whether there is a lot of good, a lot of bad or a lot of ugly. Below are some suggestions.
1. Get Your Signals Straight
You may not be able to cage a maverick, but you can guide him. The trick is to be clear about how you see the maverick contributing to the organization, recognizing that his contribution may be different from other employees. The maverick needs to know what you expect, and what you need.
2. Work For Respect, Not Authority
Your formal authority may not have much impact on the maverick. Don't expect him to respond to your requests simply on the basis of your being the boss. What will have an effect is developing rapport and mutual respect. This means dialogue, and a willingness to listen to what the maverick has to say. It means asking many questions. It also means showing that you value his contributions.
Mavericks don't usually intend to be obstructive. They appear so because they simply don't think about how they may be affecting those around them. For this reason, it is important that they receive feedback that will focus them on how they are doing. If a maverick is obnoxious in a meeting, he needs to be told. The best way to communicate feedback to a maverick is to talk about basic principles, and values and then move to specifics.
Feedback isn't just about negative behavior, and the manager needs to let the maverick know that his "weird" contributions are appreciated and valued. If you want to keep the maverick contributing positively, you need to let him know.
4. Dealing With Ugly
If your maverick is "ugly" -- unskilled, not very competent and obnoxious, you have a performance problem that must be addressed. It this person is allowed to run roughshod over everyone without contributing anything positive, the entire organization can be poisoned. There will be situations where the best course of action is to encourage the person to move on, particularly if they are constantly disruptive.
5. Champion And Protect
Remember that the maverick tends not to belong to any particular group, and so doesn't receive a lot of group support. He relies on the strength of his ideas rather than social support. If you value the positive contributions of your maverick, you will need to point out these contributions to more conventional employees, particularly in group situations and meetings. Show that you value the ideas and creativity, even if you don't like the way the comments or ideas are presented.
6. Set Limits (Or Try)
The maverick is going to need reminding that there ARE organizational goals that are important. Help the maverick focus on these goals as important, relevant and valuable. Don't appear arbitrary, but appeal to principles and values he may have,
The maverick can contribute positive and negative things to an organization, and can be a blessing or a curse to any manager. Much of what determines what you will get is how the organization and the manager tolerate the quirks of the maverick. If you can harness the maverick's energy and commitment, he can play an important role in helping the organization shake off the inertia and move towards self-examination and change.