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This question already has an answer here:

I have a small team and lately my star performer has been marching to a different tune. This person feels that no one else is good enough and doesn't seem to like it if others offer a differing design or opinion on the scope of work. I would like to provide feedback to this person without affecting their ego.

How can I best handle a star performer on a small team who feels no one else is good enough?

marked as duplicate by IDrinkandIKnowThings, yochannah, gnat, user9158, Jane S May 27 '15 at 8:46

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

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    I think you do want to affect his ego. He must learn how to work with others, or he's going to be unable to achieve his own goals, never mind the company's goals. – keshlam May 26 '15 at 4:50
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    You have what is known as a "prima donna". Use that word to look up many resources on how to deal with it. – teego1967 May 26 '15 at 10:04
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    @teego1967 There isn't enough information in the question to come to the conclusion definitively. Take note of the comments on Kent's answer. – jpmc26 May 26 '15 at 12:52
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    This might be unpopular, but… are you sure he's not really overqualified for the job? Maybe it's just his ego, but maybe he's right – o0'. May 26 '15 at 14:36
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    You haven't said what the problem is that you're trying to solve. You have a performer who is, by your description (1) better than everyone else, and (2) hard to work with. OK, those are facts, not a problem. If the problem is "my vital star performer might leave and sink this company because they do not suffer fools gladly", then a solution is fire everyone except the star performer. If the problem is "my star performer's attitude is preventing other talented employees from getting their work done", that's an entirely different problem. Don't make us guess the problem you're trying to solve. – Eric Lippert May 26 '15 at 21:02

11 Answers 11

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This question has two possible answers, and it depends entirely on the accuracy of the assessment of the team by the star employee.

  1. The first possibility: This person is overly impressed with their own skills, or has some insecurity about them and is projecting that onto their teammates. I'm going to skip this possibility, as Kent Anderson's answer covers the response to this scenario very well..

  2. The second possibility, and the one I believe is probably more likely: They are correct. You call him a "star performer," which I infer means his skills really ARE that good.

The good news is that this person is loyal to your team. If they weren't, the frustration would have driven them out by now. The frustration is in being surrounded by mediocrity, possibly bordering on ineptitude, and having no one seem to care about it.

That "no one?" That's YOU. You are the manager, and if you accept the mediocrity, you are killing your team's performance, and you are driving this person out. Development is an art, and anyone who is "satisfied" with their skill as an artist is deadwood. I worked in television for many years, and did a lot of arts programs along the way. I've never met a dancer, painter, singer, musician, lighting director, prop builder, or any other artist who was "satisfied" with their own work. They are constantly striving to be better, and that's what makes them great. Developers should be the same way.

When you put these people in a team with those who feel they are "good enough," it drives them absolutely insane. (You can change that to a first-person sentence, from me, if you wish.) It's like putting Aretha Franklin in a dive bar band, or having Nico Rosberg do valet parking. You are destroying this person.

Now, what are you going to do about it?

Option 1: You take the employee aside, and say, "We accept mediocrity in this team. I realize you're better than that, but we aren't going to be able to let you reach your potential, here. I understand if you need to seek better challenges, but please contribute to the team as long as you're here." And be sure you MEAN it. If you accept mediocrity, then you've already lost this person. Accept it.

Option 2: Listen to them. (I'm betting they're right.) Ask him point-blank, "OK, you're right. What are 5 things we can do in the next 6 months to get better?" Put it on him to tell you what skills the team needs to develop. It sounds like their biggest issue is architecture (although I'll bet that there are more issues than you're aware of). Are there analysis practices or design patterns that your team needs to learn?

Now implement it. Don't give it to this employee to do, as they're likely already at odds with their teammates. Give it to another team member. Completely out of the scope of this discussion, assign another team member to become an expert at a particular design pattern, and train the rest of the team. Assign another to an analysis practice, etc. Stagger the rollout so that it doesn't overwhelm your team.

The star performer will see that you're demanding the team improve, and they will (likely) understand if it takes some time to build momentum.

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    I joined just to upvote this. I have worked with incompetent people and it is frustrating. I have not been this cavalier though. – Paul May 26 '15 at 21:17
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    +1 For not ignoring the possibility that the star performer might actually be one. – Michael Shaw May 27 '15 at 0:45
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The team member's ego appears to be the problem, and your purpose should be to affect it in a way that benefits the whole team.

