Managing Gifted People
Working With Brilliant but Challenging Team Members
Sophie runs a publicity team in a small company. She has noticed that one of her newer recruits, Rhodri, isn't fitting in with his colleagues. He stands out as "different," and keeps to himself. Whenever he's obliged to work in a group, tempers fray.
Just as Sophie is deciding whether to let Rhodri go, he masterminds a hugely successful publicity campaign. Four months later, he delivers another project that leaves the competition trailing.
Sophie no longer has any doubts about Rhodri's extraordinary talent, but he continues to be a challenge to manage. Fortunately, she recognizes that he is "gifted," and she starts thinking about how she can develop his unique strengths, and help him to work more effectively with his team mates.
In this article, we look at how to identify gifted team members, and we explore six strategies for bringing out the best in them.
How to Identify Gifted People
The immediate problem with using the term "gifted" is that, beyond its use in education, there's no hard and fast definition of it in relation to adults in the workplace.
In the U.S., The National Society for the Gifted and Talented uses the Department of Education's definition of giftedness, which describes "children and youth with outstanding talent who perform or show the potential for performing at remarkably high levels of accomplishment when compared with others of their age, experience, or environment."
That provides a good starting point for defining giftedness in the workplace, but it can be approached in a number of ways. For example, having an extraordinary intellect or an IQ score of at least 140 are commonly accepted indicators of giftedness. It's also possible to describe giftedness in physiological terms, as having a brain that can absorb and process information unusually quickly and efficiently.
In the workplace, gifted people are seen as the visionaries, innovators and problem solvers who get to the heart of complex issues. But there's more to giftedness than high intellect and brain power. For example, boxer Muhammad Ali was considered "gifted" in his field but, on IQ scores alone, he wouldn't qualify. As he famously said, "I said I was 'The Greatest.' I never said I was the smartest!"
In her 1999 book, "The Gifted Adult," psychologist Mary-Elaine Jacobsen identified three traits of gifted people:
- Intensity: gifted people are extraordinarily focused, empathic and enterprising.
- Complexity: they can quickly digest and analyze huge amounts of information.
- Drive: they are highly inquisitive, motivated and committed.
And in his Theory of Positive Disintegration, psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski claimed that gifted people displayed certain characteristics or behaviors. For example, he said that they tend to be intensely perceptive, use visualization techniques to achieve their goals, and can be nonconformist and independently minded. They can quickly go off in unexpected new directions when inspiration strikes.
However, gifted people can present challenges for a manager. They can be very emotional and sensitive, and prefer to work alone rather than as part of a group. This can lead to resentment and conflict with other team members. They can feel lonely, depressed and misunderstood, and may be socially awkward.
Giftedness is sometimes wrongly equated and confused with conditions such as Autistic Spectrum Disorders and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This may be perhaps because it can sometimes coexist with these conditions within the same person.
Six Strategies for Managing Gifted People
The key to establishing a good working relationship with a gifted team member is to create a mutually beneficial management strategy – one that makes the best use of their ability, and makes them feel challenged and engaged. This is what leadership experts Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones call being "a benevolent guardian, rather than a traditional boss."
While it's important to understand and support gifted team members, remember to treat all of your people fairly to avoid any accusations of preferential treatment. And they must be made aware of what is acceptable behavior, and what level of performance you expect from them.
Here are six steps to help you to become that benevolent guardian:
1. Acknowledge Giftedness
By acknowledging a person's giftedness, and encouraging them to acknowledge it, you can bring their talents to the fore. You can help them to feel fulfilled and to be proactive in managing their own talents.
2. Tackle the Pitfalls of Giftedness
Your gifted team member may be bullied by people who don't understand them, or they may intimidate people who can't keep up with them. You can help them to see how other people might perceive their behavior as critical, condescending or arrogant.
Encourage them to engage with colleagues using small talk, and offer them coaching on how to be a team player. They could work on improving their communication skills to listen, to respond, and to question better, and not to "talk down" to people, for example.
Help them to manage distractions and workloads, as gifted people can be prone to experiencing stress and burnout.
3. Set Challenging Tasks and Projects
Give them tasks that are stretching, interesting and challenging. Gifted people tend to have low boredom thresholds, so they are unlikely to enjoy or engage with routine or repetitive jobs. Assign tasks that play to and develop their strengths. Get them to perform a Personal SWOT Analysis to better understand their strengths.
You can learn more about how to motivate and engage your stellar performers in our article, Managing High Achievers.
4. Allow Autonomy
Give them time and space for researching and thinking. Gifted people don't like to feel confined by rules or by structured, micromanaged environments. So, as far as their role permits, give them some freedom and room for spontaneity, and to explore their own ideas.
However, you may still need to set some boundaries to ensure that they are accountable for their work and that they meets their objectives.
5. Create a Supportive Environment
If possible, make some simple changes to the workplace that can benefit them, without inconveniencing other team members. Gifted people work best without distractions, so try to provide a quiet workspace, or allow them to work with headphones on.
Gifted people typically hold themselves to high standards and can have a real fear of failure. Reassure them that failure is part of life, and not a punishable offense. Explain that how they respond to failure is important, and that it is something to learn from and move forward from.
6. Be a Strong, Empathic Manager
Some managers can feel intimidated or threatened by star performers on their team. They may feel that these team members' excellence can undermine their own position, and their insecurities may cause them to inadvertently sabotage their own careers.
So it can pay to develop your own self-confidence and build and project your own strengths and abilities, as gifted people tend to respect and engage with expertise and accomplishment far more than with hierarchy and authority.
As well as helping your gifted team member to achieve their full potential, it's also crucial to be an empathic manager. Be prepared to adapt your management style when you deal with them. For example, instead of throwing up your arms in exasperation when you see melodramatic behavior, try to help them to recognize the warning signs of an emotional outburst so that they can respond more calmly.
"Giftedness" is defined in various ways. Intellectual ability is central to some definitions, but the term is more often used to describe those whose extraordinary capabilities far exceed most people's.
Gifted people can bring exceptional amounts of value to a workplace, but their giftedness can also create problems. It can inspire fear, suspicion and dislike in others, and gifted people themselves often suffer from depression and loneliness.
It's crucial to find the right strategy for managing gifted people. For them to flourish, they need an approach that allows them to work autonomously, challenges and stimulates them, and offers a supportive environment.
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