Managing The Difficult Talents

Apr 24, 2015 1 Min Read


The talent woes

Talent can easily be one of the most overused words these days in the human resources (HR) industry. With almost every other company having a talent programme, those not in the programme, especially the bosses of these ‘talents’, may find that having a talent in the department can be a blessing or a curse.

Many companies invest time to structure a framework for talent programmes, pieces of training, projects, remuneration and branding, in a bid to make it most relevant to their company.

However, most of the time, they forget a very key element to successful implementation – training and preparing the people managing the talent.

As HR focuses on hiring or identifying the right high potential candidates, the same spotlight needs to be turned onto the bosses of the talents.

Unfortunately, a usual brief introduction to the programme does not suffice. More often than not, managers eventually come to realise that the high performers are of a different breed.

They may deliver more in quantity and quality but at the same time, they demand more too – challenging projects, attention, strategic guidance, rewards and time.

Research conducted by Profiles International with over 700 people managers reported that more than half of the respondents surveyed claimed that 25% of talents in their organisation were difficult to work with.

Sadly, the research reveals that 68% of managers did not understand the behaviours of these “difficult” talents and 78% of managers did not know how to manage these employees effectively.

I recently met a head of HR whose company had run a talent programme for almost 15 years.

Amidst the positive contribution most talents have brought to the organisation, she shared with me some talent woes that are not uncommon.

These are mainly statements made about talents by their bosses and peers.

“This person has a horrible attitude!”
“This person is not as impressive as I thought her to be!”
“The talent in my team is taking up too much of my time. It’s not worth it.”

In response, let’s try to understand these talents a little bit more by looking into whether they fall into any of these three categories: the Diva Talent, the Wallpaper Talent and the Taxing Talent.

  1. The Diva Talent

    The Diva Talent thinks that by the very virtue that he is in the programme, it makes him a class above the rest – including his boss.

    As such, this diva makes it a point to ensure everyone acknowledges him as the ‘smartest’ in the room.

    He speaks arrogantly, constantly tries to prove others wrong and usually highlights how much he has done and how great he is.

    He believes he is entitled to some unspoken privileges, such as shorter work hours, longer lunch breaks and being excused from boring routine tasks required of everyone in the team.

    His best compliment is probably the unspoken intimidation or ill-perceived admiration he senses from others in the room, especially from his boss.

    More often than not, this attitude stems from a lack of self-assurance that he is good enough and he needs to be reassured by constant praise.

    He may start “announcing” his achievements repeatedly in a subtle way.

Tips for managers of Diva Talents

Sometimes the Divas’ self-perception of them being better than the rest could actually be quite accurate. However, the attitude that comes with it may leave a bad taste in the department and may come to a point where it needs to be addressed.

Avoid this by having a personal chat with the talent as he joins the team. The Diva essentially is looking for the best candidate to earn his respect. As he joins your team, establish your role and authority in a non-threatening way.

Gain his respect by showing that you are not intimidated by him and at the same time, you do not think any lesser of him.

Make it clear from the beginning that you do not tolerate bad or counter-productive attitudes in your team.

If the Diva’s attitude starts affecting the team, sit him down and speak to him in a firm, yet non-condescending manner. Announce his achievements privately or publicly, and appreciate him without putting the person on a pedestal.

  1. The Wallpaper Talent

    The Wallpaper Talent is also conscious that he is in an elite programme and everyone is watching!

    A trainer I once knew told a group of talent programme candidates: “You will be working in a fishbowl. Everyone’s watching you, including those not in your department, waiting to spot a flaw.”

    To avoid being judged negatively, the Wallpaper Talent tries really hard to fit in and hopes to go about his work without any limelight, hoping that he can quietly impress his boss without rocking the boat with his colleagues.

    He befriends his colleagues and speaks their lingo. He goes about his work excellently without wanting to look like he is trying too hard.

    He maintains the status quo without taking on large projects. He tries hard not to outshine others although he hopes that his boss will notice all the subtle extras that he is doing.

    Unfortunately, at some point, he tries too hard and suppresses his drive for challenges and excellence that first qualified him to be in the programme.

Tips for managers of Wallpaper Talents

If you start wondering what’s so special about your talent, then it’s time to revisit why you agreed to have him in the first place. There must have been certain qualities, skills, attitude and aptitude that resonated with you.

Have a talk with your wallpaper talent and reaffirm him of his strengths and challenge him to give his best.

Be clear and specific in what your expectations are of him in the next couple of months. Schedule periodical reviews and make yourself available for additional guidance if required.

Praise him in front of the team. With the wallpaper talent, you can shine the limelight on him in a positive manner.

  1. The Taxing Talent

    The Taxing Talent demands your time and attention at all times. His performance is no longer as good as before. He strolls in late, seems disinterested with new challenges or even current work. He only does enough to obtain the required performance rating.

Tips for managers of Taxing Talents

Have a one-to-one chat. This time, more as a friend instead of a boss. Your main objective is to find out why this talent is demotivated.

There are a few reasons why a talent can be demotivated:

  • Feels that his previous effort and time invested is not rewarded up to his expectation.
  • His job is getting boring. There’s no more challenge to it.
  • A mismatch of job or industry.

In response to this, as a manager, you have a few options on how to manage this talent:

  • Explain how rewards are justified in your company. Set goals. If he wants to gain XYZ award, explain what exactly is expected of him.
  • Challenge him to initiate a project that interests him and reward him for it.
  • If there’s a mismatch, be ready to allow him to move on to the next job. Help him through this time of search.

Concluding thoughts

In essence, as a manager of a difficult talent, it takes one-to-one engagement to iron things out.

For the talent, I think this quote sums it up well:

“Your talent determines what you can do. Your motivation determines how much you are willing to do. Your attitude determines how well you do it.”


Elisa was identified as a high potential in a leading conglomerate in Malaysia and now works with Leaderonomics to help companies hire, identify and develop talents across all levels in their organisation. She believes that developing managers of talent is as important as developing talents for organisations to get the most of them. To get in touch with Elisa, email For more HR Talks, click here.

Published in English daily The Star, Malaysia, 25 April 2015

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