21T Problem Child project

The Problem Child Project – An initiative for developing more inclusive, productive and rewarding workplaces

We all know the person who never seems to fit in. The one who speaks up too often, who complains a bit too much. The person who never seems to quite say the right things and develop friendships quite as easily, who doesn’t seem to be a part of the mainstream. That one person who behaves in ways you, or the people around you, just don’t understand. Sometimes it’s obvious why someone doesn’t fit it in and sometimes there’s nothing you can put your finger on, but there doesn’t have to be – comfort, relationships and cultural norms are about feelings and behaviours, not logic.


Its entirely natural that we prefer social groups (including workgroups) where the members are largely like ourselves, where we feel we fit in, accepted and safe. Discomfort, disagreement or disharmony are risks that should be avoided – except, really, they shouldn’t be avoided – they should be invited, welcomed and managed. There’s no shortage of research on the value of diversity in workgroups, showing that where the team has the opportunity to bond and develop relationships, group performance is commonly superior to homogenous groups, especially where creativity and problem-solving are involved. It might be hard, but we’re usually better off for having received candid feedback, even if clumsily delivered. It can take a lot of courage and care for someone to gather the courage to speak up if there is a risk of rejection, so we should be careful to help them along the way.


Similarly, as much as we like to hear courteous compliments from happy customers, we all know an unhappy customer can tell us a lot about what we can improve with our products, services, experiences and messages. Criticisms are a bit like brussel sprouts – not many people like them but, in moderation, they’re good for us (apparently).  Customer criticisms can challenge, upset and threaten. They can make us feel like our efforts are unappreciated or that the customer may not be a good fit for our business – and sometimes that is the case – but if the option is to hear no complaints, which way should we go?

It’s the same for the problem-child employee. There are some employees who do not fit the requirements, in terms of competency, performance, behaviour or culture, of their employer – and they should be managed accordingly. However, there are employees who do not fit for other reasons. These may include:


  • Not conforming to the ideas, practices or behaviours of those with more power;
  • Asking questions;
  • Coming up with ideas;
  • Speaking their mind in a culture of social compliance;
  • Wanting to innovate in a culture of process compliance;
  • Taking initiative in decision making;
  • Offering to help others;
  • Having poor EQ skills;
  • Failing to create relationships and workplace social networks;
  • Having an intense personality – or an easygoing one;
  • Expecting high standards of themselves and those around them;
  • Having different priorities, demands and interests outside of work;
  • Dressing or talking differently;
  • Being of a different age, cultural background or experience; or
  • Learning or thinking differently to their supervisor and/or work group members.


These people are difficult not just because they are different, but because they do not fit the workplace social system. They threaten the feelings of control, safety and predictability others seek. They may even threaten the status quo, power structures and core beliefs (ie, assumptions). Just their presence can trigger a learned emotional reaction where our amygdala gets a bit excited in preparation to defend us against whatever problem or challenge they are likely to throw our way next. Our brains quickly become programmed to associate them with problems, either practical or social. This state of anxiety is not something we welcome, so we naturally try to remove its cause, commonly the other person or ourselves – irrespective of how much we, and the organisation, might stand to gain from their divergent contribution.


The “problem child” description then might be not a reflection of the person, but how the person is viewed within the organisation. More specifically, the problem child status may relate more to the organisation’s ability to manage and benefit from diversity. Rather than shunning them, imagine informing, empowering and providing an outlet where the problem child’s divergent perspective can be managed and mined. They’re usually also motivated – what if that motivation could be re-channeled? Without doubt, boundaries need to be set, but if the problem child’s energy and enthusiasm can be focused and harnessed, the rewards can be substantial in engagement, productivity and innovation.


My wife works with pre-school children, and there is one boy who is a genuine problem for the staff and other children. He damages books, property and the work of others. He has thrown tantrums and caused injuries, and with little direction from his parents, might be written off as an incurable example of ADHD. But with a dose of curiosity and a little investigation (ie, asking him), it turns out he is a very intelligent, creative child who is largely ignored at home – his misbehaviour at pre-school allows him to get the attention he misses so much and, despite being negative, in his mind any attention is better than no attention. The solution for this boy has been to give him difficult challenges, and to show him attention and appreciation when he meets them, which he invariably does. Very quickly, the attention-seeking trouble-making misbehaving problem child is becoming a star performer. I wonder how often this type of approach might be effective in dealing with employees who are felt to have similar behavioural attributes.

I’m a problem child – always have been, and probably always will be. My “problem” comes from my brain working a little differently than most. At times it follows direct lines, remaining intently focused, pragmatic and sequential, but due to a few uncommon neural connection patterns it finds associations between ostensibly unrelated data, a creative process that can reframe, reorient and resolve in unexpected and innovative ways, but also move too quickly for some (even me at times).