Assuming you are the team manager/leader, an objective assessment might help provide a good foundation for the potentially difficult conversation you are about to have.

  • Are the others' ideas (the ones being rejected/ignored) reasonable?

  • Is this person's behavior causing the team to miss deadlines or to have a higher frequency of issues in the product?

  • Have you, or has anyone, talked to this person about this issue before now?

  • Has anyone else in the team mentioned that they feel mistreated, or have concerns about the team or the product?

A 'Yes' to any of these questions would be a good place to start a direct conversation between you and the team member. It would start with a statement along the lines of, "I have a concern about the team's work and I believe you can help correct it..." You should then describe the behavior you have observed, then determine whether the person recognizes their behavior as undesirable (a direct question is best here).

If the person was unaware of the impact of their behavior, this is a teaching opportunity (there might also be other reasons for the change in behavior, such as personal problems outside of work). Teams that are made up of mutual respect operate better than teams where some members dislike or distrust others.

If the person is aware of their behavior and its negative impact and is unwilling to change, then as manager, you will need to be direct as you tell them it is unacceptable, and lay out the desired changes you expect to see and the consequences that will happen if the behavior is not corrected. Set a time period where you will observe and evaluate, then get back together to go over results.

Hopefully the results will show the desired improvement, but if not, you may have to take a more formal action. If you have an HR department, consult with them.

Good luck!

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    What, if anything, would you do differently if the person's work is legitimately of higher quality than that of their coworkers? The behavior is still harmful at a team level, even if that's the case. This answer seems to tacitly assume that's not the case (focusing largely on potential negative impacts from the person's decision to ignore input), even though I think that the presentation of the question allows (or possibly even suggests) that this is the case. Or are you rejecting that premise as being extremely unlikely? – jpmc26 May 26 '15 at 6:01
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    @jpmc26 I wouldn't do anything differently. This person's behavior is not one of respect toward the team, and therefore needs to be changed. Though, I would likely use a tone of "no matter how good you are, you need your team in order to be successful." – Kent A. May 26 '15 at 8:14
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    This has a reasonably high chance of being terrible advice. Consider the case of a team with one excellent engineer, one okay, and two dead weight. Assuming the problem is the dissatisfied engineer and not the others' work is dangerous, and could speedily progress into a fail state with one merely okay engineer and two dead weight. – Quirk May 26 '15 at 11:29
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    @Quirk OP is short on details and long on possibilities, so your comment has merit. However star performers who turn antagonistic are usually the source of the problem. But in case they're not, the first assessment question is intended to address this concern. If the ideas are not reasonable, or are just plain bad, you may need to be coaching your star in how to mentor the team. Either way, you're going to need to address the team dynamic because it's not good as it currently stands. – Kent A. May 26 '15 at 12:21
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    @Kent - Why in your wildest dreams would you assume that it is the star performer that is "usually" the source of the problem? Incompetency wears on people, especially when the incompetent refuses to acknowledge that they are in drastic need of improvement or at least make an attempt to improve. IME, most incompetent people are blissfully unaware of how bad they really are. – Dunk May 26 '15 at 15:00
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I've left quite a few places for being too large a fish in too small a pond (I'm a self taught game programmer now working at a top company, so had to climb up the ladder from the bottom). It isn't good for your career or your morale if you aren't continually learning and growing. If I were you I'd find a way to make him feel like a small fish. Not by pushing him down, but legitimately. Maybe also letting him push his own personal boundaries a bit so he doesn't feel tethered by the abilities of the others. Also, he should learn that people of different levels have a place in the organization, and that its by design that its that way. IMO. Maybe also somehow seeing the value of differing opinions or what others bring to the table. We have biweekly 1 hour technical presentations where I work currently, by whoever volunteers for them, which is a really neat way of letting people show what they got so to speak, or where they are coming from etc.

