How to Handle Extraordinarily Productive Employees

by Krishna on May 11, 2009

Johanna Rothman considers a management problem where a team has an extraordinarily productive employee in a team of average employees and suggests that the person may be more harmful than helpful:

Another manager has the problem of one person bringing down the expertise of the entire group by being an indispensable employee. Indispensable employees prevent other people from learning because they take care of things for other people. Other smart people don’t want to work with the indispensable employee because they don’t get the challenge of solving the problem themselves.  Indispensable employees are quite dangerous to the long-term health and success of your group.

If you are faced with one really productive employee and some not-so-hot folks, reexamine your situation. Do you have a bottleneck or an indispensable employee? If so, fix the situation. They are not helping you.

It is easy to figure out what to do with a bottleneck employee, but how do you handle an employee who is sincerely working very hard? One of the comments on the post talked about “Free Electron” employees who are arrogant about their capability and disrupt the team. But that is not the general case. Sometimes, you just have a great employee who wants to and does contribute heavily.

From the viewpoint of the productive employee, they are not doing anything wrong. They will be very surprised and negatively shocked to know that they are somehow a “problem”. How do you tell an employee to contribute less? Can you fire or transfer someone for doing more work? This sound very much like the work policies put up by old-school unions to slow down work.

Now, the question is: Who is the productive employee preventing from learning? The answer shows a failure of management and a failure of imagination. There is a management failure because the manager is not hands-on enough to understand which person in his team is incapable of doing work by themselves and requires constant spoon-feeding. Those are the bottleneck employees that should be eliminated in the first place.

The failure of imagination comes from the question of other smart people. I find it difficult to believe that a team has so few challenges that one talented employee can take care of everything. If you think about it, there are so many possibilities and opportunities for research, problem-solving and learning. A manager who can only think of mundane tasks to delegate to his employees is not thinking deeply about the future of his team or product.

Having a very productive employee is a good problem to have. Yes, such an employee has the potential to negatively affect the other people in the team, but the answer is not to dampen their enthusiasm and energy, but to channel such enthusiasm into the proper tasks. Think harder and come up with greater challenges that will engage and excite them. That is also one way of retaining them.


Peter Edstrom May 11, 2009 at 7:57 pm

A very productive employee is a good problem to have, if that is indeed what you have. But productive might be the wrong word...

In my own support team, I have someone who you might consider to be productive, but all they do is grab the problem tickets faster than anyone else. This prevents two things from happening: 1) no other employee knows how to fix day-to-day problems, and 2) the team never has a chance to do any root-cause analysis. They solve issues fast and 24x7 which is great, but if the other team members had a chance, the team might (more slowly & methodically) fix the problems in a way that they never ever reoccur. There is a place and time for night/weekend work, but sometimes throwing thinking (instead of lots of time) at the problem will be much better long-term.

Kannan Kartha May 12, 2009 at 9:24 am

Great post and thanks for referring to Free Electron article. The hyper productive employees need to be supplied with work that interest them else they tend to leave and in a case that Peter has mentioned, it may be detrimental for the team who would struggle to clear day to day tickets.

Krish May 12, 2009 at 10:15 am

Thanks Peter and Kannan. Sometimes in these cases, it might be helpful to step in and provide some direction to these employees to do something else. Sometimes, these employees don't realize the side effects of what they are doing.

Ashutosh Didwania May 13, 2009 at 9:18 am

I find it really strange that a super-productive employee could actually be portrayed as a trouble-maker. In case this does happen, its a clear cut failure on the part of the person whom he/she is reporting to. Moreover irrespective of how good an employee is, there are bound to be activities that would prove challenging to such an employee. Its a known fact that challenges are pretty much the leveler that can get even the best of the lot thinking harder. The trick probably lies in throwing up such challenges at over-productive employees in order to hit two targets at one go. One, get the best out of them...Two, keep them grounded.

Krishna Kumar May 14, 2009 at 2:40 pm

Good point, Ashutosh

B.W. Watson October 7, 2009 at 7:09 pm

Without manufactured restraints every organizations member will rise to his/her level of inconpentence. If you have an organizational member, whose productivity level grossly exceeds the lot of them, it is more probable that he/she is grossly overqualified for the position, or has outgrown it. The simple solution is, promote them or place them in a higher paying more demanding position that is more suitable for their level of competence.If there is a legitimate reason that precludes this, then it is to the loss of the organization. Defacto organizational politics is never a good reason.

Krishna October 7, 2009 at 10:09 pm

Well said, B.W.

busybee October 23, 2009 at 10:54 am

Well put! I like that line of reasoning & firmly agree.

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