You hired an incredible expert, but their personal style is “difficult”…or maybe you’re the difficult expert?

In this series of articles our Org Psych, Virginia Henningsen, takes you through real-life (anonymised of course) examples of personalities you are likely to encounter when recruiting for your startup/scaleup and the tips and approaches you can apply to bring out their best. Yes, there are also pitfalls to look out for and some people you might want to avoid at all costs!

Ever needed to bring an expert or specialist into your business? Maybe someone to drive a new strategy based on their analyses? Maybe someone to develop new products or services in a cutting edge technology or new market category altogether?  And while creative, energetic and at times even visionary, after a while you find that you are trying to avoid them?  Maybe they’re like Nick?

Over to Virginia, our Startup Psych…

I assessed Nick using an executive-level assessment where we assessed his overall executive functioning as well as his personality. Nick was highly credentialed and qualified to the highest level in his field and had incredibly relevant recent work experiences where he had contributed to two businesses’ sudden turnaround from underperforming to leading in their sectors with new product and service innovations.  The client was not looking for me to find Nick’s “fatal flaws” to knock him out of the running, they were looking for me to help them understand him, so they could work with him and enable Nick to bring his best assets to each aspect of the role that they had awarded him.

First of all, I noted a number of opposing needs and motivators in Nick’s profile: it’s important for him to gain approval, but he doesn’t need to be liked, he has a law and order management style yet is overly tolerant, and he is highly opinionated and assertive but deeply sensitive. People with directly opposing needs tend to work well in roles that don’t require a lot of inter-dependence on others or high-level collaboration, a role where they can play to each element of their personality with no repercussions. People with this personality style can be visionary and forward-looking, often in the fields of art, music, and literature but also in sciences and maths where teams and group activities are not necessary. They may succeed in academia studying something to a high and very specific level, and sometimes they get out to the startup world, and we can definitely work with them…but it’s helpful to understand them first!

Motivated To Fit In, But Doesn’t Need To Be Liked

It is likely that Nick is very aware of the impression he is making when interacting with others, yet he is not motivated to be liked. However, he has a strong need to fit in and be accepted, and at times, his need for approval may result in Nick saying one thing but actually meaning something different.  His words and his actions may not always match up, and this can be confusing and frustrating for those around him. Asking him to clarify his intentions and needs whenever confusion sets in will be very important, yet it must be done in a one-on-one setting when Nick is feeling calm and able to focus. Ensure that all team members understand this, and it may be important for his manager or another senior leader to be the conduit of important information and direction to the team. Nick can move from idea to idea very quickly, yet when he settles on one of the ideas, he may need to learn to express his thought processes to others, as this will help them understand the reason behind the change in plan or priorities.

Controlling, Competitive and Domineering

These qualities lead to success in many roles, yet an individual with these qualities may also have a dramatic negative impact on the people with whom they are working. There is a very high level of dominance in Nick’s profile, revealing that he is likely to be competitive, controlling and domineering, and likely to seek out power and leadership positions in an aggressive manner. At times, Nick may have to win and may believe that he is the only one who can do things in the right way. He can be expected to be highly vocal and assertive, inclined to express and defend his own views and opinions, and while he may be able to accept direction when it is couched in exactly the right way, he will always appear very assertive.

As a people leader, Nick is very comfortable directing and coordinating others and is likely to be forthright and direct in his management style. When time permits, he is likely to be approachable, yet under pressure, he may be less interested in social “niceties”. Nick’s profile suggests there will be times when he needs to have time on his own to recharge, and if he doesn’t have sufficient downtime, his management style may change from being perceptive and coaching in nature, to being overly direct and authoritarian.

The high level of sensitivity in Nick’s profile suggests that he may be overly sensitive or prickly in the face of feedback. Expect him to be defensive and argumentative when discussing his performance and work product. Therefore, feedback, especially criticism may need to be very carefully worded, and positive feedback will need to be very genuine and specific to gain a good response from Nick. Regular, honest and uncomplicated feedback will work best by allocating regular catch up times to talk with Nick about his progress.  Sometimes you will have feedback to give, other times you can ask Nick about how he is feeling – this will promulgate the beginnings of an open and communicative working relationship.   It is important to note that Nick’s high levels of self-control may conceal his feelings (and at times, he may appear calm and composed), yet his feelings may emerge in other ways, for example in the way he talks with his own team members. You may need to direct Nick’s attention to this if it becomes problematic. Longer term, Nick may benefit from learning better ways to express and use his emotions in the workplace.

Law And Order Leadership style, Peppered With A Tendency To Be Overly Tolerant At Times

Nick may have a “law and order” style of management, directing others and communicating as an expert, which may be very effective for junior and less experienced people but may be over-bearing for more seasoned and mature team members.  He may benefit from developing a consultative style when this is appropriate and an encouraging and empathic style (yet open and direct) when facing conflict or difficult interpersonal situations.  He may also benefit from feedback in situations when he may seem to ‘switch’ from being people-oriented and coaching in his style, to being authoritative and open to frustration.   While he does understand others, at times he may appear to be aloof or disinterested in others. Specifically, he may fail to convey care and empathy, tending to deal with people and their presenting issues in an abstract manner, which may upset those who know he is a sensitive and empathic individual.

At other times, Nick may be prone to giving the benefit of the doubt for too long and being too tolerant and this may result in him ignoring problems in his team and missing opportunities to quickly correct issues.  Longer-term, Nick would benefit from broadening his overall people leadership style, so he can adapt and adjust his style to the needs of different people.

High Energy That Can Actually Cause Stress

As part of your management team, Nick is likely to stand out as the subject matter ‘expert’, he will ensure he has sufficient evidence and data to back up his strong and forceful opinions. He is likely to bring energy and drive to the team, yet occasionally his energy may result in stress for some people. When others subscribe to his perspective and action orientation, he is likely to build warmth and rapport in these relationships. At times, however, he may be too abstract or fail to respond to people’s needs, which may create conflict. You may need to help ensure Nick connects with others by positioning him in the business to ensure he makes his best first impression and can build good working relationships with key stakeholders cross-functionally.

Speed And Bias For Action Blindspots

There is a high openness to change in Nick’s profile and this suggests the capacity to pivot, fail fast and persist, however, when significant change is suggested by Nick, check that there are no blind spots, ask him to complete due diligence, making sure everything has been considered. His speed and bias for action means he may miss things, so it may be prudent to ask him, before proceeding or making significant decisions, “is there anything missing?” Keep in mind that Nick has a tendency to overweigh the importance of change rather than the status quo so it will also be important to provide him with contrary data and commercial data to ensure he sees things in a balanced way. The high level of flexibility in Nick’s profile suggests that he is curious by nature, and open to new experiences, yet he may also have a tendency to become restless. It may be important to clearly understand Nick’s personal goals and leadership aspirations and to ensure that these can be met in the new role.

Have you hired someone like Nick? It helps to really think about what’s happening from their perspective. His expert knowledge and experience will be a game-changer for your business but if you don’t learn how to work with him and apply his personality in the best way possible, his style may end up causing damage.

You can find Virginia on Scale & SwingUcities or on LinkedIn.  Our startup and scaleup clients really value her insights.


  1. Ben Heslop

    Hi Virginia,

    Nick sounds a bit like me, and in my limited experience, I find managers see me as a threat.


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