Many of us spend countless hours at work, and for the majority of full-time workers, more time may be spent at work than in any other context outside of one's home. Indeed, for many of us, we find ourselves spending more time with our coworkers and colleagues than with our family and friends. That said, dealing with difficult personalities in the workplace can really take a toll on one's health and well-being, as well as on the entire company or organization.
If you've ever dealt with a particularly difficult coworker, you may have found yourself avoiding that person at work, perhaps changing your schedule or taking a different route in and out of your building. You may have even found yourself fantasizing about their departure or considering your own just to get away from him or her. In the following picture, Holloway and Kusy (2009) use humor to illustrate the joy of having a difficult employee leave a company. Although you may be able to find some humor in it, at the end of the day difficult workplace personalities can be very upsetting for all of those who have the misfortune of sharing time, space, and job tasks with them. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to describe ten difficult workplace personalities which are common to many workplaces and strategies for effectively communicating and interacting with them.
What is Personality?
Before learning more about difficult workplace personalities and how to handle them, it is important to understand personality. Basically stated, personality is the sum of characteristics and traits that define a person's typical thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in over time (Malik, 2007). For those who have personality traits that are considered outside of the norm and potentially harmful to themselves and/or others, a personality disorder may be present.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (2013b), "personality disorders are associated with ways of thinking and feeling about oneself and others that significantly and adversely affect how an individual functions in many aspects of life" (p.1). Examples of personality disorders include antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder. Even though these disorders create extreme behaviors in those who have them, even people without personality disorders can display traits from them which appear in the workplace. For example, you may know someone who has extreme and unpredictable emotional mood swings which often appear in people with borderline personality disorder. And some researchers have found that traits of narcissism - such as a sense of entitlement and lack of empathy for others - are higher in Generation Y or Millennials (sometimes referred to as "Generation Me") than in previous generations which can make for more challenging interactions within office environments (Twenge & Campbell, 2008).
How Can Difficult Personalities Impact the Workplace?
Difficulties workplace personalities can negatively affect the well-being of individual workers as well as entire organizations. Workplace incivility has been shown to effect the majority of workers in the U.S. (96%) according to one study and result in lower productivity and time spent at work among other negative consequences (Porath & Pearson, 2010). Examples of "toxic behaviors" that can damage the workplace environment include belittling comments, gossip, double standards, yelling at others, and taking credit for the work of others (Holloway & Kusy, 2009).
Even in the absence of difficult personalities, personality styles that do not work well together can result in conflict. Indeed, conflicting personality styles is a common cause of workplace conflict and incivility (Gatlin, Wysocki, & Kepner, 2008). Problems can occur over the way that people prefer to accomplish tasks or interact with one another. For example, some workers may prefer not socializing or distractions during certain hours and keep their office door shut while others may see this as unfriendly or even rude behavior.
10 Difficult Workplace Personalities and Strategies for Effective Communication
#1: The Gossip
A common difficult personality type found in many office environments is "the gossip." This type goes without much explanation, as it is common knowledge that people like this get their title from talking about other people (often behind their backs) and spreading rumors about others (which are oftentimes untrue or exaggerated versions of the truth). If you have ever found yourself in a conversation with the gossip at your office, you probably know what to expect from them. You may have even found yourself the victim of their bad habits, maybe with even realizing it.
Office gossips often behave this way out of their own insecurities or to create drama in order to entertain themselves. Indeed, talking about other people may be a way to deflect attention away from their own bad traits (e.g., poor work performance) or a way to create situations that they find amusing. Gossips may also hold the misguided belief that their gossip is a way to connect with other coworkers with whom they share their gossip.
To communicate effectively with the gossip:
- First, realize that it may be difficult to effectively communicate with the gossip or change their behavior before attempting to do so. A good communication strategy is directly telling this person the impact of their behavior on you with a statement like "I felt really upset by the comment you made about me to Jane." However, be careful with this and mindful that a comment like this may potentially create more material for the gossip to use.
- Try staying out of gossipy conversations and avoid sharing details of your personal life with the office gossip.
- Attribute their behavior to their own faults and insecurities instead of taking what they may say personally (Orloff, 2014).