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    What has "self taught game programmer" got to do with "left quite a few places for being too large a fish in too small a pond"? – Pacerier May 26 '15 at 10:17
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    @Pacerier: I read it as "this is how small my first pond was" – RemcoGerlich May 26 '15 at 11:29
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    Well, being self taught I entered the job market with no degree and no formal training. Not many people were willing to give me a shot, just the smaller of the ponds (; – Alan Wolfe May 26 '15 at 14:17
  • I don't think this is a problem with the "star" not appreciating that everyone has a place in the organization because the OP said "lately", which implies too me that it hasn't been a problem in the past. – Dunk May 26 '15 at 15:17
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I'll go out on a limb and point out that your underlying assumption is the other people are "good enough" and that their opinions and designs are just as good. But are they really? If so, then what makes this guy a "star performer" -- isn't he on the same level as everyone else? And if not--i.e., if his designs and opinions truly are better -- then where exactly is the problem?

To go to an extreme, if I worked with Elon Musk and he acted as if I wasn't good enough, then I would be inclined to agree with him rather than try to blame him. You just can't entirely ignore the correctness of what he says!

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    Unless the star performer can actually do all the implementation on his own as well as all the design, then there's still a problem to be fixed, because the rest of the team will quit. – Philip Kendall May 26 '15 at 10:39
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    He may be much better at some things than the others, he still won't be perfect and other people's opinions will be better now and then. – RemcoGerlich May 26 '15 at 11:27
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    @PhilipKendall: It's not so much a question of whether the star performer can do all of the implementation; rather it's a question of whether the other people can contribute positively to the implementation -- hypothetically, if the other people just aren't good enough to do what needs to be done (maybe they break things more often than they fix them), then the problem that needs to be fixed is that the OP needs a better team. It doesn't automatically follow that the star performer necessarily has problems. – Mehrdad May 26 '15 at 18:30
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Firstly you've got to appreciate that you have a gifted team member. You want to continue to reap the benefits of this person's contributions. Then you've got to appreciate that people aren't a buffet where you can pick and choose the bits you want.

The next thing to consider is the old maxim about being the best player in the band: You're not challenged, and you're not learning, and you need to find another band.

It is quite likely your friend has come to realise he's the star performer, and perhaps he has come to realise he's flanked by people who's skills or level of contribution don't measure up, and he's frustrated by this. He may feel he's not learning. He may even be contemplating joining another band ...

For a start you should be recognising his exceptional performance by assigning more responsibility. You should couple this with conference of a small amount of seniority upon him, just to recognise his superior contribution. I'm not saying to give him a promotion or more money, but in team meetings for instance ask him what he thinks of things before others, or take him into confidence about plans you may have or about how things should work.

You might also assign him some tasks that put him in a leadership role. Again, not giving him a promotion overall, but giving him some things to do that might help him exercise his potential and give him some sense of being in control.

Beyond that, if his behaviour is still poor you now have a position from which you can call him on it. If he's just being rude, you can raise that with him. If he's not sticking to agreed plans you should explain to him the virtues of having a team where everybody understands what's going on. If none of this works, then you may just have a guy who just isn't very nice, and you should start asking yourself if his superior contribution is worth the impact that he is having on you and your team. Perhaps subtract those costs from his individual contributions and re-evaluate as such.

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    If I were getting more responsibilities, I would want a raise. – Seiyria May 26 '15 at 19:25
  • If you were to ask me for a raise, I'd ask you how you had demonstrated you deserved one. – robert May 26 '15 at 19:39
  • If you were to shuffle additional responsibilities on me (not detailed in my job description) without giving me a raise, honestly, I'd probably just leave. The fact that you consider giving me managerial duties alone should be reason enough that I'd demonstrated that I deserve it. – Seiyria May 27 '15 at 6:57
  • @Seiyria whoah whoah whoah ... who said managerial duties??? That's my job and there's no way I'm letting staff anywhere near that! I would be offering you more control over the direction of things and I would hope that you would see it as an opportunity ... if you were acting out in the way described by OP I would assume more control is something you'd want. – robert May 27 '15 at 7:24
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Knowledge work is not like an assembly line. The difference in productivity between the best and worst workers can be multiple orders of magnitude - worse, there are things the best workers can do that the worst ones would not be able to replicate given almost unlimited time.

