AXELOS ProPath, the world's most powerful project, programme and portfolio best practice certifications

Dealing with high maintenance project team members

Michelle LaBrosse
February 25, 2015

I was recently watching the movie When Harry Met Sally, and there’s that funny scene where Harry tells Sally that she’s high maintenance.

Harry: There are two kinds of women: high maintenance and low maintenance.

Sally: Which one am I?

Harry: You’re the worst kind; you’re high maintenance, but you think you’re low maintenance.

Sally: I don’t see that.

Harry: You don’t see that? “Waiter, I’ll begin with a house salad, but I don’t want the regular dressing. I’ll have the balsamic vinegar and oil, but on the side. And then the salmon with the mustard sauce, but I want the mustard sauce on the side.” ‘On the side’ is a very big thing for you.

Sally: Well, I just want it the way I want it.

Harry: I know—high maintenance.

In pop culture and our colloquial language, we use the terms ‘high maintenance’ and ‘low maintenance’ a lot and like Harry, we’re usually not talking about our cars. Instead, we’re talking about people, those we work with, live with and have to deal with as part of the grand adventure of life.

This got me thinking about the impact of high maintenance versus low maintenance people. When I thought about the high maintenance types I’ve worked with on teams, two things immediately came to mind: they suck up lots of time and they lower the output of the entire team.

This column is written as a wake-up call for the high maintenance people out there who really don’t realise the impact they have. Is it you or anyone on your team? Here’s a quick way to find out.

You know you’re high maintenance when:

  • People plan around you, because they don’t want to deal with the detours you require.
  • You are rarely a travel buddy for business or pleasure.
  • Your friends and co-workers see you as someone who is always taking and never giving.
  • You are quick to criticise without offering another approach or idea.
  • You talk and rarely listen.
  • You bring problems to the table with no solutions.
  • You have a hard time adapting to change.
  • You are inflexible, and compromise is not in your vocabulary.
  • You state your own preferences first, and expect others to conform to what you want.
  • You don’t notice the ‘eye-rolls’ that you elicit because you are too busy looking in the nearest mirror.

If that’s you—or maybe just someone you know—let’s look at key phrases and questions that can turn high maintenance behaviour into low maintenance.

  • “What do you think about that…?”
  • “I like where you are going with that… what if we…?”
  • “I’m open to ideas. How would you like to proceed?”
  • “I chose the meeting location last time. Who’d like to chose it this time?”
  • “You really know the Chicago market, what’s your take?”
  • “You know the best restaurants in New York… I’ll defer to you.”
  • “Jim had a great solution he told me about. Jim?”
  • “How can I help?”
  • “How can we make this work for everyone?”
  • “How can we do it better next time?”

The greatest gift you can give to the people around you is to turn the frame of reference so it is not about you, but it is about them. See the greater whole as more important than your individual role. When you shift your perspective from you and your needs to the needs of others, you start to see and hear things differently. You can only truly listen when you are not in your own head thinking about what you want to say next.

It is a proven fact that people feel understood when they actually do most of the talking and are being listened to. So, you want to be the low maintenance person who is doing the listening and who is engaging others in solutions.

A great project manager is one who can see the opportunities for improvements as well as the strengths. Ask yourself: What can I do to better understand others? How can I be more collaborative? How has my behaviour lowered the output or productivity on my team? What are the changes I can make?

Be brave enough to ask other people what changes you can make, and be ready to listen and show others that you can move from high maintenance to low maintenance.

Michelle LaBrosse
Michelle LaBrosse (PMP) is one of the Project Management Institute's (PMI) 25 Most Influential Women in Project Management in the World and the founder of Cheetah Learning, a former PMI Professional Development Provider of the Year. She boasts a background in engineering and is a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s Owner President Managers (OPM) program, as well as a prolific writer and educator, having authored Cheetah Negotiations, Cheetah Project Management, Cheetah Know How and Cheetah Exam Prep as well as numerous articles in publications worldwide.
Read more