Submitted by William Beaumo… on Mon, 05/16/2022 - 19:20

We spend nearly 90,000 hours working which roughly translates to two-thirds of our life in an average lifetime. Sooner or later, you’re going to come across difficult personalities in your place of work and whether it is that you struggle to get along because your personalities clash or if they are just generally difficult, you’re going to have to know how to deal with these people. 

If you’re looking to manage or even become a leader, it’s important to recognise the difficult personality types in the workplace and how you can best manage these personalities on a professional level.

In this guide we will talk about the different types of difficult personalities, the impact they have in the workplace, the more commonly encountered types of difficult personalities and finally how you can best handle them. 

What are difficult personalities?

Unfortunately we will all encounter a difficult personality in our working life and whether that has been in the past or you are currently experiencing a dilemma today just know, it’s more common than you think.

Challenging or difficult behaviour is one of the most associated problems with workplace personal grievances that many HR managers have to face, in fact, people will often dread having to interact or work with difficult people and that can make for an awkward work life situation for even the most resilient characters. A difficult personality is usually someone who makes working together very difficult and their behaviour can be disruptive and cause workplace conflict. 

The five factor model of personality traits (FFM) defines personality as a set of the five traits of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.

When analysing behaviours, the FFM can give us an insight into some of the behaviours that would be experienced as ‘difficult’ in the workplace. This includes: 

  • Callousness: Lacking empathy or concern for others.
  • Grandiosity: Feeling that one is better than other people.
  • Aggressiveness: Being hostile and rude toward others.
  • Suspiciousness: Feeling strong and unreasonable distrust of others.
  • Manipulation: Exploiting others to benefit oneself.
  • Domineering: Desire for authority over others and a sense of combativeness.
  • Risk-taking: Looking for ways to experience thrills through risky behaviour.

It is not easy to manage difficult personalities, there is no shame in admitting it either. They can be hard to understand and even harder to find suitable solutions for, however, in this guide we will take a closer look at some of the strategies you can use to better manage these situations and individuals. 

Impact of difficult personalities in the workplace

We all understand from our personal lives just how difficult it can be to have “a rotten apple spoil the whole barrel” but in the workplace, this is no different, if anything, it can be even more damaging to have just one toxic person who can greatly reduce productivity and effectiveness of the rest of the team. 

There are many different impacts that a difficult personality can inflict on a workplace and these include: 

  • Decreased productivity
    • Noted to be the top impact of difficult behaviours in the workplace.
    • Rather than focusing on the work at hand - staff are dealing with difficult behaviour.
  • Staff stress
    • People experience interactions with difficult people as stressful.
    • This can lead to mental health issues, absenteeism and staff churn.
  • Absenteeism and Sick Leave
    • As noted - toxic people in the workplace can cause genuine illness in others and a disinclination to work with them - resulting in costly absenteeism.
  • High staff turnover
    • Rather than face difficult interactions at work many people will simply opt to find another job.
    • This is costly for employers.
    • It adds stress to remaining personnel.
    • And it can result in valuable skills and knowledge being entirely lost.
  • Deteriorating business reputation
    • Staff who exhibit challenging behaviours when dealing with clients are obviously bad for business.
    • These behaviours can have a disastrous impact on business reputation - as well as prompting clients to go elsewhere.

Being able to recognise and deal with these challenging personality types is clearly important. We will discuss how you can do this later in the guide. 

Commonly encountered difficult personality types

There are many different types of personalities and behaviours that can be seen or experienced as difficult but not all of them necessarily are. We could be experiencing difficult people because we have a culture clash or there are organisational goals which aren’t aligned between departments causing some of the conflict. 

However, there are a handful of more commonly encountered personality types and  behaviours that can be experienced as ‘difficult’.

We are going to take a closer look at these personality types below:

Narcissistic personalities

Narcissistic personalities are characterised by big egos and the need to be the centre of attention. Whilst they are charming on the surface, they can be arrogant and cold in just a breath. Narcissists can also be very sensitive to criticism whilst equally not caring what others feel about them and little to absolutely zero empathy.

Whilst they can find themselves doing well in management positions - because they value their elevated position, managing a narcissistic personality can be difficult. It’s important to not belittle them or make them look inferior in front of others and feed their ego and praise them openly when the opportunity arises. 

