how to manage a Jekyll-and-Hyde employee

Sometimes it’s easy to assess and give feedback on an employee’s performance: a person is clearly doing well, or is clearly struggling. But what if you’re managing someone who’s great at their work some of the time but strikingly weak at other times? Or someone who’s easy to work with some days but irritable and recalcitrant on others?

There are three keys to managing an employee who seems like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (hey, it’s Halloween week):

1. Name the issue. Often when faced with a Jeckyll-Hyde employee, managers get paralyzed by inaction. They’ll resolve to give feedback on a problem (Hyde) when suddenly Jeckyll takes back over and the employee’s work or behavior improves … leaving the manager feeling like it’s the wrong time to bring it up. Don’t fall into that trap. Instead, name the issue for what it is: inconsistency. For example, you might say something like, “At times, you’re an incredibly helpful presence in strategy meetings – thoughtful, encouraging of other’s ideas, and great at spotting problems and helping to refine plans. Yesterday’s meeting was a great example of this. But at other times, you seem irritable and annoyed to be there. Last week, you shot down every idea that came up and tore into Jane’s presentation pretty hard. I need you to consistently operate the way you did yesterday – not some of the time, but all of the time.”

2. Ask questions. Don’t assume that you know what’s going on with the employee. Instead, ask and hear the person out with an open mind. For example, you might ask, “What’s your sense of what’s going on?” or “Are there things I’m missing?” This step is important not only because feedback is more effective when it’s a dialogue, but also because you might learn something that surprises you, like that the person’s Hyde side is coming out in response to, say, an over-the-top workload or a particularly difficult client.

3. State your expectations going forward. This part is key – you need to clearly articulate what you need to see from the person from now on, so that there’s no ambiguity about your expectations. For example, if you’re talking to a staff member whose work is characterized by dramatic highs and lows, you might say: “At times, your work has been incredibly impressive, like the summer campaign you ran that was such a success. But other times, you leave work to the last minute and let important details go, like with the fall ads. To succeed in this role, I need you to be more consistent and hit that higher level of performance all the time, not just some of the time.”

From there, hold the employee to that expectation just like any other performance expectation. And it should be easier to do that now that you’ve set up the framework of consistency, which gives you a clear, direct way to talk about what you’re observing (and one that doesn’t require you to catch Hyde in person).

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 67 comments… read them below }

      1. That Would Be a Good Band Name

        And how to work with a Jekyll-and-Hyde coworker. It could be a whole series.

    1. esra

      The only solution I’ve found there is:

      1. Keep my head down while quietly job-hunting.
      2. Find new job and leave.

  1. WhatsInAName

    As someone with bipolar disorder, this makes me wonder: if my inconsistency is based in a medical issue, what are my options?

      1. Jennifer is Thneedly

        The ADA is a law, not an office with staff. Did you mean, talk to the company’s HR department about getting an ADA accomodation?

    1. Capulet

      I can’t answer like Alison, but as a supervisor, if someone was behaving radically I’d rather know it. As someone with Bipolar II, my swings have been tightly controlled (knock on wood) for several years, but if they weren’t I would probably have gone to my direct super and explain in general terms that have depression issues.

      I’d say it depends on your standing and relationship with your manager.

      1. Catalin

        Unfortunately, people hear “bipolar disorder” and automatically think full-blown manic insanity. “Depression” is a little less loaded/stigmatized.

        Also, Capulet and Whatsinaname? Shakespearian fans must love this.

    2. Formica Dinette

      I don’t know whether or not it’s a good idea to talk to your manager about it. However, if you do talk to them, please know that many medical issues can cause mood swings, so you don’t need to mention bipolar disorder specifically. “A medical issue” is sufficient.

      1. LBK

        Personally, when I told my manager that the reason I’d been so moody at work was because of depression, I didn’t even say it was medical. I just said I was dealing with some really difficult personal life issues that I tried to keep out of work as much as possible but sometimes I just had bad days. It helped that I was also seeking treatment at the time, so I could tell him that I was working through it and would be better in the long run – I don’t know if that’s an option here or if bipolar is something that can generally be treated to the point that it doesn’t noticeably affect you on a day to day basis.

    3. Anon Responder

      You can alert your employer that you have a medical condition that is impacting your ability to do your job. You and your employer can have a conversation about whether there is a reasonable accommodation that can help you perform your job, e.g., using intermittent FMLA to go to appointments to manage the condition.

    4. Temperance

      This may not work for you, because my issue was short term, but I had a frank talk with my boss about how I was struggling with some things after my recovery. I think the difference was that she knew I was very ill (my unplanned FMLA leave and hospitalization made it VERY clear), and I admitted that the exhaustion from coming back to work was more difficult than expected.

