managing a high-performing, high-drama employee

A reader writes:

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?

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 in. 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 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 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.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 44 comments… read them below }

  1. twentymilehike*

    Oh this is so me … I hate it, but I wear my heart on my sleeve and I often vocalize before thinking it through completely. Someone told me I was being negative once, and I had no idea I was coming across that way.

    I think those answers were pretty great … personally, just having someone tell me, “Relax, you’re doing a great job” makes a giant impact.

  2. Kat M*

    At an old job my manager once called a meeting with me about how I was handling my stress. She asked me if I knew that our EAP included stress management counseling, and mentioned that she’d used it herself. Honestly, I’d always thought of the EAP as something for folks with drug or alcohol programs, and I was very grateful to the manager for bringing it up! It really made me feel like she cared about me as a person in addition to my performance level, which was usually excellent.

    1. Nicola Hill*

      I tell all my friends to take advantage of EAP! It is better than HR, because your sessions really are confidential. I work at a university, so our EAP is pretty expansive and generous, but you really can go for anything–job dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety, etc.

        1. Jessa*

          If your company has an intranet look up your benefits, there’s usually a phone number for it. It’s often managed by an outside agency (possibly the same company as your medical insurance, but sometimes completely separate.) It’s nearly always a toll free call and you can find out what kind of help they have.

          I know when I was stressed at a job, I got a counsellor and they gave me paid time off (not sick leave or holiday pay, part of the EAP was they paid me to go to the counsellor on regular work hours, I left early on Thursdays.)

  3. Rob*

    What about having the employee create a Gaant chart? It seems like they get so frustrated and can’t see the forest through the trees. Creating the chart helps them see the project for what it is, and includes logical timeframes for the various steps in the project, so that the entire project can be completed by the due date.

  4. Jamie*

    If everyone else would just do their freaking jobs without hand holding and needing a million follow ups then maybe she wouldn’t be ready to snap when deadlines loom large because she’ll pull it off, she always does….

    Why, yes I am coming upon one of my major project weeks and yes I am completely clenched…why do you ask?

    In all seriousness, just point it out…sometimes all it takes is someone to mention that “you may think you’re keeping the screamy thoughts in your head but people are starting to get scared and that’s why they’ve hidden the sharp objects and your stapler” to bring them back down to reality.

    Also, and I’m not saying I have personal experience with this neurosis (ahem) but high performers tend to be perfectionists and so as deadlines approach they hyper-focus on everything that can possibly go wrong and not the 98% of the stuff that’s right on track. IOW the stress can be much greater in their head is actually warranted. Just something to keep in mind.

    Oh and my project that is coming up – I am convinced this will be the one time I blow it and I will spectacularly implode and lose my job, all hopes of future employment, and everything I love. And then my husband will remind me that I say the same things every single time and it’s practically a rehearsed speech at this point. Then I breathe.

    1. A Bug!*

      That’s a pretty good point – I wonder if she feels additional pressure because she’s having to pick up her coworkers’ slack. When your frustration can be directly attributed to the actions (or lack thereof) of others, it can be harder to work through it.

      I find it relatively easy to cope with rushes that aren’t anybody’s fault. But when I have to work my butt off for a week because somebody else dropped the ball, then it’s pretty hard not to feel some resentment over being put in that position.

    2. QualityControlFreak*

      “You may think you’re keeping the screamy thoughts in your head but people are starting to get scared and that’s why they’ve hidden the sharp objects and your stapler.” LMFAO.

      Fortunately I have a coworker who would say just that if she thought I needed to hear it.

  5. B*

    These are great answers. I am one of those people in the heat of the battle can tend to do this. The worst thing for someone to do, for me, is say “relax you are doing great”. To me that sounds like a dismal of the emotion I am feeling. Instead, like Eva said, appeal to the emotions and say yes you are stressed, this happens each time, deep breaths and we will get through it.

    You are acknowledging the emotion, reminding her it happens all of the time, and in the end it will be ok.

    1. twentymilehike*

      I am one of those people in the heat of the battle can tend to do this. The worst thing for someone to do, for me, is say “relax you are doing great”.