- Let go of the idea that gossip within the office can be controlled and instead focus on your own behavior and setting a good example for others (Kiplinger, 2011).
#2: The Blamer
Blamers are another common type of difficult personalities found in many workplaces. For sure, there are times when most of us find ourselves pointing the finger at someone else when perhaps we were the cause of a situation or problem. But "blamers" (also referred to as "guilt trippers") are those who constantly shift responsibility away from themselves and onto others whenever things go wrong in the office. Rarely do they acknowledge or apologize for their own misgivings, mistakes, bad decisions, or poor performance. And oftentimes they stretch the truth in order to convince others that their version of events is accurate and factual even when it's not.
To communicate effectively with the blamer:
- Try redirecting their attention away from blame and toward facts that are verifiable (Murphy, 2014).
- Own up to any mistakes that you've actually made if they attempt to "guilt trip" you instead of engaging in the blame game with them and pointing the finger right back (Orloff, 2014). This can help stop the pattern that many blamers create of finger pointing back and forth with others and putting them on the defense.
- Maintain firm boundaries around the blamer and try not to let them push you to a point that you're uncomfortable with. Getting a blamer to see his or her own part in work-related problems may prove more difficult but creating your own safety and limits around them can usually be achieved with some careful effort.
#3: The Flyer
This difficult workplace personality is the highly emotional type who may "fly off the handle" at any time. They may also be called the "drama queen" or "drama king" and are very emotionally reactive people (Miller, 2014). Such people may have traits of histrionic personality disorder even if they do not have the disorder itself. This personality type will show a "pattern of excessive emotionality, attention-seeking, need for excitement, [act] flamboyant theatrically in speech and behavior, and use of exaggeration to maintain largely superficial relationships for the purpose of getting emotional needs met" (Miller, 2003, p. 427).
Oftentimes, you may find yourself drawn to this type of person in the office when they're in a good mood because they can be funny, entertaining, and energetic. However, when types like this feel like they're needs are not getting met they may "fly off the handle" so to speak and became very angry and dramatic. They may also be unreliable in following through with tasks and bad about making decisions based on emotions instead of facts and data (Miller, 2003).
In order to communicate effectively with the flyer:
- Try to use praise for the value they bring to the office before delivering any critiques.
- Communicate how their behavior affects you if you are impacted by their mood swings.
- Remain calm when they fly off the handle and try to calm them down if at all possible.
- Realize that you may be unable to change many of their behaviors but focus you protecting your own interests during the times that you find yourself in the unfortunate position of dealing with their high emotionality.
#4: The Control Freak
This difficult workplace personality is the type who is often nitpicky and critical of others who do not do things their way. Such people may have traits of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) even if they do not have the disorder itself. They often feel the need to control the outcome of seemingly everything and everyone around them and may even step over appropriate boundaries and attempt to control situations that aren't relevant to their own job duties. They may also be perfectionists and have impossibly high expectations for themselves and others. However, they may be a valuable asset to your company or organization due to their high attention to detail.
To communicate effectively with the control freak may be a great challenge, especially since he or she may very well be your supervisor or boss. Some strategies you may consider include:
- Giving praise for his or her attention to detail and contributions to your workplace.
- Providing detail to him or her and avoiding ambiguity that may raise their anxiety levels.
- Letting go of control at times when the situation or task does not matter as much to you or will not have an adverse effect on your performance.
- Do not take it personally when they're need for controlling is at its peak.
#5: The Victim
The victim is yet another difficult personality type found in many offices and is an obvious one to spot. This is the person who is often a constant complainer and attempts to draw people's attention to their problems (or perceived problems) every day. For example, they may complain about their work duties and try to convince everyone that they aren't treated fairly and have more work than everyone around them. Or they may play the victim when something goes wrong on a team project and claim that they were left out of important conversations. One study identified common personality traits of workplace victims and found that they "tended to be less independent and extroverted, less stable, and more conscientious than non-victims" (Coynea, Seignea & Randall, 2010, p.335).
In order to communicate effectively with the office victim:
- Try to exercise patience with them during conversations and recognize that they actually believe that they have been victimized regardless of whether or not there's any factual evidence to support this.
