A leading psychiatrist describes some of the different types of ‘schmucks’ that inhabit organizations.
No one wants to experience disruptive behaviour at work, and the vast majority of people don’t want to cause it. So why is it so pervasive?
I think it’s ubiquitous because conflict comes in a million shapes and sizes, and whenever you put two or more people together, you have an opportunity for conflict. Each of us moves through the world differently and behaves in whatever ways are most comfortable. Sometimes, we just don’t mix well, and this gets particularly accentuated under stress.
Talk a bit about the difference between personality traits and personality disorders.
A personality disorder is a series of traits and symptoms that interfere with an individual’s social or occupational functioning. We don’t actually see many severe personality disorders in the workplace, because in general, the disorders interfere too much with the individual’s overall performance. Personality traits are what we see all the time, and these are all the things that make us ‘us’. Each of us has a different collection of traits, and some are more flexible than others.
As to whether a particular trait is a problem, it is often about where we place ourselves. If I have a series of traits that work perfectly well in one setting, and then I expose myself to another setting where my way of navigating the
world is unacceptable, I am likely going to be considered disruptive. If you take certain personality traits to an extreme in these settings, they can look a lot like disorders.
Tell us about the different types of drama kings and queens that we run into at work.
I have arranged the types of people who get into interpersonal trouble at work into clusters, and this is what I call the seductive cluster. In general, these people are very charismatic and appealing. Initially, you believe that they can take you where they say they’re going to take you, but then things fall off the rails. There are three types within this cluster. The first is Narcissus. This is someone whose basic healthy narcissism has gone too far — to the point where they act entitled, self-centred, condescending and attention-seeking. This is a very common personality type.
The second type is the Venus Flytrap, and they can cause a lot of chaos. These people are seductive and appealing up front; but they are emotionally unstable, and after they draw you in with their intensity, they will eventually chew you up and spit you out. At first, they place you on a pedestal and you are flattered, but you can pretty much guarantee that in time, they will knock you off of it.
The third type in this cluster is the Swindler, and they range from the guy who consistently cuts corners, isn’t trustworthy and doesn’t follow through on promises, all the way up to people who embezzle funds from companies or get involved in organized crime — or worse. These are the people you read about when you pick up the paper and see a story about someone who was a successful trader on Wall Street but got caught embezzling millions of dollars. In general, people really like Swindlers at first, and they feel completely betrayed when they learn about what they’ve been up to.
What are some effective ways to deal with these people?
The best way to get along with these personality types is to make an effort to understand the anxiety that is driving their behaviour. Venus Flytraps, for instance, feel unlovable and fear being abandoned above all else. So, they will test you by doing things to make themselves so unappealing that they actually make you want to abandon them. The best way to deal with them is to not allow yourself to get caught up in their drama, and to create clear boundaries in your interactions with them. You need to limit their ability to suck up your time and energy.
With Narcissists, on the one hand they’ve been told by their parents that they are amazing and they can do anything; but inside, they don’t believe it .There is therefore this dichotomy of manifested high self-esteem with an actual core of very low self-esteem. If you have a Narcissistic colleague or boss, they’re always worrying that you will figure out that they really aren’t as great as they’re trying to put forth. The best approach is to treat them with kindness and compliment them whenever you have a chance. This will help them feel safe and think, ‘Oh good, this person isn’t trying to burst my bubble.’ This will make them less defensive — and easier to get along with. These are very fragile egos, so anything you can do to preserve their ego is going to be helpful.
Where the Swindler is concerned, my advice is that if and when you smell a rat, don’t ignore it. If you’re interviewing someone and something seems off, or too good to be true, do your due diligence. And if you’re aware that you’re working with a Swindler, the best thing to do is try to figure out how to move them out of your sphere.
Apparently, Bean Counters aren’t only found in the Accounting Department. Describe this type.
It is great to be detail-orientated and to cross your t’s and dot your i’s. Everyone wants to do things right, but with these individuals, there is an almost irrational effort to control their environment. They frequently pursue jobs in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, computer programming or other rule-based fields where they can feel in control of the algorithms. They tend to micro-manage everyone else’s work and think that they are the only ones who can do things
When presented with their disruptive behaviour, an overwhelming number of people will simply stop doing it.
properly. They will make you correct your work repeatedly — and even then, they might crumple it up and do it themselves.
It’s important to keep in mind that these are very anxious people who have an incredible fear of losing control of themselves or their environment, so they attempt to overlay artificial rules and laws upon life. Of course, we can’t do that, because ‘life happens’ — but they try so hard to control whatever they can control that it ends up being torture to work for them.
You can’t just walk in and say to this person, ‘Hey, you’re being totally obsessive. Stop it,’ because that’s going to cause even more trouble. Instead, help them see that you, too, can do a great job and be careful. Appreciate their dedication, but also emphasize your own, so they will consider trusting you. Be careful though: If you promise more than you can deliver, the Bean Counter will never trust you again.
One study found that 60 per cent of doctors eliminated their pattern of disruptive behaviour after it was simply pointed out to them. What does this tell us?
Actually, it’s somewhere between 60 and 80 per cent. When they are presented with their disruptive behaviour, an overwhelming number of people will simply stop doing it. This gets back to what I said at the beginning, which is that people don’t wake up in the morning and set out to disrupt the workplace. It’s just that we behave in ways that indicate how we’ve learned to navigate the world. If we find out that our behaviour is causing trouble, in general, most people are appalled. They will say, ‘Oh no, I had no idea I was upsetting you!’ And they stop. Or, they might say, ‘This is the only way I know how to be’, and in those cases, it could be that they’re not in the right culture or that they need help with some tools to make change. As indicated, there is usually no malice there.
Unfortunately, it is so uncomfortable to confront people with their behaviour that in most cases we don’t say anything — or we talk to other people about it, which can go on for months or years. By the time people call me, they are so angry with these people for acting this way. Yet I find out that they never bothered to stop and say, ‘Hey. You’re doing this, and it’s a problem. Please stop.’ It’s really unfair not to tell people and give them a chance to correct their behaviour.
What is your advice for readers who fear that they might be the schmuck in their office?
The fact is, it’s pretty difficult to get through an entire career without being considered a schmuck on a few occasions. Like I said, we are all different, and whenever you put people together you have an opportunity for conflict. But if someone clarifies for you that you are indeed a schmuck, or if you get an inkling of it, it’s really important not to freak out. Instead, view it as an insight and a gift, and start on a path towards self-improvement.
We all want to do better. We all have good intentions. And if somebody has allowed you to see your problem areas, you have basically been given a roadmap of what you need to work on. If you embrace the challenge, it will make you a better colleague, leader and human being.
Jody Foster, M.D., MBA, is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Pennsylvania Hospital, and Vice Chair for Clinical Operations in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Health System. She is the author of The Schmuck in my Office: How to Deal Effectively with Difficult People at Work (St. Martin’s Press, 2017).