      I wanted to say I find it interesting that this is your reaction. I am definitely one of these people, but I have a good reaction to someone telling me this same thing. It may be beneficial for the OP to determine which type of reaction this person tends to have to statements like this. When I’m in a state of panic and stress, having someone else just say that everything is fine will calm me down.

    2. Jessa*

      This. Relax, calm down, it’s okay and other language like that just tends to ratchet me up higher. It feels like a dismissal. The commenter needs to go in sideways “can I help? Walk me through it we can work on it together, etc.” but telling someone who is upset to calm down, etc. It’s like telling someone who’s freaking out not to cry. It really never works well.

    3. Angora*

      I have found one of the best tools for stressing at work, it to take a quick walk. Even if it’s just around the building. Makes a huge difference.

  6. Cat*

    I think most people get in this mode occasionally. The people who do this who are most problematic, in my experience, are the ones who cope with their own stress by pushing it onto other people and pulling them into the stress and chaos spiral. This can be adaptive in the short term, because it gets the high performer’s immediate priorities dealt with; in the long-term, it’s incredibly damaging and spirals onto everyone else in the organization. If that’s what the person in question is doing, I think it needs to be dealt with somewhat differently than someone who just puts too much pressure on themselves and maybe snaps at a co-worker occasionally as a result. It needs to be made explicit that (a) the high performer does not set priorities for everyone else; (b) attempts to usurp other people by centering the high-performer-created chaos in other people’s jobs will not be tolerated; and (c) this is potentially job threatening. Nobody is so good as to make that kind of chaos creation worth it in the long run. (Not that I’ve had experience with this kind of person or anything.)

    1. Jamie*

      I would like more details regarding what kind of chaos we’re talking about. I’ve seen people gets completely crazy and then I’ve seen people internalize stress and maybe be less warm and fuzzy than usual – without losing professionalism.

      And sometimes it is their job to set priorities for other people, and trying to work out conflicting priorities with other levels of management can cause a lot of this inner tension.

      I know you have to move product out the door and you have a shipping and production schedule – I respect that – that doesn’t mean I don’t need ABC from your department by X date – because financials and audits are also important and also have hard deadlines. It can be stressful trying to get all priorities met on time when there is a perfect storm of deadlines.

      1. Cat*

        I’m not talking about a manager setting priorities for her team. Of course that’s appropriate. Nor am I talking about sensibly juggling deadlines – I’m actually talking about the exact opposite of that, where one person’s deadlines become the most important not because of external realities but because that person has put everyone under so much stress that people believe they’re the most important. There’s a certain type of person who can go very far by making it so unpleasant for people not to be working on her tasks that they prioritize them above everything else. This means that tasks aren’t actually being prioritized as to how important they are; they’re being prioritized based on not incurring X’s wrath. So X’s work gets done quickly and well, but other work that might be important suffers from a result.

        The thing is, this can be hard to see because X’s work really is important and really does need to be done, and it really is done well. So on some level it all seems reasonable, and because X has created a constant crisis-based atmosphere, people get Stockholmed into her type of thinking. That’s what makes the whole spiral so toxic and why it’s so important to make it clear that the department’s or group’s priorities are not going to be hijacked by the person who can artificially create the most stress around their particular deadline.

        (I think this problem crops up a lot at law firms where tight and conflicting deadlines are an inevitable reality not just occasionally but all the time – and keep in mind, at law firms there are not usually neat hierarchies where groups of junior workers have a single chain of command, which exacerbates the problem).

        1. Jamie*

          I see what you’re saying – and I agree. People with bad time management can create a hostage type situation for sure…nicely put.

          In my own case I have a gantt chart for months in advance available to everyone and regular email follow ups and check ins. If they chose to wait until the 11th hour I don’t have a whole lot more sympathy than the teacher who assigned a project day one of the semester and then has people starting it the day before it’s due. Your inability to plan properly means I don’t feel bad when you have to stay late to hit a deadline when you had months of warning.

          1. Cat*

            And it’s not even just people with time management. It’s people who want to appropriate more resources for their particular project than would be sensible were they (or anyone) looking at where those resources should be allocated from a holistic perspective.

