Are there toxic personalities in your workplace?

How to deal with tricky people on the job.

There aren’t many people who can say they’ve never worked with a difficult person.

Sure, we all have our off days, but there are some people who are consistently that little bit harder to deal with, whether because they’re abrasive, they’re on the high end of the extrovert scale – or even the introvert scale – or they’re just too “quirky”. Often, these people are technically talented, but this is overshadowed by their extreme personalities.

David Burroughs, managing director of Communicorp, an Australian firm that specialises in workplace mental health and wellbeing training, says that dealing with complicated personalities in the workplace is a hard area to navigate.

There aren't many who can say they've never worked with a challenging personality.

There aren't many who can say they've never worked with a

challenging personality.

“Assertiveness skills are really important in dealing with people with challenging personality styles,” he says.

“It’s important that organisations have very clear, almost ‘rules of engagement’ on behavioural expectations and they’re really big in ensuring they adhere to those rules.”

Dr Caryl Barnes, a psychiatrist at mental health organisation The Black Dog Institute, agrees. She acknowledges that while managers can receive training in how to deal with difficult personalities, “there’s a role for the actual organisation in recognising what’s acceptable and unacceptable behaviour”.

The Boss Whispering Institute’s founder and director Dr Laura Crawshaw also believes the onus is on the organisation to take action. “It is the role of the organisation to set expectations, not only for technical performance but also for interpersonal conduct.”

The Boss Whispering Institute focuses on helping abrasive personalities who, Crawshaw says, are often unaware that they’re being abrasive at all.
"Assertiveness skills are really important in dealing with people with challenging personalities". – David Burroughs

“They will deny that they’re abrasive,” says Crawshaw “They perceive their behaviour to be normal … so when the employer does intervene, they can really encounter a very difficult conversation and a lot of denial.”

Crawshaw focuses on making people aware of how they are perceived, rather than attacking them with accusations of bad behaviour. “You’re not saying they are bullying or aggressive. What you’re saying is, ‘You are perceived to be, and we can’t have those perceptions’.”

It is not surprising that most people do not want to be perceived as abrasive, but many abrasive employees lack the emotional intelligence required for better interpersonal relationships.

“These people tend to not have a lot of psychological insight,” Crawshaw says. “It really is a learned capacity, and they didn’t learn it so they cannot be very insightful when it comes to other people and other people’s feelings. Therefore, they run roughshod over other people’s feelings. In most cases they’re not terribly aware that a) they’re doing that or b) the magnitude of the damage they’re doing.”

Inherent to abrasive personalities in particular is the need for perfection. “They’re crusaders of competence,” Crawshaw says. “They go in wielding the sword of authority. They over control, they make threats, they engage in public humiliation, condescension, overreaction – all of these abrasive behaviours are their attempts to defend against the threat of perceived incompetence.”

Crawshaw strives to help abrasive people realise that, not only do they not require everyone around them to be perfect, but they themselves do not need to be perfect – and the world will not end because of it.

Employers need to remember that while one strong personality may not seem like too much of a hindrance, that personality can affect many of their colleagues, particularly in a team environment.
“Typically what happens is there can be a heck of a lot of burnout and angst in and around the people who have to work with those individuals,” Communicorp’s Burroughs says.

According to Crawshaw, there needs to be somebody within an organisation who can say, “this is not acceptable, this is not conducive to team function, this cannot continue”. If there’s not, she says, teams pay a terrible price.

“You deal with someone with an extreme personality style slightly differently to how you’d deal with someone with a sign of depression or anxiety in the workplace,” Burroughs says, suggesting that employers wind back the empathy, and consider the duty of care of others in the workplace.

While, according to Crawshaw, most abrasive personalities can be trained to overcome their destructive behaviour, it is worth acknowledging the potential mental health implications. SANE Australia CEO Jack Heath notes that “people need to get psychological treatment and support”.

He acknowledges that often people in these situations do not need to go on medication, but it is about “[educating] people that what might be called a tricky personality is actually recognised by mental health professionals as borderline personality disorder.”

“Part of the education process is about being able to give managers and others an understanding so [they can say], ‘This is now in the category of something that’s outside my realm of expertise and ability, so there needs to be professional help and support given to this person’.”

“These people are not all demons,” Crawshaw says. “They’re not a hopeless lot. If companies are willing to set firm limits and consequences and invest in getting them specialised help, it can yield wonderful results.”

5 warning signs of an abrasive personality

Crawshaw identifies five different behaviours that can be found in abrasive people:

Over control –the micro manager who never lets you forget who is king
Threats – this person enforces through fear – “shape up or ship out”
Public humiliation – this personality will tell you what you’re doing wrong, in front of everyone else in the workplace
Condescension – this person is famous for rolling eyeballs, snorting in contempt, or just generally talking down to people
Overreaction – this personality makes snap judgements and can be easily angered. Often the anger can be directed at anyone.

October 2021
October 2021

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