The High Cost of Emotionally Expensive Staff

I was recently speaking with an executive pastor about a new role he had created on their staff. The church was thriving and desperately in need of someone who could help connect new people into their faith community. After listing about a half a dozen competencies they were looking for in a candidate, he paused.

“Keith, the bottom line for me is this– I need someone who is highly competent, but we don’t want someone who’s emotionally expensive,” he blurted.

After telling a couple of stories, it was apparent his team had paid the high cost of having emotionally expensive staff. Simply put, emotionally expensive team members are a drain on an organization, doing damage not only to their own careers, but also depleting a significant amount of time, energy, resources, and morale from the rest of the team.

It’s important to remember there’s no such thing as add water—stir leadership, and to some degree, we all come with an emotional cost. “No perfect people allowed” is a good message for churches to broadcast to their communities, but it should also extend to staff. As leaders, caring enough about our people to help them get better is part of creating a fantastic work culture.

That said, leaders who recognize the recurring destructive behaviors of an emotionally expensive team member can evaluate the real costs of their employment. So, how do we spot someone on our team who is emotionally expensive? Here are 10 signs of the emotionally expensive team member:


  1. They can’t handle feedback. Whether they lack self-esteem or self-awareness, emotionally expensive people get defensive when others simply want them to get better. Leading these people requires using a sandwich method of confrontation that is exhausting and usually ineffective. If you have a team member who is too fragile to hear honest and constructive criticism—they are, by definition, emotionally expensive.
  2. They’re always creating drama. Granted, ministry is messy, but emotionally expensive people are always stirring the pot through gossip or passive-aggressive behaviors. These people tend to throw verbal grenades in conversations that do damage. The blast zone of their incendiary remarks can leave a string of dead bodies in their wake.
  3. They allow their mood to dictate the way they treat their fellow teammates. Emotionally expensive people are the types of individuals who say, “If I’m not happy today, no one can be happy today.” Whether it’s sleep deprivation, problems at home, or they got stuck in traffic on the way to office, these individuals can be terrifying monsters. Have you ever been around a teammate that you routinely tried to avoid? Being around emotionally expensive people is like walking on eggshells and paralyzes team members from engaging in meaningful work with one another.
  4. They take the credit and pass the blame. Emotionally expensive people will inevitably find a way to make team wins about themselves. They also avoid taking accountability for misses or failures by projecting fault on everyone else.
  5. They gloat when they’re right and others are wrong about something. In marriage counseling, couples are taught that saying “I told you so” is a surefire way for someone to end up on the couch tonight. While someone with a competitive nature can bring exciting levels of energy to a team, emotionally expensive people take the competition too far. They are quick to put someone down while feeling a constant need to remind everyone how smart they are.
  6. They come across as entitled and seem to play by a different set of rules than everyone else on the team. They take extended lunches. They’re chronically late to meetings and are first to leave when the time runs out on the clock at the end of the day. Simply put, emotionally expensive staff are time thieves!
  7. They need others to keep them motivated. Emotionally expensive individuals always need someone to hold their hand. They don’t pray, study, research, develop a new skill, or do much of anything to get better as a leader. If you have a team member who continually needs a fire lit under them to do what they’ve been called and paid to do, you have an emotionally expensive person on your team.
  8. They talk bad about the churches or organizations where they previously worked. Look we get it, it was a toxic place for them. People didn’t recognize them for the contribution they made. The church didn’t treat their family fairly. There may be a lot of truth to these stories, but eventually, these anecdotes reveal a more important truth—this person has some PTSD. If they’re still nursing, rehearsing, and cursing wounds from the past, they probably need a counselor a lot more than they need someone they can routinely dump on in the office.
  9. They overshare and make people in the room feel uncomfortable. Often, this is a way for an emotionally expensive person to create sympathy, so others will give them a pass on their lack of performance. Because they lack EQ, they haven’t figured out healthy boundaries in conversation. Ultimately, they can’t tell when people have stopped listening and when they need to stop talking.
  10. They are chronically negative and constantly gloomy. Emotionally expense people look for rain clouds on the way to the beach! These people respond to new vision with HOW? instead of WOW! Instead of letting their imagination run wild, they are full of dread and despair. Far from the early adopter, emotionally expensive team members actually create inertia that can be difficult for teams to overcome.


Ultimately, when the emotional cost of their employment outweighs their potential and performance, it’s probably time for a courageous conversation with that staff member. What other signs have you identified in emotionally expensive people?


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