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The Four Kinds of Difficult People in the Workplace

Wednesday, Mar. 23, 2011
A manager rushes into his employee’s office at 4:30 p.m., drops a pile of papers on her desk, and barks, “I need these read, edited, and finalized by 8:30 a.m.”

A man comes into work Monday morning to find no one in the office. Everyone had the day off, but no one bothered to tell him.

A woman, who’s running a fever, shivering, and coughing, tries to call in sick, but her supervisor screams, “I don’t care what illness you have, if you’re not in the office today, I’ll consider it your resignation!”

These are real examples of workplace bullying that cause stress, depression, and anxiety. The National Mental Health Association estimates that each year, more than one billion sick days can be attributed to mental health disorders caused by work stress. That’s $193 billion a year in lost earnings.

Psychology Professor Katerina Bezrukova studies the psychological effect of workplace injustices and intergroup and interorganizational relations at Santa Clara University. She says there are four kinds of co-workers and supervisors to look out for: narcissistic, aggressive, rigid, and impaired.

Narcissistic types have fragile self-esteem and may become outraged when someone challenges them. Bezrukova says avoid criticizing them and document your own work so you have a record of everything you do.

To the aggressive ones, everyone is a predator or prey, and that’s why they like to intimidate others and even bully them. They also have a tendency of acting frantic when a project comes in or a deadline is fast approaching. Bezrukova advises victims to stay out of the way, and if they can, show them how management by hysteria can be inefficient.

The rigid types won’t try anything new and has the management philosophy of “It’s my way or the highway.” This stems from fears of being pushed around. Bezrukova says let them feel like they are a part of the decision. For example, there was one manager who insisted on having even the most minor decision approved by her. After subordinates started making decisions on their own and convincing the manager it was her idea all along she finally let her subordinates make decisions. This is one way of getting rigid managers to change their ways.

When faced with those who are impaired, meaning they have ADD, anxiety, depression, burnout, or abuse substances such as drugs and alcohol, professional help is required. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) or other kinds of intervention are best.

Bezrukova says when people work with difficult people, they have to have personal and social competence. Personal competence is knowing how to contain your own anger and being aware of what you’re saying and how you’re reacting to someone or a situation. Social competence is understanding what others are feeling, which ultimately helps you resolve conflicts. Bezrukova says you can improve social competence by using what’s often called as a “perspective taking” technique or, in other words, trying to “put yourself in the shoes of that other person” to understand what he or she might think and feel.

Bezrukova’s research on workplace injustices showed that controlling pace of work and fairness has long lasting effects on employee health.

“There is a direct connection between positive psychology and your physical well-being,” says Bezrukova. “People who suffer from a workplace injustice of some sort, develop anger, frustration, anxiety, insomnia, headaches. These relationships, coupled with the connection between long term, chronic psychological distress and increased risk of physical health problems such as cardiovascular disease, make this a crucial dollars and cents issue for business.”

Paradoxically, splitting within groups can buffer effects of stress and improve physical well-being. Bezrukova and co-researchers Chester Spell of Rutgers University and Jamie L. Perry, a doctoral candidate at Rutgers, undertook a study to determine if the composition of work groups could play a role in reducing psychological distress arising from injustice. Faultlines (group splits based on demographic characteristics such as age, race, gender, occupational background), that are often thought as “violent divides” in workgroups, can help people cope with injustice in workplace. 

Bezrukova is available for media interviews.

Media contact:

Connie Kim Coutain | ccoutain@scu.edu | 408-554-5126 O | 408-829-4836 C 

Tags: aggressive, difficult, impaired, injustices, Katerina Bezrukova, narcissistic, people, rigid, workplace

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