  7. Jay*

    This is something lots of us do throughout life. The best thing I’ve realized recently is that the external pressure is more than enough and that I don’t need to make things even worse by pressuring myself. It’d be one thing if she stressed herself out because of inadequate work, but that’s clearly not the case here. She’s competent and capable — trusting herself and her skills can go a long way, and there are definitely worse problems to have.

    What’s especially difficult about situations like this is that it’s also easy to feel bad about your own anxiety and internal pressuring having an effect on others, which then becomes something else to stress about, which can then make things even worse for others, etc…

    1. Ruffingit*

      Very true. The anxiety alone is enough, but it’s compounded by worrying about its effect on others.

  8. Brett*

    This reminds me of that time I drove past/under a tornado….
    No, really, it does (and it was an EF4 too).

    I was perfectly calm and locked in. I drove right down the center of the highway, ignore exploding transformers and following the reflectors because it was too dark to see the lines on the road.

    My wife was screaming at the top of her lungs and paralyzed.

    Guess which one of us finished their thesis on time? (And which one of us wanted to scream at the top of their lungs.)

    Different people deal with different types of pressure different ways. This might sound bizarre, but the sturm and drang might be necessary for her to produce, and might even be necessary for her to get the pressure to the right level for her to perform optimally.

    I perform well under very intense pressure. My wife not so much. My wife performs awesome with long timelines and well defined future deadlines. I’m horrible under those conditions.

    So, probably the most important thing here is to protect the rest of the team from being stressed out by her stress.

    Oh, and a car is one of the worst places to be in a tornado. Don’t do what I did.

    1. Kou*

      I perform spectacularly under pressure! While screaming my head off. But also taking care of it.

      I’m everyone’s angry mother.

      1. Jamie*

        I love this response so much. Not sure why – just do.

        I would love to work with you.

    2. HAnon*

      I am the same way…I was in an incident in a plane one time that almost turned fatal. The other passengers = screaming hysterically. Me = calm and creating an action plan.

      However, me sitting in gridlock traffic? Running late for work? Awful. I do not handle low-pressure annoyances very well at all.

  9. S3*

    I’m the question asker here & I wanted to thank the bloggers for their answers as well as everyone’s comments here.

    You’ve all given me a lot to think about.

  10. class factotum*

    My husband and I almost missed a plane last week because of his usual lateness. I always leave slack in my schedule; he never does. He is an optimist.

    He was so stressed out he almost had a heart attack. My reaction to a problem like this is to start thinking of alternative solutions: Can we abandon the carry on? Can we catch a later flight?

    His reaction is to analyze why the problem happened in the first place, which I suppose is fine once everything is settled, but not particularly useful WHILE YOU ARE TRYING TO GET TO THE AIRPORT.

    PS And the reason it happened was not the accident on the highway but the fact that he left the house 30 minutes later than he had planned.

    1. anon o*

      Oh my boss and I are totally like that! As soon as I bring up a problem he’s finger-pointing and finding blame and yelling and screaming and I’m trying to fix the damn problem. The crazy thing is he isn’t even trying to fix things systemically – he just yells and screams and rants and raves. It’s awesome. Then later when I try to debrief he still keeps running over what actually happened and repeating, “This is unacceptable. This can’t happen again.”instead of solutions. Drives me nuts. AND he’s chronically late and I’m chronically early.

      1. Cassie*

        One of my bosses is like that. We were trying to use one of those triangle telecon phones and he kept freaking out, saying “IT WON’T WORK” and “WHY DOESN’T IT WORK?” and “FORGET IT!” I am usually able to figure stuff out but it’s not easy when he’s hovering and rambling like that.

        I just remembered why he was particularly worked up for that call – he didn’t want the caller on the other end to realize that a 3rd party was listening in!

  11. Leslie Yep*

    Speaking as a often-recognized high performer, and echoing something Jamie said above, I struggle with major-league impostor syndrome and am constantly convinced that this is going to be the project where everyone finally realizes that I’ve just been getting by on luck and I have no real skills to speak of. Big picture, you might think about how you praise this colleague and whether you’re praising effort or innate skill (just like with little kiddos – this is a huge and common issue among academically gifted kids just the same!)

