A Taxonomy of Troublemakers for Those Navigating Difficult Colleagues

University of Pennsylvania Clinical Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Jody Fosterhas seen her career in behavioral health and her Wharton MBA converge in unexpected ways. Once she consulted with a company whose office was in a very old building, the kind with only one bathroom stall per floor. Somebody at the company would routinely clog the one toilet — and, in a peculiar twist, would proceed to mummify the bowl by wrapping it entirely with toilet paper, rendering it unusable for others. The company sought a respectful, but assertive way to address the mysterious behavior, but very quickly this act consumed employees more than anything else — including the discussions and decisions that advanced the real work of the company.

Ultimately the issue was resolved with a carefully-worded cease-and-desist note on the bathroom door, but Foster has seen how a range of disruptive interpersonal behaviors can take a toll on companies. "Decades ago, I considered leaving medicine and went to business school. Almost immediately, I realized that the best thing that I could do to contribute to the business world was to continue to practice psychiatry," says Foster. "Everyone wants to understand why people behave the way they do, whether that's decoding our co-workers or predicting the behavior of new hires. Research shows that the cost of single bad hire can be 15-20 times the individual's base salary — and if that person hires a team, the cost is exponentially greater."

Drawing from her talk at First Round's New York CEO Summit and her book, The Schmuck in My Office, Foster categorizes the types of people whom others find difficult at work — and shares how to identify and interact with them. She outlines the telltale signs of two of the most common profiles and suggests language to avoid and embrace to make headway with them. Whether you're 5 or 5,000 people strong at your company, use this guide to troubleshoot these archetypes in the wild.

The heaviest hitters and rainmakers are often the very people stirring up the most trouble. Wouldn't it be great to be able to salvage the good parts and minimize the bad?


Think about a bad interaction at work — and how you felt about your next exchange with those involved. Were you preoccupied or distracted? Were they? "It's true that one disruptive individual can infect a team — or even an entire company. But the good news is that most people aren't behaving badly out of malice. They're just bringing their personalities to work," says Foster. "Most often, people are shockingly unaware that their behavior is causing trouble. Their personality works in other settings, so by default they bring it to the workplace too."

Dig in a bit deeper into personality-driven behaviors and it's more complex: a behavior often isn't good or bad in and of itself — it's the applicationof that behavior to a given context that's good or bad. "Every personality has positive sides. It's good to have confidence or be attentive to details. But for every positive in a personality, there's a negative underbelly," says Foster. "The goal for committed managers or colleagues is to help others flip to the positive application of their personality — mainly through direct, candid feedback. Research shows that, in about 70% of cases, difficult people will be shocked about how their behavior is being received and will simply self-correct. They didn't know, and just stop. Unvarnished, direct feedback is key."


Issuing candid feedback is a skill and habit in its own right, but one's ability to navigate difficult personalities can improve with more insight into each archetype. "So, I've been doing this for quite a while and I've come to find is that, barring major physical, mental or structural problems, the people who get into interpersonal trouble with others at work tend to fall into a few major buckets," says Foster. "Of course, humans are complex, so many span a few categories, but if you can get your arms around these archetypes, you'll be better equipped to interact with them."

Foster insists on one clarification before outlining the profiles of difficult personalities. "Most of your co-workers with whom you interact are not in any way disordered. There's a difference between personality traits — which we all have — and personality disorders, which are clinical in nature and may require professional help," says Foster. "But, for a healthy work environment, the traits that are causing trouble need to be addressed. All too often, I've seen managers witness bad behavior, freeze and not address the disruption. Time passes and the manager's will to step in lessens, colleagues become disheartened and the offender continues on none the wiser."

Here's a list of eight difficult personality types — and how their behavior can manifest positively or negatively in the workplace.

Narcissus - thinks highly of oneself, ballooning self-esteem

  • As a positive trait: willingness to try new things with any possibility of success

  • As a negative trait: entitled, condescending, self-centered, attention-seeking

Venus Flytrap - very appealing initially, eventually brings chaos

  • As a positive trait: incredibly persuasive and relatable to many people

  • As a negative trait: shifts expectations/emotions, creating unstable relationships

Swindler - systematic and charming, but dangerous and self-propagating

  • As a positive trait: magnetic, influential, savvy and resourceful

  • As a negative trait: no regard for rules, laws, or for other people

Bean Counter - controls quality, but becomes a bottleneck

  • As a positive trait: focused, persistent and involved

  • As a negative trait: obsessive, paralyzed, blocks progress

Distracted - a nutty professor, can't time-manage, organize or finish tasks

  • As a positive trait: brilliant, curious and informed

  • As a negative trait: procrastinating, preoccupied and noncommittal

Robotic - process-oriented, but struggles to connect with people

  • As a positive trait: structured, focused, rule-bound

  • As a negative trait: rigid, aloof, disconnected, mechanical

Eccentric - unique individual, but with peculiar ideas

  • As a positive trait: original, strong beliefs, big thinker

  • As a negative trait: difficult to understand, detached, irrational

Suspicious - Self-protective, but paranoid, often with a conspiratorial world view

  • As a positive trait: vigilant, prizes loyalty/trust, confidential

  • As a negative trait: insecure, fearful, always at war

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