Dealing with difficult personalities at work.
How many of you have come across toxic personalities at work? And what you have done to deal with them or avoid them if possible? I know that many of my friends and colleagues have come across self-centred, bullying and oft' times abusive people at work.
I know that I have and how difficult it has been to go into work day after day as you get battered around. Some of these toxic people have made our lives miserable (and at times unlivable) by the way they interact with us to the extent that many of us fear walking into work.
After a few instances of abuse and bullying, most of us start looking for another job rather than continuing to deal with such people.
Yes, I call these people toxic, poisonous and delusional. But they don’t just inhabit the area of work. We also see them on the political stage.
It’s my way or the Highway!!!
They are the monsters of our society – the Hitlers, Mussolinis, Presidential-types and other dictators who keep millions cowering in their homes. They tell us openly – It’s my way or the Highway.
In so many ways, they let us know that if we don’t do as they say, they will do their best to get rid of you. Besides bullying and abusing you, they spend their time (or so it seems) lying, cheating, manipulating and harassing you and your colleagues.
I am not talking about relationships.
I am talking about workplace monsters. If you know such a person at work you will not change them – not now or ever.
Changing these difficult workplace personalities (and for that matter people with whom we have more intimate relationships) will require each of these people to become self-aware. (or understand how they are viewed by others or how their behaviour affects workmates including the negative consequences).
They may need to work with a psychologist or a therapist for a number of years and put into practice all that they learn if they are to change! Most of them may never see a counsellor or psychologist because they also believe they are the most wonderful people on earth – it is the rest of us who have problems!
Has this ever occurred to you that if you want to stay sane or stay in a job you like for any length of time, you will need to change yourself? (That is if you are managed or teamed with someone with a personality disorder.)
You will need to manage these difficult people skillfully.
You will need to manage these difficult people skillfully, i.e. work out and understand their ‘hot buttons’ and ‘how to switch them off’ as well as learn some coping skills for yourself so that you don’t go home and end up as a shattered wreck or jump into traffic on the way home! (The latter means that you may have to learn some strategies for self-care.)
According to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) 2013 (the textbook/manual used by the American Psychiatric Association) there are ten personality disorders which can range from Odd/eccentric types (Paranoid personalities) to Dramatic/Erratic types (e.g. Narcissistic, Histrionic, Borderline and Antisocial personalities) to Anxious/Fearful (people with Obsessive-Compulsive and Avoidant disorders).
I don’t intend to cover all these disorders but I will stick to the ones most found in corporations – those who fall into the Dramatic/Erratic cluster of personality disorders.
Of these, the three most common and painful sorts of workplace personalities are the Anti-social and Narcissistic types. (For those of us who have worked in organisations – we often refer to them as the ‘Dark Triad' – the psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists.)
I am going to stick to the three most common types of Anti-Social personalities. The reason is, is that they are the most common toxic personalities in the workplace.
They do have one trait in common – an absolute lack of empathy. They do not take into account other people’s points of view. Their own viewpoints and motives are all that matter.
Many have asked if the traits of anti-social or other personality disorders are genetic or related to our socialisation i.e. upbringing and environment? We don’t know; it could be genetics, vice-versa or a combination of both. The jury is still out on that one.
The first type of anti-social personality we will look at is the psychopath.
They seem to have a very shallow emotional intelligence and many of them find it hard to show any emotion at all. Some having to practice long and hard to look sad or sympathetic (should the occasion require it and they need to act the part to succeed in their aims).
They have an exaggerated sense of self-worth – what I call grandiosity. (Colleagues or bosses, who do you know that does this well?)
They also seem to lack any sense of remorse or guilt and as I said earlier, they actually have to put on masks of sadness or remorse if they are backed into a corner to show that they are remorseful or guilty.
They may also lie convincingly to protect themselves. They will also lie so adeptly if it is a matter of their hide or yours. They will find a way to cast a shadow on your work and your actions thus allowing them to get off scot-free.
They are society’s great manipulators. Ever seen a person like this in your workplace or on the national or world stage?
Psychopaths seem to have little empathy and usually fear very little.
They also don’t seem to care about consequences. It leads psychologists to believe that they may be actually more impulsive and likely quite chaotic inside. They can be very charming (remember Ted Bundy – the serial killer in the US).
