Can a technically brilliant misfit ever be managed?

Image of person in ppe looking down at mine

What do you do if an employee is brilliant at their job but a terrible cultural fit for your business?

If you don’t have a “brilliant misfit” in your company right now (lucky for you!), you’ll certainly know the type. They’re the employee who is, on one level, absolutely brilliant at their job yet, on another level, completely toxic.

Almost every business has one. Maybe they’re incredible deal clinchers, but they’re chaotic and disorganised. Maybe they have forensic knowledge of a vital part of the business, but they’re terrible with people—a bully or a micromanager.

So, what do you do with them? Can they be managed? Or do they have to be managed out?

Firstly, let’s take a bit of a deeper dive into just who a “brilliant misfit” is.

Who qualifies as a brilliant misfit?

Are you dealing with any of these people right now?

  • The annoying employee who makes their numbers while alienating those around them
  • The high-performing employee—the “star” or “destructive hero” who generates heaps of business while creating problems for colleagues
  • The employee who demands to the point of being abusive
  • The team member who takes too much personal credit for success
  • The employee who is unable to adhere to shared values of the organisation.

If you are dealing with someone like this, then you’re well aware of the advantages and disadvantages of having these sorts of personalities in the business.

What causes a brilliant misfit?

A few years ago Professor James Heskett, of Harvard Business School, asked business leaders whether the brilliance of these kinds of “jerks,” as he called them, could be tapped.

One respondent said these people were a form of psychopath and “psychopaths have no place in the workplace.” Not a promising start.

Another business leader said, in his experience, most of these misfits were created by the very systems designed to improve performance. So, while you might feel the employee doesn’t fit the culture, it might be that your culture has created the monster. And another suggested “brilliance is often frustrated in environments where mediocrity is most prevalent.”

Can the talents of brilliant misfits be used effectively?

Why do companies keep brilliant misfits around? The clue is in the “brilliant” part. 

Consider Steve Jobs. You remove a brilliant misfit like Jobs from his role and you’ve stifled innovation. Would Apple be the company it is today without him? 

One of the respondents in Prof Heskett’s articles ponders whether the true misfit is actually the manager who is unable to fuse the talents of the problematic individual into the organisation.

Now that’s tough!

But, hey, wouldn’t management be a doddle if only compliant people had to be managed?

Many managers would tell you they are often reluctant to rock the boat, as long as “the numbers” continue to be good. But is that wise?

Let’s look at this with a specific example in a mining context

Technical teams are often in remote environments and in close contact with each other, so everyone’s behaviour affects everybody else.

If your misfit employee delivers 50% more than anyone else but causes 20 others to contribute 10% less because of dissatisfaction with the misfit (or your management of the misfit), you’re actually losing the discretionary effort of 1.5 people—even after counting the performance of your superstar.

Are you content with that?

How to manage a troublesome but brilliant employee

Let’s say you’ve decided to keep your misfit. How do you manage them properly?

Here are some tips:

  • Listen closely and broadly
  • Talk about their behaviours. Are they aware?
  • Intervene early and provide opportunity for attitude improvement, possibly with a counsellor or coach
  • Make peer appraisal part of their review/bonus process. Perhaps you are giving them the wrong numbers to hit. Before you sack them, ensure they’re upsetting the applecart for the wrong reason rather than for the right reason!
  • Load them up with big projects and lots of interpersonal feedback scores.

If the above tactics work, you might eventually be able to use your misfit’s skills and abilities to create training materials to share their best practices. That way you can tap into their brilliance and lift the abilities of everyone else on the team, too.

But, if none of this works and the misfit is unable to change, it’s best to terminate their employment quickly.

Avoid hiring misfits in the first place

Obviously, the best course of action may be to not hire a misfit in the first place.

As Richard Fairbanks, CEO of Capital One, is fond of saying: “At most companies, people spend 2% of their time recruiting and 75% managing their recruiting mistakes. However, it’s hard to avoid the occasional hiring mishap.”

If you do find yourself with one, look for a way to salvage the brilliant misfit while preserving the energy, ideas, and performance they can bring to an organisation.

If you’re in a larger organisation, is reassignment a solution? Will a job with fewer interactions with others help? Could a different boss make a difference?

For us, as recruiters, we like to identify these kinds of personalities up-front. We’ve represented a number of technically brilliant people with only C-grade people skills and zero interest in cultural integration. In all cases, this is how we have presented them to our clients:

“This candidate will do everything you want before lunchtime and more accurately than anyone else; however, don’t expect them to walk around engaging in quality personal time, getting to know their teammates and building deep cultural bonds. It won’t happen. However, if you don’t have that expectation and coach others not to expect it, but make it clear the value they are adding, this candidate can deliver it in spades.”

We think it’s best to just say it like it is.

MPI has almost 30 years’ specialist experience helping mining companies find the best candidates across every job category. Find out more here or get in touch today.


Dan Hatch
Mining People International