Given this basis, your diagnosis that you don't want to damage your star performer's ego seems sensible; apart from anything else, the most productive can change jobs without much effort on their part. Even if your star's being a big arrogant baby, their moving on will likely hurt you more than them.

However, I'm a little concerned by the manifestation of their intolerance: design and estimation. It is not obvious that they are being unreasonable if they take a strong stance on either.

Assuming we're discussing an engineering discipline rather than an aesthetic one, design is a process full of costly pitfalls for the novice and often it will fall to the more experienced to point these out. Whether the engineer is a star or not, though, they should be forced to make their case as to why a design is good or bad through argument and not just through asserting their authority. This gives the other team members a chance to learn.

Estimation is altogether thornier. I suspect if your star performer thought the scope was smaller than other team members did there wouldn't even be a discussion about it, and their word would be believed. Estimation is hard, and made harder by the omnipresent desire to report good news to those above you. I suggest you quietly track the different estimates against the eventual outcome; that way, if your star is further out than anyone else, you can reason with them on that basis next time. If they are genuinely better at estimation, that's worth knowing too.

It is hard to say what the key problem is without more detail. Your star performer may be underperforming and defensive. They may be right but tactless. You may be dealing with other team members who fancy themselves as far more competent than they are and feel slighted on personal grounds. A careful investigation into what they have to say for themselves is called for, and if some of the fault is theirs, make sure they know you value them even as you ask them to ease up on other team members.

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Let your star performer know that others' opinion are valued for the same reason that his opinion is valued and that their opinion must be heard. Let him know that his intolerance of disagreement creates a subtext of intimidation and that subtext is unacceptable. He needs to step back and let others speak their mind. The fact that he is a star performer does not mean that he is right 100% of the time or that he has a monopoly on the best answers.

I don't think any of us can call ourselves competent professionals if (1) we are not technically qualified; and (2), we don't work well with our colleagues and management. None of us lives on a desert island,none of us is irreplaceable - I'd hate what would happen to the business if your star performer were actually irreplaceable and you all found his carcass under a bus - and we all have to work as a well coordinated team.

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    Honestly, I'd go the other way around: No ones opinion is valued. We are supposed to be engineers. When you make a suggestion, I want to see the technical merits, benchmarks, studies etc. as to why I should accept your suggestion. Who cares about opinions on matters of fact? – Davor May 26 '15 at 9:46
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    I agree with Davor, if you can't say WHY your approach is better then it doesn't count for much. Too many people just "feel" that their way is better and stick to that belief and get upset when others disagree. If you don't have demonstrable reasons to support your approach then your approach is at best no better than anyone else's. Somehow, I suspect that the problem is that everybody at the OP's organization is expressing "ideas" with unconvincing or no supporting reasons. Thus, everyone is getting frustrated because others don't agree with their opinions. Facts are harder to disagree with. – Dunk May 26 '15 at 15:29
  • @Dunk: I don't agree about being able to explain. I've many times been in the position where I knew that X was a good solution (or Y was a bad one), and had my opinion borne out by actual implementations, yet I could not explain my reasons in a way that other team members could understand. Maybe it's my lack of communication skills, or maybe it's their inability to comprehend, or some combination of the two, but such problems do exist. – jamesqf May 26 '15 at 16:50
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    I agree with @jamesqf If I need evidence, I'll ask for it. Everything starts with an opinion. My PhD adviser at Columbia Engineering used to tell me: "Give me nine data points and I'll draw you an elephant" And I have read enough b.s. research papers to agree with him. – Vietnhi Phuvan May 26 '15 at 18:12
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    @Dunk when basing it on who explains better, the person with the better communication skills wins. ie the "best" design doesn't necessarily win, just the one where the advocate is a more convincing speaker. Sure, arguments should be backed by fact - but beware the idea that "the best argued idea is best". That point is actually more related to soft skills, and engineers who are unaware of this can often happily march to their dooms following "the best idea". – bharal May 27 '15 at 0:39
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If you are more worried about your 'star performers' ego than how your team is working together then you may be looking to solve the wrong problem.

In any team you are going to have people with different strengths and weakness. So long as they are all team players this is fine. If they work together then they will be aware of this and organize to optimize around it.

"I know sue is really good at test coverage so I'll ask her to see if there is anything else I should be doing."

