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High Potential? Or High Maintenance?

HiPos can deliver great value. They can also be devastatingly frustrating to work with.

You may be on one of those coveted lists. A HiPo, a top talent, a rain-maker… Different labels, same idea: you are one of the select few that your management particularly cares about. Even if nobody informs you of your status officially, you know. You participate in invitation-only leadership programs, get plum assignments that are out of reach for others, and you notice that extra something in your paycheck.

Organizations work hard to identify employees with “high potential”. It's those with the ability and motivation to rise through the ranks and succeed in more senior, critical positions. Keeping a cadre of high potentials is the “hedge” against an uncertain future. I can assign these “HiPos” big challenges and count on them to learn quickly and, ultimately, succeed. And so, we invest. We invest in identifying them, we invest in nurturing their talent, and we invest in retaining them with our organization.

High potential employees come with certain traits: confidence in their skills, a desire to lead, a willingness to make decisions, and a belief they’ll do it well - a drive to achieve. I want a good dose of these attributes in my talent… After all, it is how they achieve results. But herein lies the problem.

It's easy to go into overdrive on those. The line between strengths and weaknesses isn’t all that clear. Many of those same traits, overdone, aren’t endearing to others and can even alienate the organization. Confidence may creep overboard to arrogance, success may breed vanity, and drive to achieve may tap into a disdain for rules.

I could name a dozen high potentials who have killed their career by failing to understand the balance between being a high potential, and therefore a recipient of the organization’s investment, and being “high maintenance”, which I’ll define for this purpose as overly demanding of the organization’s investment.

So, let’s talk about 3 of the most common “high maintenance” behaviors:

  • Look at me!

  • Please, sir, I want some more.

  • Rules don’t apply to people like me …

Look at me!

Some high potentials aren’t satisfied with doing great work. They need others to know they do great work. They need you to know how much better their work is than others. They want credit for their work and recognition. All the time. At the expense of others and at the expense of the team. The constant need for validation and attention-seeking behavior frustrates others, so with its fishing for compliments and exaggerating and embellishing achievements to gain praise, it wears thin after a while.

Please, sir, I want some more.

I knew a General Manager who has a compensation issue about every four or five months: the base pay isn’t competitive, the bonus plan needs adjusting, the car policy doesn’t reflect the market… It was uncanny. It was as regular and reliable as the changing seasons. Now, as a rule, I encourage Talent to know their worth. That is very different from subjecting your organization to constant negotiation. And it is one thing to get a premium because you outperform, it is another to demand a premium because you’re special.

I include in this category those high potentials that perpetually expect that I have their next opportunity earmarked. It’s all about their next challenge, their next promotion, their next title. For the high maintenance talent, it is rarely about what the company needs.

In a scientific experiment, participants were asked to accept or reject an offer to split $10 between themselves and someone else. If they accepted, both folks got some money; if they rejected, no one did. Those that had an entitled personality were more likely to reject the offer if it failed to be a 50-50 split, even if doing so cost them money. In fact, a sure sign, in my experience, that someone is high maintenance is when it is not only about them having more. It is having more relative to, or at the expense of, others.

In the same study, the researchers also found that entitled people were much less likely to follow instructions, which brings us to the third high maintenance behavior.

Rules don’t apply to people like me ...

If I believe I am special, that I have unique qualifications or contributions, it is easy to understand why I think I deserve special treatment. The rules that are in place for others aren’t meant to apply to people like me. I park in the reserved car park, I ignore the policy on economy class travel and my admin books the theatre tickets for my spouse. These are not major policy breaches, I grant you. And certainly nothing seriously unethical. But high maintenance can often come as a view that I am so good that my time, and my comfort, are all important.

Here’s the problem...

There are two big problems with the high maintenance employee.

  1. Organizations, especially large ones, have policies, practices and procedures. Bureaucracy delivers consistency. It’s efficient and it’s fair. Talent that demands special treatment and over-and-above conditions can cause resentment. When companies move too far outside what is reasonable, they create precedents they eventually resent. Standardization makes things easy. Tailoring solutions to your talent takes time and energy. Your bosses and others who decide on your career will get irritated, tired, or both.

  2. When others learn about your special treatment, they respond badly and start to withdraw support. It is jealousy? Probably. But even if it is petty on their part, while we rely on teams to get things done, it still matters. The ability of the talent to deliver to their potential is undermined if they lose the support of their colleagues and the organization.

...and here’s the rub.

You would think the answer is easy - feedback, coaching, self-awareness... In practice, high maintenance employees rarely understand it. The trouble is that the same traits that make the talent often are accompanied by a tendency to downplay any shortcomings or failings, making them harder to coach (it's called the Dunning-Kruger effect).

Are you high maintenance? Do you think you’re better than your colleagues and feel like you should get “more”: more money, more recognition, more responsibilities…? It could be true. You could be better. And you could also be high maintenance.

Then, my earnest advice to you is:

if you are rarely satisfied that the overall “deal” is fair, if you dwell on what you get, relative to others, if you raise these concerns frequently, or need them addressed urgently, then it is probably worth reflecting on how you come across.

Ask your manager and HR for help. Talent is scarce and they are invested in your success. They know that the highly ambitious need appropriate self-awareness. Once you understand the gap between the self- and others' view, try and turn things around.

Because if you can’t, don't be surprised if you'll be invited hit the highway. Your leaders will make the hard choice of sacrificing one outstanding but overly demanding talent (you) for the good of the organization. Frequent, unreasonable, and unregulated demands distort the internal market. They distort broader concepts of fairness. And giving in, rewarding inappropriate demands only increases them across the board. Exceptions for the few will stifle the engagement of others. And there is a risk of losing talent - your HiPo colleagues with tempered ambition, or the HiPos that play by the rules.

This creates “drama”. Having to manage the drama diverts the focus from the business. Organizations don't like dramas. They like drama kings or queens even less.

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