    More immediately, since it sounds like she herself recognizes that this is a problem, could you just talk with her about what might help going forward? Is there maybe a discreet hand signal you could have to signal her to take a quick break and calm down? Is there a way you could plan better together to ensure she knows exactly where each piece of the puzzle is? Would it be possible for her to have a private workspace during these busier times?

  12. Bryce*

    Another reason managers shy away from giving developmental feedback to high performers is that they’re worried that giving this feedback might demotivate them, possibly enough to hurt their morale such that their performance suffers or they even quit…your thoughts?

    1. Jamie*

      I’ve known my share of high performers and then some and I’m not saying that some don’t vacillate back and forth between imposter syndrome and arrogance so fast it will make your neck snap back …but I’ve never met one who truly believed they were perfect and there was no room for improvement.

      Plenty who consider extra slack their due in some areas because of their value…but no delusions of perfection.

      So if the subject is broached professionally there is no way a stable balanced person would derail a career over a performance critique.

      Oddly enough I’ve dealt with a disproportionate amount of sub-par performers who truly think they are at the top of their game and there is no OFI. Dunning-Kruger in full effect.

  13. Steve G*

    “Drama” can just mean “cares alot about what is going on and what is at stake.” If your office lacks people with that much passion, it can be an awesome person like that to shake things up. Of course, I speak as a dramatic one! But when important projects and unhappy clients sit, I “make drama” and magically people start working on them….

    1. Tax Nerd*

      Uggghh. You’re the kind of coworker/boss that I inevitably find a way to avoid working with (even if if means finding a new job).

      I care about the work, and I’ve never missed a deadline, but I can do this without wasting time and energy running around like a chicken with its head cut off. That inevitably ends up in an environment where people spend more time on finger-pointing and CYA activities than the actual work, and I find it incredibly draining to be in that kind of atmosphere.

      I had a client’s wife who escalated to my boss because I didn’t respond to her email within TWELVE MINUTES. My boss had to explain to her that we aimed for a 24-hour turnaround on emails, not mere minutes, and that days before a deadline was not a good time to expect an instant response from me.

  14. Cassie*

    My job has crazy busy weeks and followed by weeks of down time. One of the things I remind myself is the proverb “this too shall pass”. (For some reason, I thought it was attributed to Langston Hughes?)

  15. IT girl*

    Maybe OP is simply one of those people who needs stress in order to perform. I would approach this the other way around by chatting to the team members, giving a heads up on impending deadlines and being available to sort out priorities. Basically act as a foil between the high performer and the rest of the team while she gets to work.

  16. HAnon*

    I did wonder after reading this if any of the stress was coming from circumstances outside of the employee’s control — is the work culture and/or management harsh or unforgiving? Is she afraid that she’s going to lose her job if she makes a mistake? As others have pointed out, is she having to carry the workload of multiple people and afraid she’s going to snap because it can’t all get done in time? Is the pressure that she’s putting on herself really coming from within or are there higher ups putting this pressure on her? If she is the Rock Star of the team, you can almost guarantee she knows there is someone holding her to a higher standard than the other employees because they know she is capable of more. She may have a genuine anxiety problem and be acting out inappropriately (this wasn’t clear from the email, that I remember), but then again, there may be some reasons for her to be anxious that were not mentioned in the original post. All of the calm breathing and mind exercises in the world don’t negate a bad environment — they can only help minimize if. I may be projecting here because that’s the situation I’m in right now…I can manage the stress, but I know the only real long-term solution is to find a new job.

    1. HAnon*

      The reason I brought it up was to say…if there are any external factors the manager can manage to alleviate stress, that will be more helpful in partnership with the “anxiety management” suggestions.

  17. Angora*

    She is making her stress everyone’s problem. Others have mentioned EAP. I do believe that management needs to address the spillover of emotions to her co-workers. I also wonder if this individual is a drama queen.

    I do not know the legalities, but I highly recommend her supervisor have a talk with her employee regarding how her lack of stress management style effects those around her. Recommend or require her to take some training in stress management. In this case I would require her to seek stress management counseling or send her to training session. Can an employer require counseling for an employee in this type of situation? I have seen it done in the incidents of alcohol abuse, family crisis etc when it’s affecting work performance. (This is in the US)

    We get 4 sessions a year through EAP where I work. I recommend that everyone take advantage of it their employer offers it.

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