‘Big’ Personalities – How to Manage a Top Performer Who Isn’t a Team Player

I read an article in Harvard Business Review recently which I thought was worth a share.

As agency leaders and founders, we all want the best people. And despite the call for a ‘culture-fit first’ strategy, there are many times when a person’s talent must outweigh their potentially abrasive personality, especially if their knowledge could significantly drive the business forward. But ‘big personalities’ or ‘competent jerks’ can be significantly derailing for your agency culture, so if you are going to employ them, then considering you management style is really important.

The conundrum is this:  

Having a supremely talented and confident employee is a wonderful thing — except, of course, if that person is alienating their colleagues. Whilst your top performer is often passing performance reviews with flying colours, their inability to form team relationships is likely to be detrimental to the team as a whole. So what can you do about it?

Tips on improving interactions with colleagues


Maybe I should change the record, but feedback – delivered well – is a superpower for all kinds of team issues. Using it to manage none-team players is no exception. It’s really important your competent but socially unaware team member understands the metaphorical wake they leave behind.

Tough love

Be honest about how they’re being perceived and explain the consequences of their behaviour. Say something like, “In order to live up to your talent, you need to consider how you might be standing in your own way.”

Encourage empathy

Encourage your team member to consider empathy and their colleagues’ perspectives and viewpoints. Ask them to pay closer attention to colleagues’ emotional responses. “Are they pulling back? Do they look uncomfortable? Are they anxious?” This kind of observation is the first step toward improving self- and social-awareness. Trying to get them to step into another persons shoes is also important for someone who doesn’t automatically do so, get them to ask themselves “What do you think matters to this person on the team? What do you think is that person’s biggest concern? Is there any common ground? Do you share any pain points?”

Speak to them in a language they understand

It’s important to frame the consequences of detrimental behaviour in terms that your abrasive high-achiever will appreciate: As a hindrance to their career growth. Your employee needs to buy into the fact that their attitude and approach matters in a material way to their performance and their reputation. Strong peer relationships are critical to both short- and long-term professional progression, and even in spite of myriad talents and abilities, this person will not advance in your organisation without good interpersonal skills. Make sure you’re honest about the need to perform well whilst ALSO building relationships. Saying something like “I know you’re getting mixed signals because there’s pressure to perform, but I need to impress upon you the importance of building and maintaining relationships.”

Be compassionate

Think about the aspects of your high-performer’s personality that you enjoy and admire – after all, they are likely doing great things for your clients or the bottom line. You might really like the fact that they’re hard-driving, or appreciate their determination to get the job done.  Use compassion and sympathy in one-to-ones e.g. “I understand your frustration. Not everyone is as hard-driving or as motivated as you.” Consider sharing with them tough moments you have had in your career, perhaps you suffered a similar affliction or received similar meaningful advice. Then ask: ‘How can I help you? How can we get better together?


Many times, difficult employees have learned how to moderate their behaviour with the boss – which means you may not struggle as much as your other team members to get along. You need to encourage them to ask questions and not assume they know everything, helping them to give people the benefit of the doubt and coaching them to get over their knee-jerk reaction of disdain and frustration.

Have patience

Don’t expect your efforts to yield immediate results. Behavioural changes take time. Encourage your employee to be patient as well — with themselves and others. Relational competence is as much as a skill as professional competence, so stick with them and you might just find yourself with a truly irreplaceable team member.

Principles to Remember:


  • Help your abrasive superstar see how their behaviour could derail their career.
  • Teach your employee techniques to help them become aware of people’s emotional reactions.
  • Demonstrate to your employee the value of asking questions.


  • Shy away from giving this person tough feedback — they need to know how they’re perceived by others.
  • Enable egotism. Help your superstar understand their colleagues’ perspectives.
  • Be unsympathetic. Think back on helpful advice you’ve received and share it.

I hope this gives some steerage for any ‘big personalities’ in your own agency team.

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