The core strategic advantage of most of the companies I have consulted with is their people. Unfortunately, sometimes the smartest and most productive talent engage in unproductive behavior. A head of a foreign exchange trading desk destroys his phone console on the trading floor in a fit of rage. An investment banker consistently loses patience and erupts at junior analysts. A sales executive becomes sullen and withdrawn when her ideas are not received with enough enthusiasm. I could go on.

This category of valuable but poor behaving talent has the following characteristics:

  • The individual is an executive or professional of high strategic value to the organization
  • The individual possesses unique assets (i.e. skills, experiences, relationships) that are not common in the market
  • The individual periodically exhibits behavior that negatively impacts their effectiveness

Typically, there is some incident that pushes the organization to take action. Often the sole action taken is providing feedback – the theory being that feedback (and feedback alone) will result in a dramatic moment of clarity which in turn results in permanent change with no additional follow up required.

Or the employee is sent to a training class that seeks to build their “leadership skills.” The idea is that the class will teach alternative behaviors that are more productive than screaming or sulking. Again, no additional follow up required.

Surprisingly (italics indicate sarcasm) it is rare that either of these actions eliminate the bad behavior. They fail to work because they are not addressing the behavior directly.

So what does work?

To extinguish non-productive behavior I have found that you need to work with the individual to clearly define 1) what behaviors they should eliminate, and 2) the conditions that trigger the behaviors. I call this the “box” method for reasons that will be apparent.

Here is an example. I recently coached a brilliant technologist, “Mark.” Mark was promoted to lead a team based on his unique depth in financial modeling, computer science and insight into specific fixed income markets. He worked very well with the portfolio managers but was universally resented by his colleagues and his team. Yet even his harshest critics strongly felt that Mark was a strategic asset that could not be replaced. Mark agreed to work with me after receiving feedback from the hedge fund’s founder who was the only intellectual peer Mark acknowledged.

I collected some input from several of Mark’s co-workers and then, working together with Mark, we identified the following behaviors as those he needed to stop:

  • Dominating meetings with his recommendations and rationale
  • Disparaging others’ input
  • Long emails following meetings outlining why he was right and others were wrong

This increased specificity helped to focus Mark on exactly what behaviors he needed to change. This was a clear improvement over the general feedback of being “argumentative.”

Mark and I next identified four triggers:

  1. Working with “unintelligent” people
  2. Being challenged by others on technical topics
  3. Being assigned “arbitrary” deadline
  4. Others providing unsolicited input on his work

Triggers are conditions in which Mark is more likely to display the undesirable behavior. Awareness of these triggers helps Mark gain greater control. We placed the undesirable behaviors in the center and the trigger conditions around them to create a box.

The box metaphor helps. Boxes confine a set of defined content by boundaries. Putting defined unproductive behavior in a box and then creating boundaries by identifying trigger conditions serves to isolate those behaviors into a recognizable space.

Next we analyzed these triggers to create sharper boundaries around the behavior. Mark listed the people he felt were not intelligent. He identified technical topics he felt he should be above question on. He came to realization that the “arbitrary” deadlines he disliked were those that were imposed internally without consideration of technical requirements. He indicated that he was most sensitive to unsolicited input from those who were not technical equals. This analysis helped further define the “box” in which he was more likely to display the negative behavior.

Just going through the process of creating the box caused Mark to increase his awareness of the trigger conditions. At first, he would seek to withdraw from situations containing triggers, i.e., avoiding technical discussions with those whom he felt were not his peers. Gradually, he began to reinterpret the trigger situations and see them less as “threats” that elicited a fight or flight response (the undesirable behaviors) and more as annoyances. We also practiced more effective alternative behaviors such as listening and negotiation skills. Some behaviors, such as the long, scathing follow-up emails were completely eliminated. Others, such as dominating meetings, were significantly abated. His colleagues and peers wanted and needed Mark to succeed and were relieved to see faster and less painful progress being made on deliverables. One unexpected surprise was that Mark took on the role of actively developing talent in some of the more arcane aspects of modeling and coaching. He liked the “teacher” role and appreciated having a forum to “lecture.” I wouldn’t say Mark became a positive presence but he ceased to be a disruptive one.

I find that my coaching clients find the box method intuitive and easy to work with. Clients have called me indicating they introduced the method to a colleague or one of their direct reports. I would encourage those of you who coach to try using it.

Often I hear that coaching should never be used as a “fix.” I agree that coaching employees who are not likely to add value is a waste of resources and time. However, as sacrilegious as this may sound, in today’s highly technical environment, employees with very high IQ and low EQ cannot be written off. The companies that need talent with rare abilities should become adept at helping these valuable employees shed behaviors that block them from realizing their full strategic value.