5 Difficult Workplace Personalities—and How to Deal With Them | Working Mother

5 Difficult Workplace Personalities—and How to Deal With Them

Here's where your parenting skills come in handy.

Narcissistic Coworker

This type of coworker needs a lot of attention, so respond to his emails quickly.

Photo: iStock

One of the best advantages working moms have in dealing with disruptive workers is that it's very similar to parenting. The very same behaviors that are problematic in the workplace can be easily observed in children: disrespectful language, name calling, refusing to complete tasks, interrupting others and bullying, to name a few. Thinking similarly about children and adults who are having problems interacting with others can help remove some of the anger from the interactions. Though we may be frustrated by the child throwing a tantrum in the shopping mall, by stepping outside of the situation we can also see that the child doesn't intend to cause a headache. It is often difficult to appreciate this fact, but it isn't your colleague's goal to be difficult to work with.

Another interesting parallel exists between the interventions for children and those for working adults. To change the child’s behavior, a mother often needs to change hers. To change a coworker’s behavior, you may need to change yours. Limits often need to be set and reinforced. Communication needs to be clear and understandable. And no change happens quickly.

In addition to a general parenting approach, you can refine tools for dealing with difficult coworkers by understanding certain character types in the office. Here are some of the most disruptive coworkers and specific ways how to engage them:

The Narcissist

Characteristics: entitled, self-centered and attention-seeking.

This person demands to be fed praise to inflate his own sense of self-worth. He exaggerates his accomplishments and blames others for his shortcomings.

When engaging, do this:

  • Flatter with praise when you can and sandwich possible criticism between compliments.
  • Respond quickly to requests so they don’t feel ignored.
  • Reward teamwork over individual successes.


The Venus Flytrap:

Characteristics: has intense and unstable personal relationships.

You feel a push-pull of being drawn to her but then degraded by her. You feel like you’re walking “on eggshells” out of fear of her reactions.

When engaging, do this:

  • Continuously define boundaries and clearly reinforce them.
  • Acknowledge the acceptability of gradual improvement.
  • The key to any interaction is structure and consistency.


The Bean Counter

Characteristics: demands orderliness, perfection and control.

He is inflexible and has difficulty with decision-making and efficiency. Every little detail is micromanaged by this individual.

When engaging, do this:

  • Normalize mistakes.
  • Avoid direct challenges or arguments concerning their detail-oriented nature.
  • Express appreciation of their dedication while emphasizing your own.


The Swindler

Characteristics: appears charming but is deceitful and manipulative.

She has no regard for rules or for the feelings of others. She is arrogant and entitled, often cutting corners and not completing tasks.

When engaging, do this:

  • Make sure the office place has specific rules of conduct in place.
  • Consistently and uniformly enforce rule violations.
  • Clearly document any inappropriate behaviors in case of the potential need for institutional intervention.


The Robot

Characteristics: inflexible, prone to frustration and anger, lacks social skills and understanding of office dynamics

He often plagues others with rigid habits and routines.

When engaging, do this:

  • Communicate clearly and concretely, opting for the written word when possible.
  • Avoid sarcasm and humor when giving feedback.
  • Allow for predictable schedules and explicitly defined tasks.


As it goes, coworkers can be very difficult. For anyone. But working mothers can engage disruptive colleagues the best way they know how: using parenting techniques. This approach uses well-defined limits, clear communication, an understanding attitude and the desire for personal growth—all of which mothers do particularly well.

Dr. Michelle Joy and Dr. Jody Foster are the authors of The Schmuck in My Office: How to Deal Effectively with Difficult People at Work. For more information, please visit, schmuckinmyoffice.com.


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