We've all encountered difficult people in our workplace that we've been forced to deal with whether we like it or not. These bad apples come in all shapes and sizes and tend to throw the office into disarray with their contrived outbursts, bouts of conniving, or inter-office micromanaging. In The Schmuck in My Office: How to Deal Effectively with Difficult People at Work, co-author Dr. Jody J. Foster explains how to deal with ding dongs at work by exploring the personality traits behind their disruptions.
"I don't think people wake up in the morning and say, 'I'm going to be disruptive today,'" says the clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. "A lot of what causes conflicts at work is just that people have personalities, and they bring those personalities to work with them. Sometimes that doesn't meld well with the culture that they're in or perhaps the particular group they're working with, so conflicts happen."
The potential for discord is ever present in the workplace, which can be competitive, stressful, or downright toxic. Foster has come up with a list of archetypes that by no means account for every type of person in the world but does capture the ones she's encountered in her research on interpersonal problems. As a psychiatrist, Foster attacks the issue diagnostically, but she's not making actual diagnoses. Instead, she's looking at the various traits people bring to the table and examining how to stop workplace beef before it starts.
"There's value in categorizing people," she says. "The fact is people with similar traits tend to act in similar ways. If you can get your arms around that, not in a punitive way to diagnose them or pigeonhole them, but just to try and get the underpinnings figured out, then you can really make an impact."
Here are the types of people she says you'll find in your office who have disruptive underpinnings and how to deal with them. Who knows, maybe you'll recognize yourself in here, too.
"This one is pretty much self explanatory," Foster says. It's also the most common type of disrupter you'll find in the workplace, according to her research. Perhaps you know the type: egocentric, self-centered. "A peacock kind of person," Foster explains. "It's all about them. My way or the highway. Takes credit for other people's work. The center of everything. Fills the room with ego."
The Narcissus is entitled, condescending, attention seeking, and (duh) very arrogant. This person also happens to be, according to Foster, one of the most difficult character types to deal with in an office, where he or she tends to inculcate a deeply politicized atmosphere. "The environment feels competitive instead of supportive," says Foster. "When dealing with a Narcissus, appealing to the person's egocentricity can be effective. The occasional recognition of the person's achievements, strengths, or values may go a long way in avoiding anger or demeaning comments."
The Venus Flytrap
The Flytrap draws you in, wins your trust, and then flips it on its head for his or her own nefarious purposes, according to Foster. "It's a person who cycles between overvaluing and devaluing you, sucking you in, but then can cause a lot of chaos when she flips into something much more negative," she says. "The Flytrap can cause tremendous drama in the office, the type where people feel they need to walk on eggshells around them so as to not set them off. To deal with a Fly Trap, you have to define limits and continuously reinforce them. They want to be directed. They want to learn acceptable boundaries, and structure will comfort them."
The Bean Counter
The Bean Counter is the obsessive, can't-see-the-forest-for-the-trees micromanager who won't let you get your tasks done because he or she is always needling you with details. What's worse, this person is often successful, Foster says: "Bean Counters are commonly over-promoted, because they're 'detail people,' and being a detailed person can be great." Once in a leadership role, though, the Bean Counter often falters, and employees under them suffer. "They have tunnel vision and can't see the big picture," Foster adds.
To deal with a Bean Counter, avoid direct challenges or arguments concerning his or her detail-oriented nature. Express appreciation of his or her dedication to the job while emphasizing your own. Foster also advises you never promise more than you can deliver and take responsibility for mistakes. "If possible, direct their job toward detail-oriented duties with clear directions and deadlines," she says.
The Distracted or "nutty professor" type is the one who can't seem to get organized, is terrible at time management, and has trouble finishing tasks. "It's difficult for these individuals to pay attention or focus," says Foster, who notes that the preferred way to deal with this type is to be clear, patient, and predictable. "Encourage the Distracted not to overcommit themselves. Finish one task before starting on the next."
"Mr. Hyde is the name I gave to somebody who is bringing an addiction issue into the workplace," Foster says. "You hire Dr. Jekyll, and then, all of a sudden, you see that he has flipped into somebody else." This type may be difficult to pinpoint, but there are signs. "What you have to look for is a change from how they used to be. You might see moments where they are back to their usual baseline, and then they sort of slip off again. These are people who are maybe trying to self-correct, stay clean during the work week or whatever, but inevitability the cycle of use causes a decrease in work function and can cause lots and lots of disruptions interpersonally in the office."
To deal with a Mr. Hyde type, Foster says, you must be assertive. "Reinforce that you are there to help. Be firm with limits and consequences. Recognize that recovery can be punctuated by setbacks."
You may notice the Lost by the dead look in his or her eyes. This person has typically been very successful in his or her career, but as the years have passed, he or she has grown increasingly scattered. This person make mistakes and gets belligerent when they're pointed out. "It's very difficult, particularly with somebody who is entrenched in a work place, to call out when there are problems of cognitive slippage or cognitive decline, but these issues can be extremely disruptive to the workplace," says Foster, who suggests having a supportive conversation to help the Lost recognize the difficulties he or she is having and how it's impacting work performance. "Use clear and simple language," she advises. "Offer support if you can."
The Robotic character is someone who is really limited in social skill and nuance, and he or she can be prone to tantrums that make co-workers feel uneasy, Foster says. Because this worker acts so emotionally disconnected, people often don't understand him or her and just get very angry. But this is work, so you have to deal. To do so, Foster suggests one-on-one meetings over a group setting. "Rigid, predictable schedules and explicit defined tasks are ideal," she explains. "Helping the Robotic recognize how their behavior may impact the feelings of other can be beneficial."
You def know this one. The Eccentric is the strange or weird person who brings odd or magical beliefs into the workplace. Dr. Foster has an anecdote in the book about a physician she once knew who was a perfectly functioning doctor, did everything OK, but when you got into a conversation with her, you learned she believed every single medical problem in the universe all boiled down to... lead poisoning.
"Eccentrics cause some difficulty in the workplace because they rouse interest and some discomfort, but they don't generally have too much interpersonal difficulty," she says. To deal with this person you, should be gently direct as you point out that his or her personal beliefs shouldn't be thrust onto others.
The Suspicious is a paranoid soul who views the world in conspiratorial terms. This worker is always looking for how he or she will be or has already been screwed over, or who's not telling him or her the truth. "Individuals of this type are always on the lookout for harm, exploitation, and deception," Foster says. "They judge relationships by their degrees of loyalty and trust." These characters are very touchy, so Foster suggests handling them very directly and clearly, offering a choice between alternatives when possible so as to help them feel more in control. "Direct conversation using simple statements and explanations works best," Foster notes, adding that the Suspicious is the type most prone to bring violence into a workplace. On that note, she cautions, "Always try to avoid being confrontational."
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