Managing Extreme Personalities
Appeared in: cio.com.au
Author: Rachel Sullivan
Date: July 2012
We all have our personality quirks that either endear us to others, or drive them to distraction, often simultaneously. But when does a quirk become a liability in the workplace? And how can you minimise the fallout?
Anybody who has spent time in an office environment has stories about the extreme characters they work with, from the loud-mouth who can't keep a secret if it will get him or her a laugh to the manager who takes credit for his or her employees' work or who is quite happy to humiliate junior staff in public.
Then there are the liars who will say anything to turn the spotlight away from their misdeeds, those who are convinced that every thought they have is pure genius, the workaholics, the passive aggressives, the habitual substance abusers, the socially awkwards who only open their mouths to change feet, the chronically insecure, the weird and the flat-out creepy.
I've worked with all of these types and more in a relatively small, surprisingly productive company. And somehow, despite everyone's obvious quirks, we all managed to perform, and even become friends. Well, most of us, anyway. So while these quirks can make a person challenging to work with, just because a personality is extreme, it's not necessarily a bad thing. Managing them is a matter of matching the right character with the role, and containing the fallout from any behavioural excesses.
"Most managers would have dealt with the issue of managing extreme personality types over the years," says Peter Acheson, CEO of Peoplebank, Australia's largest IT&T recruitment company.
"High performers tend to fall into two categories," he says. One type is extremely demanding, wanting everything their way and constantly pushing for better outcomes, deals and remuneration than their peers. The other type goes about doing their job well, turning in an outstanding performance that is above and beyond expectations. They are never demanding, and appear quite happy, but these are often more difficult to gauge in terms of their willingness to stay - their resignation will often seem to come out of the blue.
"The nub of the issue is how to deal with these extreme personalities and understand where they fit in the performance management framework," he says.
There are lots of different theories about personality, but the one that has probably gained the most traction, at least in the business world, involves four types:
- Type A - spontaneous, achievement driven, confident and self-assured
- Type B - task oriented, driven and efficient
- Type C - trustworthy, helpful, enthusiastic, warm and outgoing
- Type D - solitary, detail oriented, rule driven, risk averse and meticulous.
Some types get on better with others, and in all cases, aspects of their behaviour may be taken to extremes, although this is not necessarily the same as having a clinically diagnosable personality disorder. Extreme personalities are easy to deal with if they are also poor performers, Acheson says, but if they are a top revenue producer in the sales department, for example, a different approach may be required.
"The manager needs a clear perspective on where people fit. All employees are not equal; everyone has different needs, and managers need to understand individual differences and manage the work environment to respond to those differences."
Acheson believes it may be quite reasonable to let some of the extreme aspects of a staff member's performance go, as long as they are not interfering with the rest of the team's performance, not creating dysfunction and their behaviour does not contradict the values of the company.
"You still have to allow for quirkiness, but weigh up the issues. If one person is absolutely having a negative impact on the team and creating a dysfunctional work environment, then it clearly has to be dealt with," he says.
Any manager, no matter how big, needs to be hands-on, have an open door and to listen to people if they feel they need to come and talk about another team member, he says. "A desire for a quiet one-on-one chat is often an indicator that there is a problem. Once you've had a couple of these conversations, then it's time to ask the other team members about their experiences."
Peoplebank uses a number of ways to monitor the health of the organisation and weed out problem behaviours. "We conduct detailed exit interviews. Often people reveal things in exit interviews that they wouldn't otherwise mention, and these provide a real insight into how the business unit is functioning," Acheson says.
"We also conduct entry interviews two months after someone begins working for us. They may say, ‘I'm really enjoying the job', but when you get down to questions about the amount of support they're getting from the team, if there are difficulties they quickly become clear."
Acheson says Peoplebank also conducts annual employment engagement surveys and have regular visits to all business units from senior management. "By combining the knowledge we receive from all of these activities we start to get an insight into problem people."
Mental health not on the corporate radar
Despite growing awareness that mental illness is widespread throughout the entire community, Australia's top companies are failing to recognise and manage mental health risk in the workplace, according to a recent poll by Chartered Secretaries Australia (CSA).
The survey of 300 top ASX listed companies revealed that more than 40 per cent did not perceive mental illness as a potential risk to their organisation, and of those that did, close to half said their organisation did not have policies in place to manage this risk.
In addition, nearly 70 per cent did not have a dedicated and properly trained resource to identify and manage an employee suffering from mental illness.