Or

"Bob is great at interface design so I will run this by him."

However if one (or more) people in the team assumes they are better, it often leads to arrogance. Which leads to huge friction in the team.

"Your just not good enough to see why this idea is great"

Ego should not have a place in a team. Yes some people are better in some areas than others, but they should use that as an opportunity to mentor others not to stamp their authority.

In difference to many of the answers here, I suggest the last thing you should do would be to promote them. They do not sound like they are team leader material yet. Your team will suffer even further if they are promoted. If it is an option I would suggest that would be enough to cause people to leave. (I know it has been for me in the past).

IF you accept that the issue is one of team bonding, then look at ways to do that. It could be as simple as everyone going out for a team lunch. You may want to look at some kind of team building activities to try to get people to work together. Your product is the shared responsibility of the team, if they feel this they will work well together.

I would also question weather the person is actually a star performer. I don't know what metrics you use to judge this. I would say a fairly high percentage of "Star Performers" that I have encountered are good at self promotion and deflecting criticism rather than actually good at the job. The behavior you describe leans towards this being the case.

  • If you can't explain why the idea is great, then there is a problem. – gnasher729 May 27 '15 at 14:18
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Both Kent and Wesley have posted answers with merit, but perhaps the best way to deal with your SP will emerge after a few coaching techniques. Ask an open question, along the lines of "how do you feel about the team dynamic at the moment?" Follow it up with questions about root causes and similar... Explore the issue in as much detail as possible. If SP doesn't bring it up, you can gently lead the issue, or use one of the prompts in Kent's answer. Your SP may surprise you with their answer and come out with something none of us have thought of. Or they may admit fault, blame the rest of the team, or even blame you. Don't be too hasty to jump to solutions.

When you feel the issue has been thoroughly explored, if the solution hasn't naturally emerged, ask the SP what they can do about it. If further action is required by you (e.g. talking to another team member), reassure SP that you will do so. But don't be afraid to say you will go away and have a think about how to proceed. And also make it clear that SP shouldn't expect a "status report" on your actions; you're their manager, not the other way around.

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Assuming that he is actually doing a really good job, I would try and put him in a more prominent role as a team leader. I would explicitly tell him to be responsible for the team and the result, and that he has to teach its members as necessary so they can achieve their goal. This will

  • make him happy to be acknowledged
  • give him the chance to improve his leadership skills
  • improve the abilities of his fellow members through his teaching
  • use his (more or less) silent complaint in a constructive way

If he really outperforms everyone, this is only sensible to do instead of suppressing him. Make him shine!

I am adding this answer because I feel this aspect was underrepresented in the other answers. Obviously, if his results are less than great, this does not apply.

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    Take your most prolific/talented coder, give them a management job, watch them and the team crash and burn. The technical prima donna has their place, but leading a team ISN'T one of them. – The Wandering Dev Manager May 26 '15 at 14:38
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    The OP didn't say the "star" was the most prolific/talented CODER. He said PERFORMER. Generally, a coder doesn't need much advice from others. It's the design and architecture where others have to come to agreements. If the "star" is the most talented at these tasks then technical lead is a good role. Technical lead doesn't necessarily mean doing the management tasks, that can be done by someone more management focused. – Dunk May 26 '15 at 15:50
  • Even disregarding Dunk's comment (which I think is a very good one), I would argue that the idea still applies. From the question, it seems to me that company size is rather small, so everyone must take several positions at the same time. It would be nonsensical for the company to use one person for technical management and another (with supposedly far superior technical skills) as technical staff - these should be unified to be more effective. The prima donna will have to adapt to this new role, and while this may be uncomfortable, all other options would be, too, and less efficient on top. – mafu May 26 '15 at 16:56
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Tell him it is more important to get everyone's input than it is for him to be right.

You need to let this person know what behavior you want him to change. Let him know that you are going to ask for the "team's" opinion, he needs to let everyone else offer an opinion whether he likes it or not. He can state his and then be quiet while everyone else gives their opinion.

Take more control over the debate. You can either decide which solution to implement, take a team vote, or assign someone to make the decision. This may be decided on a case by case basis since it may not be practical to take a full team vote on every matter. You're in charge. You decide.

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