Dealing with difficult people at work

Difficult personalities

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.“

Recommended Books

  1. Surviving the Toxic Workplace: Protect Yourself Against Coworkers, Bosses, and Work Environments That Poison Your Day. – Linnda Durre, McGraw Hill Education, 2010.
  2. Taming Toxic People: The Science of Identifying and Dealing with Psychopaths at Work & at Home. – David Gillespie. Kindle Edition.
  3. The Handbook of Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Theoretical Approaches, Empirical Findings, and Treatments.  – W. Keith Campbell.

  4. The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist's Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain. –  James Fallon – 2014

14 thoughts on “Dealing with difficult people at work

  1. Hi There. I really liked your page and I could relate to the content. In my personal experience being in the building trade I have come across all types of people and personalities, most of the time I chose to ignore these types of people. Some times I would use reverse psychology. I will definitely use some of your suggested methods in the future Best of luck.

    Cheers Matt

    1. Thanks, Matt, for your comments.

      I am sure you have seen all types of people in the building/construction industry…bullies, psychopaths, sociopaths, egoistic-I-know-everything sorts.

      And yet so many of these people are actually very inwardly fragile and put on the big macho image or larger-than-life personality.

      I am very glad you have a reliable strategy and use tried and tested tactics with these people or you could ‘lose your sanity’!!

      Not really… do use the tips offered in the article but most of all, look after yourself.  When they begin to get under your skin and cause a lot of inward angst and agitation, it is time to quit.

      In the meantime, exercise, good diet, lots of sleep and some sort of meditation or mindfulness exercises (even practicing deep breathing 10 times daily or after a run-in with a ‘nasty’ type will help).

      Best of luck,  Menaka

  2. This was an excellent and informative read,revealing a clear description of 3 difficult personality types in the work place. I have experienced one who was a combination of all three if that is possible. Condescending, aggressive , a strong sense of her own power and authority, extremely manipulative, unable to show empathy or remorse. Works like a bulldozer, don’t get in her way or you will get run over. These people are extremely difficult to work around and more often than not the working relationship ends in disaster with one or other having to move away.
    Your article showed a highly educated understanding of these difficult personalities. Your tips to handle them were concise and clear but in reality these people usually win and others around have to concede to their demands for the sake of peace.
    I certainly found your site a stimulating read and I would admire anyone who manages to work successfully around such difficult personality types.

    1. Hi Judy,

      Thank you for the lovely feedback.

      Believe me, that not only are there all 3 types in the workplace, but many many more people with some form of personality disorder.  I wrote them as separate types but many people show traits which exist on 2 or 3 continua (of disorders).

      I totally agree that it is very hard to work with such people for any length of time – hence my advice to find another job or move to another department if possible.  I hate to be a pessimist but such people don’t change simply because they don’t see anything wrong with themselves only with their colleagues and teammates.

      I have to confess to you that some years ago, I was working with two bullying types of people – I could barely cope with one and when the other started his actions I decided to leave despite having a very good manager and a good salary.

      What I haven’t mentioned (because there are many nuances in such an article) is that your own personality could set such people off.  E.g. if you are somewhat shy or a gentle person, the bully or narcissist sees that as a weakness and will come at you full on!  So if you are feeling vulnerable or having some other issues, my advice to you is to get another job and look after yourself in the meantime.

      Menaka

  3. Good post.

    I’m going to jump right into a question: Do you have strategies for self-care or coping skills? I always wondered what this was called, because I could use it. I really do have the tendency to get affected and it will bother me for a while.

    I really appreciate your section at the end. This is my favourite: “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.”

    I honestly, to the best of my abilities, try to stay true fo my values, even when I’m dealing with difficult people at work.

    Sometimes, I like to think that these behaviours are specifically work-related because I have come across some people who are only like this at work, but outside work, they are totally different.

    I’m not sure if you’d consider this type of person ‘difficult’ and where they fit in the different categories, but I’ll try to describe:
    – This person is very nice, but seems to get insecure when there are others who she feels ‘should be’ more junior to her are learning or getting ahead of her
    – If she learns something new, she likes to keep it to herself
    – She likes to think that her ways are the best ways. She would listen to your advice if you are either her boss, a ‘senior’ she already respect or if you are finally able to prove her wrong
    – She seems to find pleasure in being a source of knowledge; she always wants people to ask her; she seems to like to be recognized as the ‘go-to’ person
    – Again, she’s very nice. She does not go crazy mad or anything like that.

    What do you call this kind of person?

    Anyway, nice post.

    If you have something about self-care or coping skills, please let me know.

    1. Hi Marco,

      I can sense your genuineness and wanting to ‘improve’ your life with self-care.  Self-care can cover a multiplicity of things from sitting down to talk to a dear and trusted friend, doing yoga, some meditation type of activity, running on the beach (or somewhere else if possible), eating and exercising regularly so as to have a healthy body and healthy mind, warm bath, practicing some regular positive affirmations, and on the spot (when really distressed by somebody) deep breaths, 10 or more times. (The oxygen inhaled helps the brain and the deep breathing relaxes the chest and diaphragm muscles).

      There are so many other things one can do but the best, to me, is mindfulness or meditation type of activity regularly.  You can even do it on the train (if you travel that way) or as you awaken in the morning or go to sleep at night.  Simply put, it means, clear the mind of trivia and chatter that overcomes you when you are alone but to concentrate on one thing even a word (lets say green) and keep the mind clear as you meditate on that one word.  If any chatter comes up, you dismiss it and go back to concentrating on that one word.  Many community colleges and Buddhist temples run short courses to teach you meditation but it must be right for you.