With as many as many as one in five Australians suffering from mental illness, it is a reality in the workplace, according to CSA's chief executive, Tim Sheehy. "Improperly managed, it poses real risks in terms of reduced productivity, workplace conflict and loss of morale, not to mention the spectre of corporate and executive liability if these issues continue to be neglected by senior decision-makers."
Australian businesses lose more than $6.5 billion each year by failing to provide early intervention and treatment for employees with mental health conditions. Work pressure accounts for about half of all psychological injury claims, compared with harassment and bullying which account for about a quarter of claims.
Some extreme personalities may be good for business, but there's one that most would steer well clear of: The corporate psychopath.
While the term ‘psychopath' usually suggests highly antisocial individuals with a long and abhorrent criminal history, most aren't. Psychopaths are found working in every field, comprising between 1 and 3 per cent of men and less than 1 per cent of women.
Essentially, psychopaths are people without a conscience, who inhabit their own world and break society's rules at will. According to Dr Robert Hare, who has made studying psychopaths his life's work, they are "social predators who charm, manipulate and ruthlessly plow their way through life, leaving a broad trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations and empty wallets…selfishly taking what they want and doing as they please without the slightest sense of guilt or regret."
Dr John Clarke, a consultant psychotherapist and author of Working with Monsters: How to Identify and Protect Yourself from the Workplace Psychopath, writes, "Corporate psychopaths use their position to satisfy their psychopathic needs while avoiding or minimising punishment.
"Different personality types often clash in the workplace, leading to conflict that has nothing to do with psychopathy. A major factor that differentiates between a personality clash from psychopathy is the psychopath's lack of remorse as well as experiencing pleasure from any psychological and/or physical injury caused to the victim."
A 2010 study, Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk, found that 3 to 6 per cent of corporate employees may be responsible for the majority of ethical breaches in corporations, with corporate psychopathy tending to be concentrated at the higher levels of organisations.
This is because their often outstanding communication skills, creativity and strategic thinking, and charismatic, confident, persuasive and courageous personalities are characteristics that commonly define great leaders; many successfully exploit these traits to rise rapidly through the ranks and assume senior positions.
Indeed, Enron's Jeffrey Skilling and media tycoon, Robert Maxwell, are often described as poster boys for successful corporate psychopaths, usually by media trying to make sense of their bizarre behaviour.
Skilling was at Enron's helm in the years leading up to its collapse, during which it was awarded Fortune's accolade for the most creative company six years running. According to Smartest Guys in the Room by Fortune reporters Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, everything about the company culture smacked of psychopathic leadership.
An executive team-building exercise involved a risky motorbike ride on rough terrain in Mexico during which one executive was seriously injured; one of Skilling's closest associates frequently had strippers make office visits (presumably with his blessing), while Skilling himself was publicly abusive to stock traders and low-ranking employees. Most notably, he was seemingly unable to recognise conflicts of interest and breaches of fiduciary duty undertaken by his chief financial officer, approving a series of increasingly far-fetched plans he mistakenly believed would save the company.
He believed himself and other Enron execs to be geniuses, even though hundreds of their ideas failed spectacularly, and occasionally even strayed into criminal territory.
"I can't see that a corporate psychopath could ever ultimately benefit the bottom line, as good as they might be at a particular task," says Peoplebank's Peter Acheson, adding that he has learned from a bitter experience to never hire one, no matter how charming they may be.
"We hired a new CEO [for one of our businesses]," he says. "He did a lot of good things in the time he was with us, but also nearly ran the business into the ground. "He was charming, persuasive, and really good at managing the board - that is, twisting their arms."
Acheson says the CEO went on a hiring spree, and employed a number of high remuneration senior executives who were all friends or former colleagues. "This was all done on the promise of being able to grow revenue with them on board, and that we couldn't afford to wait for revenue to increase before hiring them.
"Eighteen months later, it appeared that things were going really well, but in fact the costs had just doubled, without delivering the promised revenue.
"In our case, this CEO's impact was disproportionately large: It affected potential clients' perception of the company, investors were unwilling to invest because of him, staff [members] were unhappy and the technology plateaued.
"So yes, I would say it is fine to employ extreme personalities, as long as they're not psychopaths, and the nature of their personality means it won't damage the business. "[Our mistake] nearly drove our business into the wall."
Dr Clarke says rehabilitating a corporate psychopath is a difficult proposition at best, with studies of violent criminal psychopaths suggesting that rehabilitation programs actually do the reverse: They help the psychopath develop new skills that they can then use to manipulate people more effectively.
"The most effective strategy when dealing with the organisational psychopath is to have a detailed knowledge of how they operate," he says.
"Once the psychopath's modus operandi is understood, it becomes much simpler to predict, to some extent control, their behaviours.