Individual Differences and the Developmentally Impaired Employee

In our book, the People Side of Business, our sixth principle is that individuals are different. For us this means that you want to capitalize on these differences by finding the right fit for your employees and by seeking diversity in your workforce. Another implication of individual differences is that there are a small percentage of people who are so different that they are developmentally impaired.

These impaired employees don’t follow rules, make excuses for failed performance, argue when corrected, and are counterproductive. They struggle to fit into an organizational culture and require an inordinate amount of time in supervision. These are the (non)workers who drive managers nuts.

Initially it can be very hard to assess developmentally impaired people. They are very good at presenting themselves as high functioning and technically competent. In fact, they often appear especially competent or confident during the hiring process. They mask their own self-doubt and express without reservation an ability to handle the most challenging problems. Early in their tenure they can maintain their facade of superiority, but events usually catch up with them. They typically bite off more than they can chew, and as this becomes apparent, they reveal the deep-seated developmental and emotional problems that caused them to overestimate their abilities in the first place. Their sarcasm, their deflection of blame, and their refusal to cooperate are all stratagems they use to try to maintain their inflated image and hide their failings.

How do you get these people to change? Well, in my book, you don’t. Remember, it’s not your responsibility to get anyone to change. You can create a supportive environment so that people have the opportunity to develop and grow. And if it’s possible, you can reconfigure their positions so that someone with a specific personality problem has a better chance of succeeding and serving the organization. But getting people to change is not part of your job description. It is up to them to contain themselves and do their jobs.

As a psychologist business consultant this is probably the most common problem that prompts a call for my consultation. A careful differentiation must be made between a dysfunctional work environment causing an employee to react and an individual poisoning the environment.

More on assessment and intervention in my next posts.

Tom DeMaio, PhD

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