How to handle precious employees

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Every leader has come across a precious employee at some point yet the vast majority are unsure how to handle them – here, one executive coach offers her insight.

A precious employee is someone who is hyper-sensitive and overreacts or responds defensively to anything they perceive as a criticism,” says leadership expert Karen Gately.

“They’re incredibly sensitive to how other people behave and whether or not they are heard and are important enough,” she continues. “Basically, it’s this constant reaction to everything that’s going on around them.”

While their behaviour may seem trivial, Gately warns that precious employees can actually have a major impact on the organisation and others around them.

“They can suck the life out of the office and drain the spirit out of other people, just by being near them,” she tells HRD.

“Whether it’s constant complaining or poor-me dramas, their mind-set, their attitude, the language they use or the things they talk about, other people start to find these things really tedious,” says Gately.

“That’s because most people are thinking it’s not that bad, be a bit more resilient, find a solution, help yourself and they soon realise that this precious person is the only common thread in all of these apparent issues – that then turns into a feeling of frustration and we can just feel absolutely zapped or drained by the end of it.”

Gately, who has authored two books on leadership and management, says previous employees also cause problems because other people are often caught up in trying to help.

“Some people try to solve the precious person’s problems and they’ll pander to them, offering an endless line-up of suggestions which could help them or make them feel happier but all this does is feed into their drama because they don’t actually want to take in any of the advice,” she tells HRD.

“They just want to wallow in the drama itself so you can actually end up giving a lot of yourself, a lot of your energy and a lot of your time without changing their reality and – again – that’s incredibly draining.”

So, if telling precious people to toughen up doesn’t work and pandering to them is just as ineffective – how can HR solve the problem?

“Tough love is the only formula with these people, it is the only thing that works,” says Gately. “If you pander, you cede it. You don’t want to be having ‘Oh, I know’ consolatory conversations with these people.”

According to Gately, most precious people don’t feel heard or understood so it’s important that HR professionals let them know they understand the challenge they’re facing but also lead very firmly with the role they need to play to change their reality.

“Don’t buy into accepting the victim mentality but focus them on what they could do to change the situation they’re unhappy with,” says Gately.

“For example, if someone is whining that it’s unfair because all of these people do these things – ask them if they’ve had a conversation with those people, have they approached them, what have they done to change their reality? It’s about honesty delivered with respect and sensitivity.”

Gately also says leaders have to hold employees accountable if they’re not doing anything to improve their own situations.

“HR needs to call it more often for what it is,” says Gately. “I sometimes say to people; ‘Why are you choosing to focus on that? You and I have talked at length about different strategies that you can use to overcome this problem and yet it still keeps happening because you’re not actually taking the advice.”

While there may be some resistance initially, it’s the only option that could have any real impact in the workplace, she adds.

“There is a huge temptation to just tip toe around this and not deal with the issue,” acknowledges Gately. “And you might get stronger push back or louder tears in the first instance but going the tough love route is the only way they’ll actually change their reality. They may not enjoy it but we’re not there to be comfortable, we’re there to actually get a resolution.”


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