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Getting Those Challenging Personalities on Board

Harvy Simkovits, CMC, Mr. Business Wisdom

Business leaders often have to work with all kinds of challenging personalities. What makes an employee or colleague highly qualified and valued in his or her position can often be the same qualities that drive the leader crazy when the other person’s behavior is challenging or ineffectual. Recent articles in the NY Times ("Here’s Looking at Me, Kid" - July 20, 2008) and USA Today ("Economy stuck, but business is booking at therapist’s offices" - July 23, 2008) show the greater prevalence of self-focused Narcissists and "feeling the blues" Depressives in today’s American society. When these so called "difficult" folks show up at work (for sports fans, think of some of your favorite stars, both past and present, that you have read about in the paper), you might find yourself both admiring and disliking them at the same time. You might be asking yourself, "How does a talented person like that get away with such poor behavior or special treatment?" Or, "How are they in top form one moment and at a low the next day?" As a leader, how can you shape these challenging personalities into more consistent team contributors? Here are some common personality types to look out for, and some ideas on what you might do to move them in the right direction for you and your business.

The "Center of It All" Narcissist – These folks can be very attractive or charismatic individuals (like A-Rod and Eliot Spitzer) who like action, attention and accomplishment. However, their relationships can be in disrepair because of their sometimes self-centered, controlling and self-aggrandizing nature. They tend to upset some of the people closest to them because, in the long run, there is no completely pleasing a narcissist nor escaping their ire when they do not get what they want. Narcissists unwittingly tend to push themselves through or around others in order to gain positional advantage; therefore, they are rarely aware of their negative impact unless directly told. It might require several attempts to get through to these types because they usually live in great denial of their self-centered behavior; and, they believe in their own greatness. Strategies to deal with narcissists are:
  • Use directness, firmness and fortitude (and a good sense of humor) to come up against them, along with a clear statement of benefit and consequence if their behavior or thinking does not change
  • Appeal to the their intelligence and toughness, paying appropriate homage to what they have successfully built or how far they have come in their work/career/life accomplishments
  • Demonstrate to them that their greatest personal qualities are insufficient in the world of relationships

Narcissists can be tough characters to deal with. They usually respect people in higher authority positions, or those that have the strength and fortitude to come up effectively against them, and when there is a clear return on investment in their need to change their behavior or outlook. However, watch out; some narcissists may want to take your job away from you, demonstrating how it "should" be done.

The "No One Else Can Do It Better" Perfectionist – These highly impressive, meticulous folks (like former Vice President, Al Gore) can be brilliant creators or improvers of things. However, their sometimes continual need, even obsession, for more data or perspectives can sometimes cause them to get stuck in "analysis paralysis" and not move quickly enough to action. Many can get overly critical if someone does not meet their high personal standards. They also often lack patience and tactfulness. The tricks to moving these types are to:

  • Make them aware of human "feelings data" (as opposed to their world of "intellectual facts and concepts") as a source of important information
  • Show them that having something 80% done and out (with a chance to improve it later) is much better than being stuck trying to perfect it
  • Appeal to their intellectual curiosity—this allows them both to be more open to new sources of information as well to move forward with deliberate action

Perfectionists, like narcissists, can be tough-minded individuals. However, they are often principled and disciplined. They can usually be moved through plain common sense.

The "Feeling the Blues" Depressive – These types (like Abraham Lincoln, and even Winston Churchill) can be thoughtful and productive when putting their efforts into meaningful work. They can become great contributors and even great leaders when not locked into self-destructive or lethargic tendencies. However, depressives can quickly lose their productivity and isolate themselves from others when something unexpected happens that gets them focused on their own problems or shortcomings. Strategies to turn this type around are:

  • Help them to get out of their inward emotional focus, and engage them in something useful and productive, is the key to turning them around
  • Avoid overly critical language around them—working to be positive, optimistic and uplifting will bring out the best and most consistent performance in these kinds of people
  • Continually check in with them, supporting and acknowledging their positive efforts—this will yield greater and more consistent contribution from them

Be especially careful not to get caught up in the depressive’s life story; find them outside professional help if your leadership coaching is insufficient.

