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Managing Difficult Personalities at Work

Smooth workplace friction in three simple steps. It’s easier than you think.

If we can’t get along with the people at work, we’re stuck spending a full third of our lives in negative relationships. That’s not right — we all deserve better. Workplace relationships can be tough to negotiate because we don’t usually get to choose the people we work with, and when we encounter difficult personalities at work, we can’t just break up and be done with it.

“Accepting that another person whose style is different from yours will think and operate differently, but with equal validity, will help you deal with their behavior and help them deal with yours,” says Helen McGrath and Hazel Edwards, authors of Difficult Personalities: A Practical Guide to Managing the Hurtful Behavior of Others (and Maybe Your Own).

The foundation of Difficult Personalities is the idea that incompatible personality traits are often the cause of relationship conflict. Getting clear on three core traits in yourself and others — and accepting that no one way of being in the world is better than the another — is the first step.

So take a deep breath, read through the following three key questions and descriptions of personality traits and types, think of someone at work who drives you nuts, and consider:

  1. Are you/your colleague an introvert or an extrovert?
  2. Do you/your colleague prefer planning or optionizing?
  3. Do you/your colleague make decisions primarily by thinking or feeling?


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Extroverts vs. Introverts

Extroverts say:

  • Talk to me. Spend time with me. I need company.
  • Let’s have a meeting tomorrow.
  • You drive me mad because you don’t speak up until the last minutes of the meeting and then you criticize everything we have decided so far.

Introverts say:

  • I want to be alone and think.
  • Do we have to have a meeting? Couldn’t we just circulate position papers? Or do it by email?
  • I don’t speak up until I have something to say. Why do you have to “fill up the silence” all the time?

Planning Style vs. Optionizing Style

Planners say:

  • Let’s make a list.
  • We need a system to make sure that all frozen foods in the fridge are used up in time.
  • You’re chaotic, disorganized, messy, irresponsible, evasive, and indecisive.

Optionizers say:

  • Let’s wait and see what we need when we get there.
  • It will be fine. I’ll try to use them up.
  • You’re rigid, uptight, a control freak, boring, and won’t adapt.

Thinking Style vs. Feeling Style

Thinkers say:

  • Look at the logic of the situation.
  • You haven’t convinced me with your argument.
  • I’m sorry but I have to fire you. I will give you a good reference.

Feelers say:

  • But what about their feelings?
  • It just feels like the right thing to do.
  • Due to some cost-cutting, we may have to let you go, but I am trying to find another position for you.

Managing Difficult Personalities at Work

Monkey Business Images/iStock

In doing this, you probably found that you and the “difficult personality” at work are at opposite ends of the spectrum in at least one area. So here are some practical changes you can make in your approach that should ease some tension. And bonus! It all requires self-awareness and compassion, so you’re growing yourself as you’re improving your work relationships.

Extroverts – What You Can Do

Use email to avoid wasting working time or placing too many demands on the introvert. Phone calls to introverts should be relatively short.

Introverts – What You Can Do

Accept that some workplace conversation and contact may not be strictly “necessary” but is still an important aspect of workplace community and morale. Be more available than you currently are.

Planners – What You Can Do

Allow for different attitudes in decision making. Make sure that you always consult with others before making a decision. Be more flexible and relaxed about the less important deadlines.

Optionizers – What You Can Do

Provide a list or agenda for planners, or give them goals. They like lists. A plan will reassure them that things are under control. Try to be more punctual when dealing with a planner.

Thinkers – What You Can Do

Pay more attention to conversations that refer to feelings. Use this rational self-statement: “The relationship is more important than being right.” Make statements of appreciation more often.

Feelers – What You Can Do

Use more facts and cause-and-effect explanations. Remind yourself that thinkers focus on logic. Respect and value thinkers’ ideas, but point out that there is an emotional perspective, too.



Photo Credit: VGajik/iStock


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