      I am so pleased you got the point about values. That way you remain true to yourself despite the bad things or words others may say. It keeps you strong inwardly and in the long run you know you have been an honourable person.

      How do I evaluate the person you have described?  Some thoughts:  she seems to have a fragile inner self; she seems to need the adulation of people higher up the corporate ladder which means that ‘image’ and ‘position’ are very important to her.  There is a touch of narcissism there along with some borderline personality disorder issues.

      That said, all of us have that streak of narcissism to some degree otherwise we would not look after ourselves.  She is certainly quite self-conscious but lacking self-confidence.  She seems to fear competence in others because she thinks it will show her in a poor light whereas our team’s competence actually helps us to succeed and look good.  Again, without meeting and observing her, it is hard to tell.

      There are many elements present here – including some elements of mild personality disorders.  No, she is not crazy mad, but she may need to talk to a therapist or counsellor if she sees these as personality kinks she can iron out. No one can improve unless they believe that their life and personality needs improving.

      Menaka

  4. Such a great article! I have spent 27 years in the customer service industry 15 in casinos and 12 as a bartender.
    I have meet them all! LOL. I really don’t have any questions for you, but I wanted to say how anyone coming into the hospitality or customer service business should be required to read this article!
    Especially the part about Psychopaths, they can suck the nice right out of you if you let them!
    Thanks for the great read!
    Brendon

    1. Thanks Brendon for your very kind words.

      The sorts of people I mentioned are everywhere and I would say that in customer service work, you will find these 3 types and more.

      I believe that some people have the urge to make themselves appear grand, great, above other people … and the reason is that as children they may have been treated ‘badly’, perhaps had their spirit broken and they have learned to survive by crushing others.

      They have a very fragile core i.e. in terms of self-esteem so they live by sucking the life out of others or  bullying them mercilessly.  Keep holding to your strength as a good person, always play courteous – never give in to the games that they are trying to play with your head – and let them work their own ‘crap’ out somewhere else.

      Being an authentic person is one of the keys in this life and if you need to say something to someone who is nasty to you – do so with a straight face, to the point, but politely, never venture to say that you know their game or what they are getting at.

      Menaka.

  5. You have so many terms for those nasty people that I lost count of them 🙂 I had some bad experience with a psychotic colleague years ago. Not only that, a psychotic boss too. It is very tiring to deal with these types of people. Having to work with them 8 – 10 hours a day, 5 times a week. I am extremely glad I don’t have to deal with these issues anymore.
    Thank you very much for sharing the tips on dealing with these people. I may not need it but many affected people out there will surely benefit from reading your article. I understand and feel how they feel dealing with a psychotic colleague.
    Thanks again for the good read.

    1. Hello Sharon,

      You have said it! You are glad not to deal with a ‘psychotic’ person any more. You lose heart and suffer so many sleepless nights and gut churning as you get to work.

      The key in the end is:  if the person you are dealing with has a disorder which you are not qualified to deal with, find another job.

      In any case, it is not your role to be a ‘counsellor’ but your role is to be an employee and team member.

      Always remember, find a job you love or enjoy so that you have 8 to 10 hours of contentment a day.

      Best of luck, Menaka.

  6. Thank you for the very well and in depth read on how to deal with difficult people at work.

    It’s true that even if you’re having a good day to start off with, people that are rude, mean or just crazy at your work place can make your day a living nightmare.

    I personally just try to do my job and smile at anyone who approaches me. If they want to bad mouth someone I tell them I’m not interested — and go on about my business.

    I think one key thing is just not to let them get to you — as they want a lot of attention.

    Thanks again for the review.

    1. Hello Michael,

      You seem to have been through the wars with difficult people at work. But as you know dealing with them day by day is very taxing.

      You seem to have developed some appropriate tactics in getting them to leave you alone. And it seems to work when you say you are not interested though they may think you are grumpy with them. (Well let them think so because the idea is for them to leave you alone).

      Yes they do crave attention and your approach is not to give any oxygen to the fire they are trying to light.

      Take care of yourself,
      Menaka.

  7. I think in every workplace, especially the large ones, there are all types of personalities. I know in my workplace we have all sorts and I definitely work with some psychopaths, narcissists, and sociopaths. They are not large in number but they certainly make work a very interesting place to be. To the point where I am looking at other options for the rest of my working life!

    1. You are right…. every workplace has its own share of bullies, psychopaths, sociopaths, narcissists and other types.  While these are not the only personality disorders they seem to draw the most attention.  I don’t know if it makes work interesting – I think it can also make work stressful.
      Each person (whether he/she has a disorder or feels/acts close to ‘normal’) has some issues and personal ‘demons’ to contend with.  In fact, I was in a conversation with a client last week and we concluded that all of us has some issue or unwelcome personality traits to deal with at some time in our lives.

      What distinguishes the near ‘normal’ people (believe me, no one is totally normal) is that we have some degree of awareness about how we react or act under stressful circumstances or when things are not going right for us.

      Usually, stress and anxiety bring out the odd or bizarre behaviours as in paranoia; people behave erratically or dramatically when they are anti-social (sociopaths) or narcissists; and some become very anxious and fearful under stress, as in people who become dependant on others or avoid interacting with others,

      How will you look at other options in life?  Even self-employment will bring you into contact with clients and sub-contractors. Often, working with all sorts of people with all types of traits keeps us flexible and aware of human frailties and the results of people interactions.

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