They are given to taking risks and getting away with it for a long time. As managers and colleagues, they wreak havoc on clients and lower-ranking staff with their risk-taking and manipulative ways.
They charm you thoroughly when you first meet them and you think they are the most genial and wonderful people in the world. But this is a mask because they don’t have deep connections or close friends.
However, shortly after you meet them or begin to work with them you begin to see the real person – when they no longer have to win you over with their charm they become sneering and dismissive.
They are the ones we call the ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr.Hyde’ type of personalities – charming when they meet you and nasty once they know you.
Psychopaths form 2% of the general population and over 60% of the prison population. Many murderers insist they are innocent and would not harm anyone while at the same time they are busy plotting more crimes.
Tips for dealing with psychopaths:
If you suspect someone is a psychopath never give them any personal information because they will use it against you.
It is best to keep an emotional distance from these people because they will try to get close to you to wheedle personal information out of you or discover something they can use against you.
Just remember you will regret it, so keep saying NO. “I have nothing to reveal”. “I am just a boring person”.
The second type of anti-social personality we will look at is the narcissist.
I wonder how many of you have come across the narcissistic personality at work?
As the name suggests, their biggest quality is grandiosity. (Before we go further – there are two types of narcissists: The Grandiose Narcissist and the Quiet-Bitter-Vulnerable Narcissist who looks fragile and unappreciated as they go about their work).
I intend to concentrate on the former because I have come across a few in my life and they cause the most concern in our work spheres. Have you come across a few yourself?
By grandiosity I mean they only care about themselves and how they come across to others; they don’t see you as a person (a living being with needs of your own) but as someone to be manipulated into adoring them.
They may cheat, lie, misrepresent, and believe that rules apply to others. Some writers have described them as ‘arrogant', ‘entitled', ‘exploitative', and ‘envious'.
Most narcissists don't learn from their mistakes, often seeing mistakes as the wrongs done to them by others. They are also convinced that they deserve the very best of everything in the world and are almost incapable of empathy.
When you first meet them, they will dazzle and charm you (to get what they want), showing great self-control and confidence.
They will tell you how wonderful they are because they want you to worship the ground they walk on. Your adoration turns them on. Many unlikely (though intoxicating and alluring) stories will emerge: how they helped famous people, made a $5 million profit for the company within the first 6 months or invented the gadget which is now gaining millions for Bill Gates.
They fail to take any responsibility for things that go wrong.
You will hear phrases such as ‘many years of experience’ or that they ‘saved the organisation from bankruptcy’ but they fail to take any responsibility for things that went wrong.
They will take all the credit including the work others have done but they will never admit to any flaw or weakness. But soon they show themselves to be callous and far removed from reality or the needs of real people.
As their favourite pastime is telling you how wonderful they are/were, remember they may also like making you look stupid and incompetent particularly if you try to show them up.
They blame others for any defect, shortfall or failure so don’t put them down in public or private because the narcissist will put you down in front of others, even crush you, if you try to show them up.
They have had years of experience in putting people down and are adept at it. Hence, relationships with grandiose narcissists can be quite damaging. Does this remind you of anyone you know?
They don’t seem to see that we all have strengths and weaknesses – they insist that they are the best at everything and that anyone who does not believe them is out to get them.
This distorted view of themselves and the world points to an inner fragility (a shell covers their innermost self which is about not being good or good enough). This likely stems from sometime in their childhood years when they felt or were told by parents or people close to them that they were not good enough.
This often emerges in therapy when they are taken back to their childhood. However, the therapist discovers that by their teenage years they have become marvellous! (They have grown their fragile shell to cover their low self-esteem).
Narcissists are also the hardest to treat in therapy because they keep trying to convince the therapist that they are wonderful and try to manipulate the therapist.
Tips for dealing with narcissists.
Do not make them appear incompetent. But be clear in your facts about what you want.
It may be ok if you are their manager or colleague. If the narcissist is threatened by you, make sure you give them positive strokes till you achieve your aim/goal whether it be to get out of your job or finish an assignment.
Make sure you collect a lot of facts, figures, emails, with date-stamps and timelines which you can take to a higher authority to prove your work history/points. But if they are your manager, they will steal your ideas and say it is their own.
The best thing to do would be to find another job and get out of the role you are in.
The third type of anti-social personality we will look at is the sociopath.