  2. Lemon Zinger

    Alison, this was a really timely and helpful article for me! Our new hire (my work partner) is in her fourth week and has shown a Jekyll and Hyde personality several times. She’s remarkably bright and shiny when we’re at a site for our job, but in the office, she has been extremely resistant to training that comes from anyone who is a peer. Every time I’ve tried to go over training information with her, she’s distant, dismissive, and makes flippant remarks about how she doesn’t need to be trained.

    Our boss is meeting with her this week to address these (and other) issues. I’m hopeful that her attitude will become more consistent!

  3. Scorpio

    My face always shows my internal mood. I have a really hard time faking it! Especially when there is something in a meeting or conversation that is completely off-base, time-wasting, or out of touch. Many of my coworkers will offer unsolicited and uninformed opinions in meetings that completely derail the discussion, then go one to complain that they have too many meetings or that meetings run late. Any advice on concealing your “Jekyll”?

    1. Catalin

      I have resting bitch face; I work on it consciously and have a friend/coworker who can send me little hints that I look murderous so I can fix my face.

      1. Clever Name

        I feel that resting bitch face (RBF for short) is a completely different issue than expressing emotions on one’s face a little too freely at work. RBF is about the notion that some have that a woman’s face must be pleasant to look at at all times. The other is being unable to hide that you think Bob in accounting is a moron and his ideas are all idiotic. One, in my opinion, isn’t really a true problem, and the other can potentially cause one political problems at work.

    2. Jennifer

      Practicing how to have a blank face in a mirror.
      Trying to look down or covering your face with a notebook/folder/something.

    3. Kay

      Practice in a mirror – develop a muscle memory for what looks neutral or slightly pleasant, and fix that in your mind. You will have to consciously adopt it at first but it will start to become your default listening face.

      For me, there are a few things that I do with my features when I need a neutral but paying attention face: my eyes get a bit wider, the corners of my mouth get a bit softer, I lift my chin a little bit, and I keep my lips mobile (which sounds weird but what I really mean is I just shift them slightly in reaction to what someone is saying – sometimes pressing them together slightly, sometimes pursing them outward to show shared frustration). I also often wiggle my ears periodically (hidden behind my hair) to loosen up my cheek muscles.

      In the meeting circumstance that you’ve described I do a lot of “that’s a great idea but right now we’re discussing X” or I’ll say “I think what you’re saying is X, which would apply to the topic of this meeting as Y, do I understand you?” and try to apply what they’ve said back to the main point. The key is giving them the out, as if what they said does actually apply. Or flat out saying “I’m not sure I see how that applies to the goals we need to develop today.” Balance of power matters, for sure…I do a lot of meetings where I’m bottom of the org chart, but keeping on schedule and on topic is important to me.

    4. Anonymous in the South

      Me, too, Scorpio. A coworker mentioned once that I have a “expressive face”, especially in meetings, so I have to actively manage my facial expressions, including occasionally holding copies directly in front of my face to hide that I think having volunteers stationed along the walkway to blow bubbles as guests enter an incredibly stupid and wasteful suggestion. This is not the land of rainbows, unicorns and princesses. It’s science education, people.

  4. SanguineAspect

    I’ve BEEN that employee this year. The most helpful thing for me has been knowing I can talk to my manager about it. Earlier in the year, I was that employee because I was completely overloaded at work and needed help. We talked, he found help for me, and things improved. Over the last few months, I’ve been having a TON of personal issues, which have impacted my work life (health issues, financial issues, relationship issues, housing issues). I finally scheduled a meeting with him and said: “Look, I know my performance hasn’t been where it usually is. Here I’ve got some crappy things going on in my personal life right now; I expect they’re going to be that way for another couple of months because of XYZ, but I’m going to do my best to get past this and back to normal.” He said he had noticed and was grateful to have the context–and again, he offered to do what he could. In this case, be flexible about work-from-home until things had settled down and were more stable. There’s nothing like having a manager who actually cares about your well-being in general and understands that sometimes life just fucking happens.

    1. James

      I’ve been that employee a few times (not the best admission, I know….). Usually, it’s one of three things:
      1) Being absolutely overwhelmed. When I moved across the country with a new baby and taking on completely new responsibilities after spending a few months doing everything in my power to not get fired (due to no fault of my own–the workload dried up), my work suffered. When I was scheduled for 15 hours a day six days straight on three different jobs my work suffered.
      2) Not knowing the process. Often, especially with new people (or people with new responsibilities), I’ve seen that they aren’t focusing on the correct things. In those situations it’s not that they’re being inconsistent, it’s that they’re focusing their efforts in the wrong places, and often a conversation or two can turn that around. It worked for me.
      3) Conflicting demands. Different managers have different styles of writing or producing deliverables, internal and external. So I’d work for one manager and everything would be fine, but with another manager everything would be horrible. Or, I’d do great on one aspect of the project but horrible at another. And the reality was that I wasn’t horrible, the expectations were simply so different (and poorly-articulated) that it made me LOOK horrible. For example, I had no idea there were four definitions for the word “sediment”. I’ve had four different lectures on the topic, and at this point have learned to ask going in what the manager uses for the definition!

