An executive coach identifies the causes of troublesome colleagues’ behavior, and how best to respond.
Who They Are: Mole colleagues hide when they feel insecure, allowing problems to become overwhelming. Reluctant and quick to embarrass, they are easily intimidated.
How to Identify Them: Look for these socially inept types eating alone at the cafeteria, sitting in the back of the room at the training and sneaking away early at office parties. They may seem laid-back when passing on opportunities for promotions, but they would rather languish in one position than extend themselves to advance. They can appear easygoing when accepting blame for a missed deadline, but actually lack the courage to confront the true offender. Fearful of risk, failure and rejection, they will shun attention at any cost. The moment your project requires communicating with others, moles will flee from their responsibilities and disappear under the radar.
What to Watch Out For: You might find the reclusive and pitiful nature of moles to elicit your compassion. But moles only know how to burrow down. Align yourself with them, and you will fall down the same career-isolation hole they dig for themselves.
How to Protect Yourself: Don’t waste time helping moles become less isolated. They don’t want to be noticed, and will convert anything you say into self-loathing. Count on them only for routine work that can be completed without drawing attention from senior management, especially for tasks which they volunteer to do.
Who They Are: Panhandler colleagues walk the line between performing at their job and hunting for constant recognition. They are time-stealing attention seekers desperate for continuous praise.
How to Identify Them: You’ll find these gregarious types carrying on loudly at happy hour. They are the sycophants tailgating anyone who will toss them morsels of attention.
What to Watch Out For: At first, we are pleased when we meet panhandlers, because they are willing to go out of their way to do something for us, to demonstrate their loyalty. But their loyalty shifts like a leaf in the wind. As soon as panhandlers find a better source of affirmation, they will kick you to the curb, even in the middle of an important deadline.
How to Protect Yourself: Realize that panhandlers focus on praise the way addicts focus on drugs. To keep them on task, refrain from giving them praise until the very end of an assignment or project. The moment you start doling out the compliments is the moment you’ll lose their attention.
Who They Are: Pretender colleagues are the con men and women of the workplace. They may appear self-assured but forever worry about being discovered as frauds.
How to Identify Them: Pretenders misrepresent, embellish and exaggerate, creating misunderstandings and false expectations all around them. They will even manufacture a crisis, just so they can save the day.
What to Watch Out For: Ironically, pretenders are capable and likable when a project is in the planning stage. Then, the effort required at the execution stage triggers them to begin hyping themselves and their abilities up. They become an ongoing source of frustration, disseminating misinformation that throws everybody off course, leaving colleagues scratching their heads trying to discern the truth.
How to Protect Yourself: Keep track of their fabrications and contradictions to avoid being snared by a web of deception. When challenged about their problematic conduct, pretenders will often humble themselves. But humility is only a temporary state for pretenders. Keep them focused on facts and concrete deliverables, and give them accolades only for successfully completing projects.
Who They Are: Headliner colleagues have egos that are guaranteed to aggravate. They are arrogant status seekers convinced that everyone envies them.
How to Identify Them: The headliners are always interrupting at meetings and hijacking conversations. They are defensive when receiving feedback, and only interested in conversations highlighting them.
What to Watch Out For: Headliners don’t choose friends. They target people to exploit, people they believe can elevate their status. They are manipulators only interested in how you can service their ambition. Headliners will step on anyone to get ahead.
How to Protect Yourself: Manage your relationship with the headliner by saying no to most requests that are outside of your job description, and require that your generosity be reciprocated before you help with their next ‘favor.’ Once they realize that they cannot use you to get ahead, they will concentrate on distinguishing themselves technically, so they can boast about their contributions to the project.
Who They Are: Director colleagues are obsessed with control. They cannot handle uncertainty, and they want to design the outcome of everything.
How to Identify Them: Directors are more interested in being right than in doing the right thing. They cannot tolerate anyone disagreeing with them, which means they’re constantly alienating people. They are also the most unlikely co-workers to ever say, “Thank you.”
What to Watch Out For: Heads up! Directors become loose cannons when they lose control. They will rant, insult and intimidate to keep and regain control, even if it means being disliked and feared by their colleagues.
How to Protect Yourself: With directors, don’t yield until you’ve reasoned to a middle ground. Be clear about what plans are non-negotiable and be mindful of their verbal drive-bys—and also always wear your psychic Kevlar.
The Conflict Junkies
Who They Are: Conflict junkies are a combination of all the other types described, grafted into the most toxic and hostile contagion to ever poison the workplace. If Ebola was a personality type, it would be a conflict junkie.
How to Identify Them: They are the pathological bullies who harass even the most well-intentioned staff; the combative co-workers everyone has a horror story about; the rebellious employees so caustic, they send their superiors into septic shock. They are completely resistant to civility.
What to Watch Out For: Like moles, conflict junkies may initially appear submissive, but this is a ploy that lasts only until they have adjusted to a new situation. Like pretenders, once acclimated, they become agents of disruption. CJ’s go beyond the tactics used by directors to gain control, pitting colleagues against one another, sabotaging projects, undermining their superiors, withholding information to create conflict and misrepresenting situations to HR. Like panhandlers and headliners, they will go out of their way to feed their egos. The difference? They act with no concern for consequence, even when it threatens their own careers.
How to Protect Yourself: Handling conflict junkies is more than a one-person job. Take advantage of your organization’s policies, regulations and stated values. Leverage all penalties available, even those that require legal action, if needed. Report their conduct to HR, and encourage others to do the same so that you can build a case for their termination. If they cannot conduct themselves rationally and respectfully, you should refuse to assist, comply with, respond to or even acknowledge them. If all else fails, consider asking to be reassigned or taking a new job.