Notwithstanding that my approach to communication is not typical of a problem child, whether or not my divergent contributions are fully developed, explained, understood or embraced – and irrespective of whether they challenge common assumptions or long-held beliefs – do you think they are better said or silenced? I’m sure there have been times when you have experienced this too – conforming and confirming are so much socially (& career?) safer than risking disagreement.


The Problem Child Project has been conceived purely a thought-provoking initiative, designed to help us to view that “different” person a little bit differently. Sometimes they are going to have lots to offer, and sometimes not – but unless we open our minds to the possibilities of their divergent perspectives and potential contributions, we risk surrounding ourselves with people, ideas and practices that are largely similar to our own – good for stability, comfort and friendship, but not so good for awareness, creativity, problem solving and personal growth.

It should be clear here that an employee who does not behave or perform in accordance to required organisational and legal standards is not, for the purposes of this discussion, a problem child – they are a problem employee and should be dealt with as such. But non-performance is very different from non-socially-skilled or non-acceptance – a confusion that is unfortunately common.

To participate you don’t need to spend or donate time or money, run anywhere, grow or shave anything, or endure extreme physical discomfort. You don’t even have to talk to anyone (although we’re always interested in hearing great stories). But there are some things you can do right now:

  • problemchildproject12If you’re not already great at EQ, you can start by staying on top of your own emotional awareness and management. This is especially important because the problem child is likely to be poor at those skills, so you’ll have to do it for both of you;
  • Be aware of the filters you place on the content you receive – why is an idea better from coming a person you like (or a senior – more power) than it is from one you don’t (or is a junior – less power)? Why is someone else’s idea not as good as yours? (These are entirely natural psychological barriers to objective evaluation so please don’t be offended that they are listed);
  • Encourage people to avoid mindless compliance and group-think by showing public respect and appreciation for divergent but well-intentioned opinions;
  • Channel the problem child’s contributions – set boundaries by providing methods, times and places. You may even point them in a specific direction to enhance focus;
  • Get curious – ask questions and listen openly. There’s plenty of time to judge later;
  • Thank the problem child for contributions – let them know that even though their ideas may or may not be used in full or in part, you appreciate that they have taken the time and effort to share them. Be sincere about that;
  • After considering what you may or may not do about it, let people know your decision and why. For example, if there was too much complexity and not enough benefit, let the problem child know that – next time they are more likely to have thought it through more thoroughly;
  • If feedback is off-track, maybe there is some misunderstanding around organisational purpose, goals, standards or values. There are things you can do about that;
  • If the problem child is a problem largely because of social alienation (which is often the case), perhaps it is worth considering the social system. Sometimes the cause of a square peg not fitting a round hole stems from the shape of the hole. Watch out for who has the power in the group and how they might be using/abusing it.

The one thing the best leaders know for certain is that they don’t know it all – but they do know how to find out – and the more divergent the team, the  opinion, and perhaps the source, the more valuable that information might be.


If, like me, you can at times (also) be a “problem child”, here are some coping hints:

  • Be mindful of the needs and emotions of others – it’s not just all about you;
  • Learn EQ. As much as it might be up to others to be broadminded and cope with your possibly poor social skills and self-management, it is still for you to make an effort, such as caring about what others think, engaging in small talk and picking up some skills and disciplines to help organise your mind, emotions and delivery;
  • Expect nothing. Just because you are different doesn’t mean you are right. Yours is an opinion that has value, but it is not the only one;
  • A great idea is only an idea – keep having them, but don’t expect them to be adopted;
  • There’s a lot you know and there’s a lot more that you don’t know;
  • The more you, and maybe some who care for you, convince yourself that you and your perspective are “right”, the more likely it isn’t;
  • Remember that people listen to and evaluate feedback within the bounds of their experiences and awareness – which aren’t the same as yours;
  • If you‘re more interested in power, attention or credit than sharing information, expect to be lonely;
  • If you’re more interested in what’s in it for you than what’s in it for everyone else, expect to be shunned;
  • If you have feedback or an idea rejected, it was the idea that was rejected, not you. Unless you’re perceived as annoying and tactless, in which case it’s probably your behaviour (past or present) that is being rejected. Try behaving a bit differently and allow room for others to have their opinions – be as open as you’d like others to be;
  • The best ideas are usually collaborations – it’s more likely you can contribute at the start, middle and/or end by sharing your perspective with others, and taking theirs into account – you might be surprised what improvements and buy-in your idea or feedback might get;
  • Seriously, be mindful of the needs and emotions of others. If you don’t understand, accept that you don’t understand. I mentioned it before but I’m going to mention it again because you probably discounted it the first time.


Does the problem child, the person who doesn’t quite fit the mould, represent a problem or an opportunity? For who? Maybe the answer, in part at least, is in how we choose to view them and how they choose to view themselves. A manager high in EQ who seeks continual improvement and fosters an inclusive, supportive workplace social environment is likely to be well-placed to improve both.