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How to manage a noble gas?

Your help is needed. A former colleague of mine (who wishes to remain mysterious anonymous) has an office dilemma and wants to tap into your collective knowledge to get advice and guidance to help solve a problem he’s facing in his new role. The problem of how to manage a noble gas…


Managing people is a funny old game. I have managed enough people now to consider that I have experienced a good breadth of personality types. I think I’ve learned to figure out what motivates people, how to give tough messages about performance issues, provide guidance on problem solving. I have learned that different approaches are needed for different people.

Through experience I have become adept at teasing out what people are really thinking. What I am looking for during one on one conversations is to provoke a reaction – be it a positive one or a negative one – a reaction that tells me what that person is thinking.

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Which comes to the topic of how to manage a noble gas (does that take you back to GCSE chemistry)? Or more accurately, an employee who resembles a noble gas. By that I mean someone who doesn’t react to anything you say to them.

For example I say ‘I’m not happy with a comment you made earlier‘. They say ‘…’ (nothing)

I say ‘excellent work on that presentation, our clients really liked it They say ‘…’ (again – nothing)

I say ‘hello – are you listening?

They say ‘…’ (yep – nadda)

Personally, I find the noble gas hard to deal with. I hate not being able to tell what’s making them tick.

After some light Googling I discovered that Francium is the most reactive of all elements (the most stable isotope of which has a half life of just 22 minutes). It’s highly radioactive and starts to breakdown almost as soon as it forms. I’m sure most of us can relate to working with a Francium.

For examples I say ‘I’m not happy with that comment you made earlier’.

They say ‘Oh my god, what do you mean by that? What are you trying to say? Have you got a problem with me? I knew it. I knew you didn’t like me. I knew that this isn’t that job for me and everyone hates me‘…(cue tears, sobbing and rolling around the office floor)

I say ‘Excellent work on that presentation, our clients really liked it

They say ‘Really? Oh my god – really? Wow. Just …wow. I can’t believe it, that’s so amazing. Oh what good news. You’ve made my day, my week, in fact no – my year!’ (cue singing and dancing around the desks)

I say ‘Hello – are you listening?’

They say ‘Of course I’m listening. Wait. Did you want me to listen? If you wanted me to listen then yes. If you didn’t then, erm, well, erm , ok yes I was listening but please don’t judge me I just happened to be passing by. I’m sorry. But – did you actually want me to listen?‘ (cue confused looks across the office in desperation of acknowledgement and guidance.)

Francium’s bring their own high maintenance special challenges, but a noble gas is a different beast. If you’re not getting any reactions how can you get the best out of them? How hard do you push them? How much do you credit or criticise them? Do they like working in your team or hate it? It’s hard to know.

So what do you do with a team member of the noble gas variety? I’ve tried two broad approaches.

  1. The infinite question route, desperately trying to tease out something that you can work with from a line of persistent questioning.

  2. Making bold statements to see whether I can get them to bite.

Unfortunately, these people are so inert neither technique have worked very well.

Maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way? Noble gases are incredibly useful in the real world. Helium is used to make airships float. Neon is used make the bright lights of the big city. Argon is used to make light bulbs last longer.


Rather than trying to draw a reaction, maybe I should just let them be and accept that they’re a key part of any balanced team. After all, popular theories say a high-performing team is comprised of a well-rounded collection of personality archetypes. But, they could just be playing me like a great poker player. Or maybe the problem is me? Is every managers fear coming true for me – am I making these people inert?

Have you ever managed a noble gas? What’s the best way to apply this character type?


Sounds like a tricky problem – please add your thoughts to the comments below.

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