How to Manage Difficult Personalities at Work

Starting a new job can be rejuvenating and nerve racking at the same time. We can feel unburdened by the constraints of our old job. It feels good to just leave behind the things we don’t like – routines, projects and people. Along with a host of new duties and challenges come new relationships. These new relationships can provide opportunities for growth and expand our social circles. However, after a period of time most people encounter at least one person in their workplace who rubs them the wrong way. While difficulties with coworkers in similar roles offer one set of challenges, finding yourself at odds with your manager or someone else in a leadership role can be even more daunting.

You know you’re in trouble if you start replaying exchanges after you go home or find yourself dreading setting eyes on the offender in the morning. We can get caught in painful loops of feeling frustrated and angry about what they have said and done; escape feels impossible. You might fantasize about telling them off, getting them into trouble or even ponder their untimely demise by falling off a cliff. While it’s perfectly healthy to experience your aggressive responses through fantasy, there are limitations to how much that strategy will actually help you. Honestly acknowledging your emotions is especially important for someone who avoids conflict or tends to fall on the more passive side. Identifying whether you fall on the more aggressive or passive side when encountering a difficult personality is actually an important first step in solving the problem.

This is the first of a series of postings that will address these sticky situations.

What is Your Locus of Control?

People tend to fall into one of two categories in what psychologists call locus of control. Locus of control refers to where we mentally attribute the source of our control over events. To understand where you fit in terms of locus of control, which of the following thoughts better characterizes your way of thinking when encountering a problem co-worker?

“I have no control and there is there’s nothing I can do about it.”


“I have total control and I must do something fix the problem.”

While few people always fall 100 percent of the time into one camp or the other, try to think about where your thoughts tend to fall the greater majority of time. If you identify more with the first statement, then you are more activated by an external locus of control. Some take this to extremes, claiming they have no responsibility for their problems and find excuses for their shortcomings everywhere outside of themselves. At the most corrosive end of the spectrum, this type of active external locus can lead to a constant blaming others for your own problems.

However, many more people operating with an external locus reside in a grey area in which their default mode is passivity. Those with an external locus of control based on passivity can often appear too nice to others. They perpetually let others get their way because they feel that anything they might do remedy a problem would be useless. Those with an external locus are deeply unsettled by conflict. At the first whiff of a problem they seek to protect themselves by avoiding problems or placating others because they fear an angry retaliation.


"Did I Really Just Say That?"

The net result of such beliefs can mean suffering in silence for years. Sometimes those with this dynamic can create a feedback loop where they bury their feelings deeper and deeper. Sometimes they put more and more pressure on themselves until they feel they have no choice but to burst out angrily at an inopportune moment.

Even if you never have an angry outburst, over time coworkers can become alienated by those driven by an external locus because they have come to question if they can really trust what you say. It may be hard to acknowledge, but they would be right. What may be missing is your failure to not trust others with your true feelings. This may be hard to take in at first, because with an external locus, you are fundamentally aware of spending all of your time and emotional energy anticipating the needs of others - at great sacrifice to yourself.  As I pointed out, few people always strictly adhere to an external or internal locus. Those with an external locus face a danger of becoming so worn down by avoidance and placating, angry outbursts might impulsively “pop out” in overheated moments. These outbursts usually make things worse and create situations where your fear of angry retaliation in response to the expression of your needs becomes a reality. 

Embarrassing Damage

These outbursts leave those with an external locus feeling guilty, exposed or ashamed. Recipients of the outburst are left feeling shocked and blindsided when the “mouse” roars. Others often respond defensively and unproductively. If you react passively to a difficult personality or with impulsive outbursts of aggression, your strategy of conflict avoidance of is actually creating a powerful and painful self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Stay tuned for my next post where I will offer those with internal locus steps to take to reduce problems associated with difficult coworkers. Future posts will address the unique problems facing those with external locus of control in similar situations.