- Try to point out evidence to the contrary when they begin complaining about their bad circumstances. For example, if they claim that they were intentionally left out of conversations it may help to highlight the fact that they were on sick leave when certain conversations happened and that you and other coworkers didn't want to overwhelm them when they returned.
- Try to empathize with them when at all possible while being careful not to support their tendency toward helplessness. This can be tricky. If they complain to you about something that happened to them at work, try a statement such as "I'm sorry that happened to you and upset you so much. Is there anything you can do to change that situation?" This will help validate their feelings while highlighting the fact that they should try taking responsibility for changing the circumstances that upset them.
- Maintain your own boundaries during conversations and do not let them suck you into constant complaining about the same topics. A simple statement like "I know this is important to you and I'm sorry I don't have time to listen more, but I must go back to my desk and get some work done now" may do the trick.
#6: The Quiet Type
The quiet type of personality is a self-explanatory one and often easy to pick out in an office. This type is not necessarily a difficult personality but can be a confusing one. This is the person who is usually aloof in the office, may sit at their desk a lot (instead of conversing at the water cooler or joining everyone for lunch), and may close themselves off to others by hiding behind their cubicle, keeping their office door shut, or wearing headphones.
Some tips for effective communication include:
- Not pushing them to communicate or fraternize with everyone in the office.
- Giving them more space and time than others to respond to you and communicate their thoughts and feelings.
- Acknowledging their place and value to the organization even if they add little to no value to the office environment socially.
- Take some time to get to know what makes him or her tick and show an interest in them as a person.
- Do not take it personally if they do not interact with you as do your other coworkers.
#7: The Passive-Aggressive Type
Passive-aggressive types can make very difficult coworkers to interact with, as they may not be as easy to spot as others and can do real damage. They behave in phony ways - for example, hiding their true feelings by pretending everything is okay when they're actually upset - and have a tendency to appear calm, cool, and collected at all times since they keep their negative feelings pushed deep down. However, a classic sign of this type is the fact that they may do things to sabotage the work or performance of others, or get revenge in other stealthy ways (e.g., stealing someone's lunch).
In order to communicate with this personality type:
- Avoid reciprocating passive-aggressive behaviors and confront problems with them out in the open, using tact and good timing for conversations.
- Use direct communication to communicate the impact of their negative behaviors on you, your coworkers, and the office environment. For example, "I felt disrespected when you showed up to my presentation late."
- Express interest in their true feelings and create a safe space for them to feel heard and validated.
#8: The Paranoid One
The paranoid coworker is often portrayed on popular TV shows and in films, as this type can be equally entertaining and frustrating to deal with. Such people may have traits of paranoid personality disorder even if they do not have the disorder itself. These include being constantly suspicious of other people and their motives, distrusting other people (even if there is no cause), and interpreting the behaviors of other people in very negative ways (for example, "She did that because she's out to get me fired!")
To communicate with the paranoid one in your office:
- Exercise caution with what you say to him or her, and recognize that your words may be spun very differently in their head.
- Offer fact-based and rational information and explanations to him or her for why certain decisions or developments occurred.
- Avoid getting too caught up in changing their perceptions of reality, even if such perceptions seem odd to you and others around you.
#9: The Narcissist
The office narcissist may be one of the most difficult workplace personalities to deal with. Such people can also be described as egomaniacs and are often found within the management levels of many companies and organizations. They may show traits of narcissistic personality disorder or even have the disorder itself. The office narcissist will show a "pattern of grandiosity, entitlement, need for admiration, lack of empathy for others' feelings or opinions and expecting unearned high praise regardless of their actual effort or accomplishment" (Miller, 2003, p.428). These types will often evaluate their own work performance more favorably than it is in reality (Judge, LePine, & Rich, 2006). They may be arrogant, annoying to deal with, and disliked by many people. Conversely, they may be very charismatic and actually liked by many coworkers (Orloff, 2014). However, this type of personality can be toxic to the workplace and will attempt to control situations and gain support for their inflated self view regardless of how it may damage those around them or their relationships.
To communicate with the office narcissist:
- Consider using flattery or stroking their ego a bit if it helps get the job done (Orloff, 2014).
- Communicate how demands of them may actually benefit them (Orloff, 2014). Narcissists are very self-focused and care about their needs and desires, often at the exclusion of others.
