This is part one of a two-part series.
People bring to the work environment their personal problems, anger, personality disorders, controlling behaviors, psychological problems, medical issues, addictions, family problems, and criminal and legal issues. These areas of dysfunction can then manifest in the workplace. If the list above seems worrisome, think about the fact that some people have co-occurring issues, meaning they have more than one problem with which they are trying to cope. Most people spend about a third of their day at work, and those eight or so hours can either be productive and pleasant or unbearable. We will look at a number of difficult personalities, behaviors, and states of mind and then explore options on how you can deal with them in a productive manner, followed by how therapy can help you cope with difficult people in the workplace. Some of this material is drawn from the book Working with Difficult People by Muriel Solomn, as well as other business resources.
Note: As always, it’s better to seek counseling earlier than later, before an issue becomes much bigger. In a business environment, you can always start by contacting your company’s employee assistance program (EAP) for free, confidential counseling services.
Let’s start with the tough guys—those mean-spirited folks who harass the people around them. They are threatening, hostile, and angry, yet appear confident, and they will try to control you through their words and actions. Mean-spirited people often recruit others to get support and to feel more powerful. I once heard of a group of employees in a particular hospital department who wore certain colors to show solidarity against other employees in the same department. This gang-like mentality continued until someone went to their supervisor. Human Resources got involved, but everyone wondered why it had reached a point where the intimidating behavior actually began to impact patient care. Here is a situation where management needed to become involved. Had someone been more assertive, this situation could have been resolved sooner. After an investigation, some employees were written up, put on a performance improvement plan (PIP), or were terminated.
The Rumor Mill
Every job has a mix of people who are pleasant and helpful to work with and people who spread rumors and are chronic liars. And there are those who will be nice to your face but find pleasure in stabbing you in the back. Rumor mongers and liars will stop at nothing to make you look bad or take any opportunity to throw you under the bus. However, there is one question to ask before confronting such a coworker: Is the information you heard from a third party accurate or true? You may have developed your assertiveness skills to the point where confronting people in a respectful way is now second nature to you. But this can become a problem if the information you received is only partly true or not true at all. Now you have two problems: the original issue you attempted to rectify and a second issue from which you may wind up backpedaling or apologizing. The effort you made to stand up for yourself now becomes a situation that never should have happened in the first place. So think before you act and do some investigating into what you’ve been told. It may prevent a minor problem from becoming a much larger one.
Narcissistic and Rude People
The colleague who blatantly enters a conversation uninvited can just be a minor annoyance or can cause confusion and frustration in the workplace. These people intrude on meetings, break into your discussions, burst into your office uninvited, and pester you while you are on the phone. They may be narcissists who believe that what they have to say is more important than what others have to share and they may have no compunction about hijacking a conversation and making themselves the focus. Often, they are not even aware they are being rude and will cause people to hide when they are spotted coming their way. It will take a person skilled at being assertive to put this co-worker in their place. Therapy can help develop these skills.
Some co-workers may be stuck in their own beliefs, fear even the slightest hint of change, and refuse to hear other opinions. They may lead you to question your own methods of communication and cause doubt that your message is being sent effectively. Even in a one-to-one situation, someone who is actively choosing not to grasp an important concept can cause, at minimum, frustration, which can lead to anger. These colleagues avoid change and rely on old patterns of behavior to get by. This becomes a problem when a new technology is installed or a new management team takes over and they cannot make the adjustment. In therapy, communication and assertive skills can be strengthened, but if someone willingly chooses to not adapt (and they are not cognitively impaired), a process of disciplinary action may need to be implemented.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Part 2 of this series will address Retaliatory Behavior, Chronic Complainers, Gossipers, Procrastinators, and the Benefit of the Doubt.
This article was taken from the book, When to Call a Therapist: Expanded Edition (December 2021) by Robert C. Ciampi, LCSW.