Managing Different Personalities in the Workplace

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

Let’s admit it: not everyone in an organization can be your cup of tea. This is because of the different experiences your co-workers have, their cultural differences, biases, personal agendas and of course, diverse personalities.

And the challenges faced by these differences are not limited to senior leadership or those who function in a supervisory role. What types are the usual suspects? You have those who excel at being gossips or rumor mongers; the know-it-alls and the my-way-or-the-highway bullies. There are also those who are manipulators and suck-ups. For young professionals entering the work world, this can be shocking as they thought they escaped all these characters after their college graduation.

Nope. These people still exist, but in a different form (and some have honed their quirks through experience). However, now they actually get paid to act in unusual ways. But like any situation that may grow into a real workplace conflict, there are ways to tap into the “hot buttons” in the form of identifying the most effective communication approaches. Because we can spend more hours daily with our coworkers than we do our own families, finding the right formula for each individual is crucial. I am not suggesting you play the tough ones “like a fiddle” but it does help to hon the skills of a chameleon.

Workplace instability has associated costs in the form of increased absenteeism, departures and an overwhelmed HR department — the latter may not have the necessary processes and protocols in place to mitigate issues before they get out of hand.

In this era of incivility, organizations must create an environment that ensures disputes or factionalism are lessened or eliminated entirely.

The Usual Suspects

Here are several of the personality types you will run into and how you can manage them.

  1. The Narcissist. This individual now appears on both the national and company stages. Individuals with an inflated sense of self-importance require stroking and continued attention. This person does not want to you to love them; their desire is to have control over you. Narcissist’s issues are the only ones that matter, and empathy does not enter their stream of consciousness. Your needs are superseded by theirs. What is most important, however, is that you do not question your own self-worth. You should seek out colleagues who share the same experience and create your own support group. At the same time, if you have to resort to flattery to win over a narcissist, also explain how your actions will accrue to their benefit. Once you can make this process second nature, it will make your daily work that much more tolerable.
  1. The Control Freak. Nitpicky, fault finding and the goal of perfection comprises the person who seeks to control. Not one to compliment a good effort, this person may try to control situations that are so far afield of their own functional responsibilities. Some leaders like this type of person because they won’t let anything be done that is less than perfect. Their attention to detail might cause others to rip their hair out but will show the public that it understands the customer experience (think Steve Jobs). To survive this individual, especially if he or she is your boss, compliment the person on the attention to detail and how this has yielded positive results for the organization. Also, explain in great detail on matters that are important to the control freak so that it lowers or eliminates the level of uncertainty or paranoia. Finally, don’t think the issue is you. It is the person’s insatiable need to have the control over all the levers.
  1. The Passive-Aggressive. Talk about a challenge. The actions, voice modulation and facial expressions can be incongruous with one another. These people may not be easy to identify initially and over time can really cause harm. One of the most natural aspects is the realized phoniness of their feelings; they give the impression everything is okay, but just underneath the surface they are seething over some slight, whether real or perceived. If something should hit the fan and this person acts casual, calm and cool (while others may flip out) this is a warning sign that deep waters may be roiling. And if you decide you want to call out this person for his or her lack of respect or an attempt to sabotage something you have been working on, gird yourself for an insincere response or the beginnings of a screaming match. But don’t try to mirror the behavior of this person. Select the right time to have a calm and open discussion about what problems exist and how you can work together to improve the situation.
  1. The Gossip. No organization would be complete without a “gossip.” You can bet that if you were ever involved in a discussion with a gossip, you know what to expect out of his or her mouth. The only mystery is who is the target of the day. You don’t want to be reeled into their world and become a target of their virulent ways. Try to avoid being part of their poisonous observations, and even be direct by telling the gossip that his or her comments are harmful to the company and its morale. Don’t fall prey by sharing your own views, as this will give more ammunition to the gossip where you will most likely end up in the cross fire.
  1. The Accuser. This person seeks to find fault, target blame and engage in overall drama. People like this know how they can uncover your own insecurity. This can be nipped in the bud immediately by admitting you made a mistake and that you will ensure that it will never be repeated. How can the accuser not be mollified by this (though one never knows)? Actually, the fault may lie with the accuser, but this person is expert at avoiding responsibility and throwing the mistakes, bad decisions or poor performance on others. Expecting the accuser to make an apology? I think not. After doing this for some time, the accuser actually believes what he or she is saying.

To be sure, there are other personality types that include the quiet person, the victimized, the paranoid, and everyone’s favorite: the sociopath.

There are reasons some companies administer personality tests. They want to get an inkling of whether there could be problems lurking below the surface. The tests may not be fool proof. You as the company leader may prefer to go with a gut instinct.  If so, there should at least be training offered on how to effectively deal with different personalities. The HR department should work with leadership to develop a clear statement of values that explains what are appropriate and expected set of behaviors…for all levels.


About Steve

Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at