Why difficult employees are worth the trouble

Contentious team members can make you a better leader

We have a demonic cat named Ike who has some bad habits. The other day, I walked past the bathroom and saw his orange butt in the air and his paws and face in the toilet taking a drink. This, by the way, while he was within 20 feet of two bowls of clean water, one of them a specially designed kitty fountain.

Ike’s a bit of a legend in the neighborhood, because he likes to roam and is a fighter. He often comes home with scratches on his head and tufts of different colored fur between his toes. A recent trip to the vet uncovered another cat’s claw stuck in his head.

He can also be extremely sweet, especially when he wants food, and he’s good entertainment. All in all, a pretty good team member at our house, though certainly an outlier.

t’s a natural tendency to try to get everyone on your team to act similarly — to drink from the same cat bowl, so to speak. There have to be some shared values and alignment toward the organization’s goals, or you just have a worthless disturbance on the team.

But there are also those who are aligned with the goals and share the critical values but approach their work differently. They aren’t conformists; they’re more like Ike.

Early in my career, I begrudgingly put up with Ike-like people on my team. They always question the course of action (which I no doubt charted on my own), ask you to think about things differently and make others slightly uncomfortable.

A client has an Ike-like player on his team and says that he gets flexibility because, as he says, “You have to let Kobe Bryant play the game his way.”

I started writing this piece with the idea that Ike was a good example of someone you didn’t want on your team — stretching, if not breaking, the rules. But I think my example perhaps proves just the opposite. If they’re trying to help you win, sometimes you need to allow people to drink from their own bowl and get a few scratches in the process.

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