The "Over-the-Top" Dramatic – These folks (like the story character, Chicken Little) can be very perceptive, innovative, lively, and engaging with respect to people and relationships. They can also become moody, easily hurt when transgressed, and may become panicked or hysterical in extreme situations. They can also draw others into the drama with them, thus causing much productivity loss on the team. Useful approaches with these types are:

  • Help them see that all is not as dire as they believe it is—help them to focus on new information that is contrary to their perceptions; also, encourage them to take next steps to move forward on the issues and to directly confront the fears that concern them
  • Like with depressives, offer them support and reassurances where possible and do not get caught up in their drama

Understand and accept the dramatics’ personal sensitivities; and, help them to see other possible realities rather than their narrower view on things. Seeing things from other perspectives can help them to focus their efforts appropriately and with a better outlook.

As a leader, it is important to be able to leverage the strengths and help mitigate the challenges of all types of people around you. Knowing how to deal effectively with diverse personalities will increase the productivity and morale on your team. Yet, if you are overly taxed by one or more of these types, be sure to enlist outside help.

More strategies to deal with difficult personality types:

1. Find and leverage the strengths of each type: Most people have these personality patterns in varying degrees; and, they are needed to succeed personally and professionally. Without having some narcissism, a person could not get on stage and give an engaging presentation. Without having some perfectionism, one could not accomplish great engineering feats. Without experiencing depressive lows there would be no joyful highs. All these ways of being are just a part of normal human experience and development, as long as one does not get stuck (without awareness or choice) in any overly dominant pattern. Thus, get to know the greatest strengths of the personalities around you and put those strengths to good use. Understand that problems only occur when people get locked into one or more of these personality types with little awareness or control over themselves.

2. Beware of inner conflicts: Sometimes, people can have several personality patterns within them that are negatively interacting, sending them into inner conflicts. For example, a person’s critical perfectionist side can judge him or her-self when a bad mistake is made, thus creating depressive episodes and cycles of "up and down" behavior. An inner-conflicted person can be very productive at one moment, yet suddenly fall off the productivity wagon when a triggering event stimulates an unexpected side of them. In these situations, the worst thing to do is to do nothing, with the hope that things will just turn around by themselves. It is important to state to them that you have observed their change in performance, behavior or mood and then to gently inquire as to what it is about, demonstrating both your care and concern.

3. Watch out for unproductive interpersonal interactions: Problems can also occur when one person’s pattern stimulates or triggers an unproductive pattern of another person, or in you. For example, the narcissist’s need for action can get polarized with a perfectionist’s need for analysis; thereby, locking them into a never ending duel. Also, depressive patterns in an employee can be stimulated by the perfectionist or narcissistic pattern of an important authority figure. Depressive types can also stimulate the depressive pattern of other people around them. Improve your ability to observe yourself and others, effectively catching yourself and them before any conversation gets out of hand.

4. Stay clean yourself: As a leader, be aware of your own personality patterns and work to avoid getting uncontrollably triggered by others, or un-intentionally trigger someone else. A good way to generate your own and others’ personality development is to admit, to take responsibility for, and even to joke in a healthy manner about the personality tendencies within you and what you observe in others. When you first actively work to clear yourself of unproductive or reoccurring limiting patterns, then you can be of greater example, impact, optimism and hope to others. Even asking yourself or others a simple question about "Where did I/you learn this way of operating?" and "Is it being effective in the long run?" can sometimes generate the necessary self-reflection to break through a fruitless pattern.

5. Get outside professional help when needed: For our most challenging situations, both with ourselves or others, the help of a capable executive coach* or personal psychologist* may be required. They can help to unlock a deeply-engrained or stuck tendency so as to free up a person to become more mindful and versatile in their approach or responses. This way, everybody can work to become more of their very best.

*It is important to be aware of the difference between a coach that offers development and a psychologist that offers therapy. A simple way to look at the difference is that therapy is more for the purpose of personal healing and repair. Therapy is most needed when traumatic events in a person’s past have deeply engrained habitual personality traits that prevent that person from functioning well in certain aspects or times of their life. Therefore, therapy works to unburden the person from their difficult past so they can move forward with a greater freedom "to be" in the present. Conversely, the focus of coaching is more towards future possibility, and developing better ways for a person to operate that allow them to formulate and accomplish worthwhile objectives for themselves. Thus, coaching is more about learning and self-improvement. However, the line between coaching and therapy is not always perfectly clear. Knowing what a person needs to help them move forward in life and work is not always straightforward. So it is important for leaders to obtain clarity from their coaching and psychological providers so that they understand that provider’s ability, experience and limits in relation to the situations the leader faces.

Harvy Simkovits, CMC, President of Business Wisdom, works with owner managed companies to help them grow, prosper and continue on by offering innovative approaches to business development, company management, organization leadership and learning, and management education. He can be reached at 781-862-3983 or .

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