Passive aggressive personalities

These are difficult personalities to spot in the workplace but their damage to workplace morale and goals can be untold and lasting. Commonly, passive aggressive personalities may make commitments but don’t follow up or in the worst and extreme cases, they may even sabotage somebody else's work to make themselves look better.

They can and do have some capacity for empathy unlike narcissists, and they do perform better in roles where requirements are very clearly defined. 

When dealing with passive aggressive personalities it’s important to not behave passive aggressively when speaking to them. Instead, be direct and do this in front of others as well. Highlight what they have done wrong to you and how that has made you feel. Direct approaches will demonstrate where boundaries are and protect from their behaviour in a simple fashion.

Gossips

We have all experienced the office gossip and not in all cases is it bad. In fact some office gossip is normal and can keep people motivated. However, it is not the case when  individuals who clearly enjoy imparting negative stories about workmates, clients, the business or other businesses start to take precedence. It can be a very toxic behaviour and one that you need to manage effectively. 

When it comes to managing office gossip, it’s important to not try and change their personality too quickly. Instead, drop subtle hints about how the gossip may be affecting the people involved or the business. If there is an insistence to continue, just excuse yourself and go back to working.

One of the most interesting things to note is that gossips will often have very good people skills and can be used to help motivate members of staff the right way, or help to identify those who are struggling a little more. 

Anger addicts

Unfortunately we may have also all encountered someone like this in the office, the anger addict and in most cases, they are known as the ‘office bully’. This is a toxic personality who feeds off belittling their colleagues, undermining others in meetings and generally having an aggressive demeanour around the workplace. 

You need to carefully watch just how the anger addict behaves and how their anger may be expressed. For example, it’s not always expressed in angry outbursts. They may use more subtle, undermining behaviour. There could be private attacks that you’re not aware of rather than more public displays which will cause widespread office malais. 

You need to manage this kind of personality very carefully and be sure to not engage in aggressive behaviour as this can erupt quite drastically. They must however be told where they are stepping out of line and if needed, provide counselling to help with their issues if they are exhibiting behaviour that does not change. 

Guilt trippers

Think of a time you pointed the finger at someone else to avoid taking the blame for your actions… Guilt Trippers do this all the time, are rarely ever at fault (or perceive themselves to not be), it’s always someone or something else, not them. In the more extreme cases, they may even lie to avoid the consequences of their failings.

Generally, guilt trippers are not great at working with people. 

When dealing with guilt trippers, stand firm and don’t allow yourself to be thrown under the bus by these toxic individuals. Once they get away with blaming you for something, they’re likely to try again and you’ll just become his or her de facto target.

How to handle challenging personalities

We have started to tackle the question of how to handle challenging personalities in the previous section, but there are more general pieces of advice that we can provide below. It’s important to remember that managing people who exhibit challenging behaviour is difficult - and it’s easy to get it wrong.

Be prepared to work with the individuals and HR team to find the right solutions to any problems which are being raised at the time. 

  • Talk to them

Those who are generally exhibiting difficult behaviour are usually in response to challenges in their personal lives. Get to know the individual to understand the reasons why they behave as they do and try to provide solutions that can make their work/life balance better to address the issues. 

  • Find constructive solutions

Treating these people with contempt or aggressive behaviour will only exacerbate the issue. Instead find a way to remain calm and decide on what the most effective and constructive way forward will look like. 

  • Provide a mentor

Some difficult behaviour may be in response to challenges in a new work environment. There could be issues of having learnt bad practice in a previous job as well. However, a good solution to these issues is to bring in a mentor.  They can help guide the colleague through their role and any difficulties they may be encountering. 

  • Seek assistance

Finally, talking to those who work with the difficult person, such as their manager or team leader, can provide valuable insight. It may be beneficial to get assistance from HR professionals, experienced in managing difficult personalities to provide insight and solutions.

Conclusion

When it comes to dealing with difficult personality types, there are many associated challenges that HR and line managers need to deal with. From productivity being affected to the threat of even physical confrontation. Knowing what these personality types are and how they can be best managed is a key for any business. 

The suite of Thomas assessments can help hiring managers and HR professionals to assess candidates and employees on a variety of different behaviours and attitudes. For example, our Personality assessment assesses six core traits which help identify the best candidate for a role.

To find out more about how Thomas tools can help you make smarter recruitment and development decisions, speak to one of our team.