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Coping with VERY Difficult People

There are two kinds of difficult people at work. The first kind is someone who may be too loud, too slow, or too pessimistic. This kind of person can often be reasoned with. Disagreements can be negotiated and worked out.

The second kind of person is not as easy to handle. This person doesn't respond well to reason and negotiation. In fact, sometimes it is almost impossible to get your way with him or her.

We took an informal poll with our clients and we asked them to describe the kinds of people who were most difficult to cope with at work. That's how we came up with the four types that we'll focus on in this article. These four were at the top of everyone's list.
These four types of people are somewhat disparate. Two of the four are classic personality types: the narcissist and the person with boundary and self-control issues (also known as “borderline personality”). The other two are people with behavioral problems: the substance abuser and the violence-prone person.

In this article, we will describe each of these types of people and give you specific ways of recognizing them. Then we will offer you some practical advice about how to cope more effectively with them.

Narcissists

In plain language, narcissists are people with huge egos. They feel like the whole world revolves around them. They are extremely self-centered people.

Sometimes their extremely high opinion of themselves is justified; sometimes it isn't. Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple Computer; Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle; and Bill Gates, the Chief Software Architect of Microsoft, all exhibit narcissistic tendencies. There is a book with the amusing title, What's the Difference Between Larry Ellison and God? Answer: God Doesn't Think He's Larry Ellison. Gates's unwillingness to budge on his core position in the Microsoft antitrust trial is a good example of a narcissistic inflexibility (even though he prevailed after many years.)

Narcissists tend to expect that everything be done for them immediately and when they don't get their way, they often say, "Do you know who I am?" It's extremely difficult to say "no" to these people. You can recognize narcissists from the following behaviors:

• They have a very grandiose sense of their importance and specialness.
• They have a strong sense of entitlement and require excessive amounts of praise and approval from the people around them.
• They tend to lack empathy and are very hard on their employees or co-workers.
• They are very arrogant or haughty, which makes them difficult to get along with.
• They tend to brag a lot about their great accomplishments and their perfect relationships.

Coping with Narcissists

Even though narcissists are extremely difficult to deal with, there are certain things you can do to make it easier on yourself:
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• Always empathize with their feelings but don't expect the same in return.
• Praise their achievements but don't be artificial about it because they’ll usually see through that.
• Be careful when they ask for an honest opinion of their ideas; they really want you to affirm their ideas without criticism.
• Be prepared to be available day or night; they will not tend to consider your needs or obligations.
• Allow them to take the credit even if it's your idea.

If they are wrong about something, you'll have to probably show them why it's really in their best interest to change their minds.

People with Boundary and Self-Control Issues

People with boundary and self-control issues are often very creative people. They generally work very hard and produce outstanding results.

However, they are often very difficult to deal with emotionally. They are very unstable and have a lot of trouble with their interpersonal relationships.

These people are extremely difficult to be around. Because of their lack of clear boundaries, they will often barge into your office or interrupt conversations. Due to their inability to control themselves, they tend to do whatever they feel like doing in the moment. They can be very impulsive and may change their minds repeatedly.

You can recognize them through the following behaviors:
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• They tell you much more about their past than you ever wanted to know.
• They say great things about your potential, but then after a problem, they are very critical.
• They act impulsively by making poorly thought-out business decisions or spending money in inappropriate ways.
• They exhibit strong mood swings that are accompanied by extreme anxiety or intense anger.

Coping with People with Boundary and Self-Control Issues

These are some useful ways of coping with this type of person:

• Set very clear boundaries. Such a person will whine, cry, get angry, and resist but don't give in.
• Expect a volatile love/hate relationship but don't take it personally.
• Resolve your anger outside of the relationship because it will just feed the person's own anger.
• Keep detailed records describing the person's unstable decisions and erratic spending habits. These details will be important if the individual needs to be disciplined or fired.
• Talk to the person about what the consequences of his or her actions will be, for example, "If you do that again, I'll have to report you."

Substance Abusers

Substance abusers are people who inappropriately use either alcohol or drugs (amphetamines, tranquilizers, cocaine, marijuana, heroin, etc.). The drugs or alcohol have become an increasingly important part of their lives, which has made them ignore their responsibilities at work and/or at home.

Substance abusers have the following indicators:

• A recurring pattern of erratic behavior, such as a failure to keep appointments and meet deadlines, which continues even at the expense of professional obligations and interpersonal relationships.
• Mood swings and inappropriate aggressive or sexual behavior.
• They may acknowledge their substance usage with statements like "We partied all weekend.”
• Slurred speech, unsteadiness, impaired memory and/or alcohol on their breath.
• Unstable behavior in dangerous situations, such as while driving or using industrial machinery.
• Repeated involvement in substance-related legal problems, such as arrests for "Driving Under the Influence."

Coping with Substance Abusers

The coping skills used with the other types will not work very well with abusive people. You can’t set clear boundaries, feed their egos, or make them keep their agreements with you. Their main focus of attention is the substance they’re abusing.

The best thing you can do for them is to get them help. So if you experience them using drugs or drinking on the job, report them to your supervisor or HR. Even calling attention to their poor work performance may get them the help they need.

People Who Are Violence Prone

Many people who have a tendency to become violent have a history of violent behavior both on and off the job, for example, spousal abuse and destruction of property. However, such persons need to be exhibiting potential signs of violence before you can legally do a detailed background check; so you need to keep a careful eye out for people who are responding badly to stress on the job. Perhaps they are upset because they were not given a bonus or a raise or were just told they were being laid off. 

Research has found that the potentially violent individual is usually a white male, 25–40 years old, who is a loner with a history of violence and current family/marital problems.

The warning signs might include:

• Inappropriate blame of others, especially those in authority
• Excessive use of alcohol or drugs
• Strong mood swings
• Employees reporting that the person is a “time bomb” or “acting crazy”
• Strong fascination with weapons or violence
• Work-related problems, such as lowered productivity, excessive absences or tardiness
• Destruction of property at work and/or verbal or physical intimidation

Coping with a Violence-Prone Individual

You need to use extreme care in responding to this type of person. Keep these tips in mind:

• Do not argue with them or threaten them in any way.
• Keep detailed accounts of their behavior.
• Report them to the proper people who can deal with the situation.
• If you have to interview them, keep the door open and let people know where you are.
A response to a potentially violent person should generally not be on the one-to-one level. You should have an entire system in place at your organization, including a Threat Assessment Team, a plan to evacuate the building and a phone line to anonymously report potential threats.

The people we’ve been discussing are not easy to deal with; but if you know whom you’re dealing with and what to say and do with them, you’ll be able to cope more effectively.

About the Author(s)

Michael H. Smith, Ph.D. ,with Ellen Gunty, M.A. Michael H. Smith, Ph.D. authored this with Ellen Gunty. Smith is an Oakland, California-based organization consultant who specializes in teaching organizations how to cope with difficult people. For more information: mhsmith@michaelhsmithphd.com or www.michaelhsmithphd.com

Ellen Gunty, M.A., is a California-based mediator who specializes in helping parties resolve difficult disputes. For more information: elbythebay@hotmail.com