The next type of personality disorder is the Sociopath (also called a Machiavelli). They display a lack of feeling for others (and you often wonder if they are human). Some studies characterise them as being cynical, unprincipled and using manipulation of others for self-gain and life success.
As Brad Parks, author of crime thriller ‘Say Nothing’ remarks: they are like houses where everything has been constructed, the plumbing put in, and electricity wired up but you wonder if perhaps the electrician forgot to make the final connection to whatever makes us human, leaving the entire building dark and not fit for human occupation.
A definition of a sociopath is someone who, because he is antisocial with no conscience, ignores reality to make his own uncaring and selfish life. Essentially, sociopaths are social predators and their traits are a lack of empathy and a disregard for societal norms (or the written and unwritten rules that help keep the world safe and fair). The sociopath can be defined as someone who cares only for himself and lacks the ability to treat other people as human beings.
Many sociopaths are also deeply narcissistic at their core. Sometimes they may show some emotion, say regret over being caught or a fear of punishment because no one likes them. Like psychopaths, these people don’t care about morality. They also lack empathy.
However, sociopaths can have perspective (unlike the psychopaths). They can lie, manipulate, have shallow emotions and can be very cynical but they are not charming. They have a dismissive attitude towards morality, unlike the psychopaths.
Tips for dealing with sociopaths.
If you can help it, never do a sociopath a favour – neither small nor big. They will use any kindness or generosity on your part to get their foot in your door or put one over you. Once in, they keep pushing till they are firmly in.
Never be of any use to them – which is a way to get them to leave you alone. Does this remind you of anyone or an experience you have had?
If you are working with a sociopath try and get out of their way when they are pushing or bullying their way in. Do not try to reason with them.
In general, if you are dealing with a sociopath or a narcissist, you may get to the point of not believing yourself or doubting your own sanity. So to get some clarity and perspective for yourself – try telling your story regarding what is happening, with timelines, facts and events to a friend to get an unbiased point of view and firm foundation.
Because a sociopath could convince you that you are wrong or twisted in your beliefs.
Sociopaths often boast about their puppet-master skills. If you come across one, listen to your intuition, heed your experience and run. Try and find another job or change departments if you can.
These are some of my own work and personal Strategies to deal with personality disorders. I wonder if you have some of your own to share?
- Passive-aggressive behaviour or retorts do not work e.g. leaving posted notes around saying ‘get lost’
- Be clear and factual when you communicate with them. (And keep detailed notes of what you have said and done.) Use emails with such people when they try to bully or stand over you. They undermine good communications in a team.
- Don’t be avoidant in your dealings and feelings. (These people can work out what you are doing and will bully you even more)
- Remember the values that are important in your life, whatever they are – integrity, decency, honesty, reliability, kindness. Live by these values even when you are surrounded by toxicity.
- Take good care of yourself as you try to stay sane. Self-care is within your control. Don’t indulge in alcohol, drugs or even overwork.
- If you can, take up the practice of regular exercise, mindfulness, meditation, yoga, eating good wholesome food and aim for a life with minimal stress (easier said than done, you say).
- Take time out to do regular self-reflection asking yourself the questions: Who am I? What do I want in life? Am I living my life the way I want my family to remember me? What is preventing me from having a peaceful life now?
Important: Please remember the body breaks down after 3 or 6 months of constant stress. Difficult people like sociopaths, psychopaths and narcissists can be very stressful to a normal human psyche.
So the moment you recognise one of the ‘Dark Triad' (Narcissists, Sociopaths or Psychopaths) in your workplace or team, start planning your ‘great escape’. Start looking for another job as soon as you can. These toxic people are not going to change. (They will change you and make you an anxious shadow of yourself). You, therefore need to change yourself.
I am wondering if you have given thought to the sort of eulogy you would like at your funeral or the speech to be given at your retirement party (no, I am not being morbid). Would you like it said or read: “He/She worked long hours and endured a lot of stress. You almost had a breakdown or had a breakdown and spent years recuperating. And then you turned into a shadow of your former. friendly, productive self.“
- Surviving the Toxic Workplace: Protect Yourself Against Coworkers, Bosses, and Work Environments That Poison Your Day. – Linnda Durre, McGraw Hill Education, 2010.
- Taming Toxic People: The Science of Identifying and Dealing with Psychopaths at Work & at Home. – David Gillespie. Kindle Edition.