You may know the Narcissist, Venus Flytrap, Swindler, Bean Counter and Eccentric, if not by those names.
Those archetypes might sound like comic-book figures. But they are actually folks in your office who may sometimes feel like arch-villains, making a mess of your day. Psychiatrist Jody Foster says if you can understand what makes them tick you will take a big step toward making life easier for yourself and them.
When taking an MBA course in the late 1990s, she was besieged by questions from classmates about dealing with difficult colleagues. She would work with venture capitalists to assess management teams and deliver seminars on disruptive behaviour by physicians, later expanding to other industries.
Throughout, a key question she heard was, "What do I do about the schmuck in my office?"
Now at the University of Pennsylvania, she has collected her insights in a book, The Schmuck in my Office, which delineates 10 personality types that drive us nuts.
She stresses these people's behaviour usually has been overlooked for many years and, with nobody telling them it's wrong, they become entrenched in their ways. "These people are not ill. They are not sick," she says, advising us to be empathetic, understanding what leads to the behaviour, as a first step to changing it.
- The Narcissist is the most common. A bit of healthy narcissism is a good thing, allowing us to try new things. But when it becomes overpowering ego and entitlement, blaming others for every mistake, it can be a huge problem. Usually at the core is insecurity that the puffed-up ego is protecting. In dealing with them, don’t attack but instead compliment, stroking their ego in a gentle way, to ensure them they are safe. “You need to respond to their demands quietly as ego is so fragile,” she says in the interview.
- The Venus Flytrap causes the most damage. These seductive colleagues draw you into their web, creating very intense relationships, but they are always up and down emotionally, very close and then turning their back, leaving others walking on eggshells around them. They were usually raised in an unsupportive environment and feel unlovable. “What works with the flytrap is structure and consistency.
You may need firm, no-tolerance behaviours, but be sure to praise positive actions. This is a very difficult, difficult character. When you have one in your office they can turn things upside down,” she says.
The other eight problem personalities she highlights:
- The Swindler: Smooth, glib and untrustworthy. The key is to keep them out of your organization. Practise due diligence on potential recruits. If the person is too good to be true, be even more careful.
- The Bean Counter: A controlling, micromanager who stifles creativity. Avoid direct challenges on detailed stuff as you won’t win. Express appreciation for their assistance and knowledge.
- Distracted: This person has terrible trouble organizing himself and is lousy at time management, leaving everyone frustrated. Give them one task at a time and help them to avoid distractions.
- Mr. Hyde: This person has an addiction and is no longer the Dr. Jekyll you hired. Behaviour is erratic and mood changes quickly. “You have to confront them assertively and empathetically. Do it as close as possible to bad behaviour at work,” she says.
- The Lost: This person’s memory and cognition is slipping and they are less capable of doing their work, unable to use their previous intelligence. You need to hold a supportive conversation to help the individual recognize the difficulties they are having, keeping safety in mind. Medical evaluation may be needed.
- The Robotic: This individual is rigid and lacks social skills. Written instructions and a predictable schedule may be best for this person.
- The Eccentric: This person has unique ways of looking at the world, perhaps telling others about their paranormal fascinations. You need to remind them their personal beliefs shouldn’t be inflicted on others.
- The Suspicious: This conspiracy theorist is always on the lookout for harm, exploitation and deception. Be clear and direct in communications and provide transparent rationale for decisions.
She picked these 10 because they exist; most of us are familiar with many if not all.
Keep in mind these people don't set out to make the workplace hell – so she urges you to be kind as you deal with them. And give some time to considering whether you might be the villain in the office.