- Offer a positive about their performance before delivering any criticisms.
- Praise them openly (e.g., on a chain email) if it is deserved in order to continue getting results that you need from them. Narcissists respond to praise and social approval in office environments (Twenge & Campbell, 2008).
- Maintain realistic expectations of how they will likely respond during conversations and situations. Do not expect something different from them just because their behavior rubs you (and everyone else) the wrong way.
#10: The Psychopath
The psychopath falls under the abnormal psychology branch and a regular encounter with someone who suffers from this is rare, nonetheless, it does happen and the psychopath can be a very harmful type of person particularly in the workplace. Such people may have traits of antisocial personality disorder even if they do not have the disorder itself. This personality disorder is defined by "a pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others" (APA, 2013a, p.645). People who are psychopathic (sometimes referred to as sociopathic) have a tendency toward intentional harm toward others including lots of deceit and manipulation. They may take the credit for work done by others at their company, purposefully deceive others in order to "win" even if their actions are very damaging, unethical, or even illegal, or act in other reckless and predatory ways like stealing from the company or the company's clients. The good news is that true psychopaths are a rare breed, composing only 3.3% of adults within the general population (APA, 2013a).
If you work with a psychopathic person, do not expect them to feel remorse for their actions, as people like this often take pleasure in their negative impact on others. Because of this, effective communication with a coworker like this may be nearly impossible. Depending on your company or organization culture, if the psychopath is revealed for his or her true nature, they may be fired or self-destruct in which case the need to communicate with them may be unnecessary.
In the rare case that you do find yourself having to work with a person like this your best recourse is to be clear about your own boundaries and attempt to communicate them to this person. For example, if this person tries to draw you into unethical behavior try a statement like "You can do that but please don't involve me - that crosses the line for me." It is highly unlikely that you will change their behaviors in any way but using clear, direct, and firm communication may save you from getting caught up in their deceitful ways. It may also be useful to avoid giving them any information that they can use to do harm to other coworker or the organization's clients.
Ultimately, all of us find ourselves working with difficult people and personalities at some point during our career lives. By understanding what personality is and the common ones that cause difficulty within workplaces, you may be able to better navigate your work relationships and protect your own interests and well-being.
The following offers some final tips on dealing with difficult people and their personalities in the workplace:
General Tips for Effective Communication with Difficult Workplace Personalities
- Effective communication skills with difficult personalities should be used to make interactions go more smoothly. Never try to use these to change a coworker's personality, as it will be wasted energy.
- Try being flexible with your style of communication depending on the personalities that you deal with in your office (Hautala, 2006). Some adjustment on your part is a factor you can control and may help you connect better with a coworker that has a different personality and communication style than your own.
- Consider the positive aspects of your coworkers personality (if you can identify any) and point these out during conversations in order to help communicate more effectively with them, especially when delivering criticisms.
- Use direct yet tactful communication to help confront problems head on in your office and advocate for your personal rights and needs. Oftentimes, even the most difficult of personalities can surprise you if you give them the chance to understand how they're behavior impacts you and other coworkers.
- Never assume anything or jump to conclusions about a situation until you've had a chance to communicate directly with a difficult personality in your office or verify information. Just because a person is difficult to deal with it does not mean that your assumptions are a particular situation are 100% accurate every time.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013a). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-V (5th edition). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
- American Psychiatric Association (APA). (2013b). Personality disorders (Fact sheet). Retrieved from http://www.dsm5.org/Documents/Personality%20Disorders%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf.
- Coynea, I., Seignea, E., & Randall, P. (2000). Predicting workplace victim status from personality. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 9(3), 335-349.
- Gatlin, J., Wysocki, A., & Kepner, K. (2008). Understanding Conflict in the Workplace (University of Florida Extension Report). Retrieved from http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/HR/HR02400.pdf.
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- Porath, C. l., & Pearson, C. M. (2009). The cost of bad behavior. Organizational Dynamics, 39, (1), 64-69.
- Sullivan, R. (May/June, 2012). Managing extreme personalities. CIO, 48-51.
- Twenge, J.M. & Campbell, S.M. (2008). Generational differences in psychological traits and their impact on the workplace. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 23(8), 862-877.