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.

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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  1. I’ve managed a few of these over the years, I’ve been lucky that they were competition enough in their jobs and content enough to come in, do the job to the required standard and go home. Today’s culture seems to be about pushing people to be better, to do better, but some people don’t want that. And u think its a good thing! I found these people to be a good backbone for a team. Strong, dependable and always there.

    1. Author

      That’s a different and interesting take on the ‘problem’, thanks for sharing SxBoi

  2. Hi,

    Problem? What problem? 🙂

    What do we mean by management anyway? Like you say we are all different. Why not accept the *problem* individual as she is? After all, engaging in compulsory chit-chat isn’t written into her contract of employment. Maybe she just wants to come to work, do her job and keep herself to herself? What is wrong with that? If so, then she is perfectly entitled 🙂

    It is really hard to give any advice without knowing the individuals involved, but some good advice for your friend maybe to look at himself first. What is it about tis person that he finds so difficult and why?

    Our management culture says that as Manager you need to be the person in control, the boss. Not knowing what is going on with someone clearly makes “being in control”control difficult. New ideas in management, say the Manager should set boundaries and goals and then let go. There is lots of research that shows that such an approach is far more effective for knowledge workers, and is a prerequisite if you want true self organising teams.

    Could it be that you friend struggles with letting go, and has controlling tendencies?

    1. Author

      Thanks Paul, I’ll let them be the judge of their own tendencies, but now that you’ve raised it I’m sure it’s something they will consider.

  3. I love the metaphor of elements and their reactivity to people in organisations.

    Here are a few thoughts…

    You’re confusing chemical reactivity with nuclear activity. Chemical reactivity is about how one substance responds to the presence of another. Nuclear activity is something energetic that happens in an element (or isotope) in and of itself, regardless of what other substances are nearby.

    Noble gasses are indeed chemically unreactive. Francium is highly chemically reactive (we know this because it’s like Ceasium), but in the article, you’re talking about its nuclear activity. This is an important distinction. Consider Radon, a Noble gas that has low chemical reactivity, and high nuclear activity.

    Now, what does this tell us in the world of your metaphor?

    A nuclear reaction is nothing about you — it will go off regardless. Don’t make the mistake of thinking your actions caused it. Perhaps that’s half the case in your example of the overly dramatic Mr or Ms Francium.

    A chemical reaction is an interaction between the outermost electrons of two elements. And wikipedia says that the reason nobel gasses are unreactive is that their outmost electron shells are completely filled. So perhaps your Noble team member is unreactive because his/her outer shell — or senses — are completely filled. Maybe give them some more space and some more time to react, rather than expecting an immediate reaction.

    Also, note that Noble gasses do react under some circumstances, for example to form Xenon Tetraflouride. These reactions are less common, and often need the presence of a catalyst. What kind of catalyst could you introduce that might help you and Mr/Ms Noble achieve a reaction?

    1. Author

      Thanks for the comprehensive response Steve. I’m sure my friend in need will appreciate you taking the time to put this together, you both seem to have an appreciation for chemical metaphors in common!

  4. Author

    Here’s another comment received on email from Rod:
    It is spooky that your e-mail/blog arrived the day after I had a discussion with one of our Noble Gases over ordering some stock that they are refusing to do. Why? Because someone in my department ordered this item 5 years ago and she still believes that it is my department’s responsibility. It is laughable – it really is. I think about the famous comment by Darwin about the strongest species are the ones that will adapt to change; needless to say this manager is not a fan of change and it becomes an arm wrestle for all those that need to deal with it.

    My advice, for what it is worth is to stick to basic principles and worry about the things you can influence. If you channel your energy (and I bet your friend has lots of this) focus it on those that benefit. On the face of it, this will sound defeatist: you are admitting defeat, you are waving the white flag and you are giving up. Actually you are merely diverting attention to those that will benefit and grow with your wisdom. In footballing terms, you are making your 5 penalty takers amazing as opposed to getting a 6th to step up and score that hasn’t even got their boots on!

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