In Pursuit of Profession: The psychopath down the hall


While tossing around the idea of what to discuss so close to the holidays, I went on a different tack than many of my contemporaries might take. And while the title could perhaps induce images of an axe-wielding maniac in a pin-striped suit, a la American Psycho, I think that we all need to be a little more aware of the folks with whom we’re sharing the breakroom. Now, I’m not saying that our workplaces are infested with deranged lunatics, but I did come across a recent study by forensic psychologist Nathan Brooks that stated after examining 261 senior executives in US companies, Brooks and his colleagues found that approximately one in five fit the psychological profile of a psychopath. Ironically, that is the same ratio that’s found among prison inmates. Huh…

Here’s Johnny!

Before we get into dealing with all of the personality types that fit under the “difficult people” umbrella, let’s discuss the psychopath-as-boss scenario that was the subject of Brooks’ study. When we hear the word “psychopath,” we may picture mass murders or serial killers. But someone willing to commit murder is only one type of psychopath. These people tend to lack remorse or empathy and barely feel any emotion. Other human beings are simply seen as objects that can be manipulated or destroyed. In the psychopath-as-boss role, Brooks states in his study that, “[they] create lots of chaos and tend to play people off of each other.” So now that we have a better understanding of what a psychopath is and how they can affect us at work, let’s take a look at the many other difficult personality types that show up at work and, more importantly, how to successfully interact with them.

The root of a bad office environment

A few weeks ago, we talked about office politics with Marie G. McIntyre, Ph.D., career counselor and author ofSecrets to Winning at Office Politics, who said, “Workplaces mesh a lot of different people together with different work styles, personalities, and responsibilities into one end goal for the organization. And when you have all those people with all those personalities, you’re going to have conflicts.” Within this mix of personalities, there will be some that are classified as difficult, which could be seen as one of the root problems in terms of negative office politics. “Negative office politics often stem from difficult work relationships. A disgruntled boss may make things tough for a new employee. An insecure colleague may step on the toes of another colleague just to get ahead,” said Industrial-Organizational Psychology Practitioner Dr. Amy Cooper Hakim, Ph.D. In her book, Working with Difficult People, Second Revised Edition: Handling the Ten Types of Problem People Without Losing Your Mind, Hakim not only outlines the ten types of difficult personalities that can affect a workplace, but then goes into great detail about the “culprits” that show up within each of these types. For example, if your boss is belligerent, they can be a narcissist or a bully. If your colleague is deceptive, they could be a back-stabber or trying to undermine you. Or if your subordinates are exploitive, they could be bootlickers or rumormongers.

Used as an instant reference tool, Hakim’s book can bring a logical solution to an emotional situation. “Let’s imagine that your boss is trying to steal your ideas,” said Hakim. “You want to better understand your boss and learn how to gain control of the situation. Or, let’s imagine that your colleague is incredibly sensitive, and you want to best learn how to interact with him or her so as to not offend while still getting your job done. Or, let’s imagine that you have a subordinate who is uncommunicative, so you are struggling to effectively manage him or her. There are step-by-step instructions in the book to help with these and many other difficult issues.

“When you encounter a difficult person, you may use the table of contents to locate the type of difficult person, along with whether that individual is a boss, peer, or subordinate. Then, flip to the page in the book to learn more about what that type of difficult person “looks” like, along with what she or he might be thinking. Finally, follow specific steps to get what you want and need from that individual. In addition to a strategy, there is also specific language for key ways to best handle each type of difficult person and scenario in the book.”

Easy solutions for difficult people?

Hakim sees working with difficult people as one of the most daunting problems facing today’s workplaces. “We live in an age of entitlement, so sometimes individuals do not display basic common courtesies when interacting with subordinates, colleagues, and bosses,” said Hakim. But there are a few ways to decrease the potential negative impact of working with difficult people, both at the colleague to colleague level and at the boss to subordinate level. “I encourage open communication and clear, thoughtful dialogue amongst team members,” said Hakim. “I encourage leaders to utilize the individual skillsets of each team member, so that all may work collectively and interdependently to get the job done.”

Like McIntyre did when she spoke about office politics, Hakim also stated that there is a Golden Rule for dealing with difficult people at work. “Try your best to take the emotion out of the situation. Instead of feeling hurt by a difficult person, think about what you should say or do in order to get what you want and need from him or her. Remain kind and calm while still holding your own,” said Hakim.

There are also proactive steps that can be taken to take difficult people out of the situation in the first place.

Just don’t hire them.

As part of his study, Brooks said that many companies have their screening backwards when it comes to job applicants. They look at skills and qualifications first and personality second when it should be the other way around. “It needs to be firstly about the candidate’s character and then, if they pass the character test, consider whether they have the right skills,” said Brooks.