      All three amount to communications issues. In the first case, I wasn’t clear about communicating how overwhelmed I was. In the second and third, management and I had to come to an understanding (and to be fair, it was a two-way street each time, not just management saying “Thou shalt do X”).

      1. Chaordic One

        I can certainly relate to 1 and 3, James. I’m sure I reacted with incredulity when even more work was dumped on me, or when our supervisor declared how well our new computer system was working out (it just made for a lot more work). When I was communicated about how overwhelmed I was, I was offered only the most minimal of band-aid solutions that really didn’t do much to help the situation, then I was labeled as being “difficult” and “resistant to change.” There was really “no recourse.”
        In one situation, I was demoted and my former employer burned through three different replacements in the position before they revised the workload. But, they wouldn’t listen to me and do it when I worked there.

  5. Princess Carolyn

    I worry that I’m the Jekyll-Hyde employee! I’ll do really well for a few days or a week, especially when workload is high, and then suddenly I’ll feel burnt out and exhausted when the work load slows down again, and I’ll start making mistakes. I’m a proofreader/copy editor, so mistakes are kind of a big deal. I’m not sure if this is a reflection of my mental/physical health (I do have depression and some endocrine issues) or if I’m just naturally inconsistent or what.

    1. Red lines with wine

      Same here! I can get snippy when I’m overloaded or people are arguing with my edits, or worse, ignoring them completely. I’d like to hear other editors chime in and see if this is systematic to our profession, a personality quirk, a problem with our workplace, or something else? Maybe a little bit of everything!

    2. Sunshine on a cloudy day

      I’m very similar! In that, when things are busy I’m on my A-Game, but when things start to slow down I start making mistakes. Then its hard getting back into A-Game mode, but once I do, I’m fine again.

      I’ve done a lot better after finding a position where the work flow is steadier, but in my line of work a perfectly steady work flow is just not possible. I also have some issues with anxiety/depression that I’m sure are feeding into this. At least I’m aware and I’m really working on it, but it’s tough.

      Just wanted to let you know I hear you!

    3. Lady Dedlock

      I feel like that’s kind of normal, or at least it is for me; I’m also an editor. It’s kind of impossible to perform at that level of intensity and not burn out. So you turn it on when you have to (i.e., when there’s an important project or urgent deadline), and turn it off when you don’t (when things are slow). I also have issues with depression, though, so I might not be a good baseline for this kind of thing.

    4. A

      I’m also an editor, and I feel you. I try hard to keep a poker face at work, but I tend to get snippy when I get overextended. Realistically, there are several months out of the year when I’m juggling too many projects. Then I get worried about missing a major detail because I can’t focus on one thing at a time, or I drop the ball somewhere, and it sends me into a tailspin.

      1. A

        I also have issues with anxiety from time to time and it’s interesting to learn that other editors have the same issue. Our attention to detail can really bite us in the butt, on a personal level. :(

    5. Princess Carolyn

      Oh my gosh, I feel better even just knowing this is a thing among editors! I’m going through a lot of crummy stuff in my personal life and would love for my job (which I really do like!) to be a place of refuge instead of an additional source of stress. It’s very tough when your job is ultimately “Never make a mistake.” Things that are NBD for other functions are BFDs when you’re an editor, and the possibility of human error is always there. The anxiety never really goes away.

    6. NotYourBabysitterAdmin

      Not an editor, but I’ve recently realized that every 3-4 months I need to take time off. I figured I would just take it when I started to feel burnt out but am realizing that it needs to be regular to avoid the burn out (most of the time). Otherwise the go-go-go will have me in constant stress and then wham I want to shut down entirely.

  6. Rat Racer

    Wow – this is GREAT advice. I struggle constantly with the question of “do I bring this up? last week was bad but this week seems better…” Naming inconsistency as the problem is SO helpful!

  7. Machiamellie

    I’m sure some of my past managers have thought I was a J&H employee. I wasn’t diagnosed with Aspergers until 2014 at the age of 39. Finally everything made sense. I’ve often wished I could go back to those managers and explain why I behaved the way I did (the body language they thought was “wrong” in meetings, how much trouble I had with change, etc.)

    When I began my current job, I was open about my autism and the manager just said “what can we do to accommodate you?” which I thought was amazing. That said, there’s been times since when he’s said “you don’t multitask very well” or “your organizational skills are lacking” and I just want to go “HELLO I told you about my Aspergers…” I haven’t figured out a way to explain that THIS is what I was talking about.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      From your manager’s point of view, he’s probably thinking that knowing about the Aspergers is helpful context, but that he still needs you to do things like stay organized, etc.

    2. Tomato Frog

      Well, you having a reason for it doesn’t mean it’s not something that needs to be addressed. I think you can say it’s your Aspergers, but you will still need to work on the issue, develop a workaround, or suggest an accommodation they can make to help you work within it.

    3. animaniactoo

      I would suggest stating that unfortunately this is one of the places that the Asperger’s shows up. But from then on the focus of the conversation should be on how you can resolve that. What can they do to help you stay organized, what systems can you implement yourself to help you stay organized? From the standpoint of doing the job successfully, the disorder means you have to work harder at some things to do what others can do more easily. Don’t be okay with not doing them well when you have a job that needs you to do them (relatively) well.

      If you have a therapist, one of the key things you might work on is routines for how to assess and organize groups of information, your desk, etc.

      1. Machiamellie

        Thanks – I DO do these things well, I just do them differently than he does. For example, he prints everything out and puts them in a folder with the day of the month, he has 31 of those, he pulls out that day’s folder, etc. I keep all of my info in spreadsheets and Outlook; I’m not a printer-outer. He sees that as disorganized, even though I can quickly and easily pull up any info he needs.

        Also he says I can’t multitask but yet in meetings when I’m driving the presentation, he says I’m going “a mile a minute” and need to slow down with the jumping around windows and things.

        So really it’s me being much more technical and him needing things in writing in front of him, that’s the real issue.

        1. Thomas E

          Hi, Machiamellie –

          Well, often it’s necessary to adapt the way we work to fit in with processes that are common in the company.

          Would it be possible to copy the method your boss uses to organise his work? This would have two benefits. First, your boss would be able to find important information when you are in the office. Secondly, your boss would consider you organized.

          Have you thought about asking what he means about multitasking? What is the problemsm he sees with your work? Is it that you focus on only one task which let’s others fall into the cracks?

          With regard to the presentation have you considered just doing it the way he asks you to? What drawbacks are there for you in doing it how he wants?

        2. zora

          Actually, then I think you can still use the Asperger’s framework to approach this with him.

          I would ask if we can sit down to talk about this, and then say, because of my Asperger’s I really need more specifics to understand what you want. What do you think I am disorganized about, please give me very specific examples. Then you get the opportunity to say, “ah, yes, I see what you mean. That’s why I have developed this system to help me, can I show it to you? This works much better with my Asperger’s, is it okay if I keep using this system that I am more comfortable with?” Maybe that would make him back off on this general, unhelpful ‘feedback’ he has.

          This is actually a useful thing for many problems people have with bosses, even those without the Asperger’s situation. But I feel like because he has said he is open to understanding your needs, it might make him more likely to change his thinking about this, which is sometimes hard for bosses to do. Once some people get it in their head that this is the only way to do something, they just don’t want to let it go.

    4. SJ

      Man, it’s so timely that you should bring up your Asperger’s! I typed up a big post for the open thread tomorrow about my brother’s Asperger’s in the workplace.

    5. Princess Carolyn

      I have ADHD and often get feedback about multitasking, consistency, and other stuff that’s directly related to my ADHD symptoms. I try to sift through it with the manager and find out what he’s asking me to do, not who he’s asking me to be. It helps me take that criticism less personally, and gives me an opportunity to find a solution that makes sense for my particular strengths and weaknesses.

      Sure, your organizational skills may be lacking, but what does your manager ultimately need from you in that area? What’s the deliverable here? Maybe he needs you to meet deadlines. Maybe he needs you to make your desk appear organized even if it’s not. Maybe he needs you to stop asking him to send you documents he’s already sent. Do you see where I’m going with this? You may have to ask him what, exactly, he wants you to do differently when you get this kind of feedback.

      1. zora

        I agree with trying to find out the deliverable, and from what Machiamellie said above, the boss himself isn’t focusing on the deliverable. He just has this vague idea that M isn’t “organized”. But by trying to get the *boss* to focus on the deliverable, it might help him realize there isn’t one. The end result is fine, he’s just weirdly focusing on the wrong thing.

  8. PHB

    Thanks for the timely tips! I have this one employee whose outlook completely changed after her horse died…

  9. MM

    What do you do when fluctuations in blood sugar causes you to be a Jekyll-and-Hyde employee. I am trying to control my diet and also on meds, but till we find something that works for me, I am being a Jekyll-and-Hyde employee

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